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The down-ballot librarian: experiences running for public office

I wrote this piece about a year and a half ago for the journal The Political Librarian. In the meantime the journal switched editors and it appears that the editor has stopped publishing the journal so I am uncertain if it would ever come out, so I am posting this here. I wrote this in April 2019. Hopefully it is helpful to others.


Government is full of non-librarians. There are lawyers, doctors, teachers, factory linemen, farmers, and accountants. Librarianship’s core tenants of access, progressiveness, inclusion, and the public good make them excellent public officials. They have experience dealing with the public. They are excellent event planners. As an academic librarian, I myself have had plenty of experience speaking publicly, especially to groups of sleepy freshmen.

In 2018, more first-time candidates, women, and minorities ran for public office than ever before. In this paper, I will share my experience as a librarian successfully running for county council, ultimately knocking on over 2000 doors. I will chronicle why as an academic librarian I chose to run for public office, what librarians can bring to the table as politicians, and why more librarians should seek public office. With experience in public service, democratic participation, and systems thinking, librarians bring a vital set of skills to elected office as well as to the campaign trail. It is my hope that by telling my story I will encourage other librarians to run in similar representative numbers to that of other disciplines such as teachers and lawyers, as well as to challenge non-librarians to consider how these librarian skills contribute to society.

Why You Should Run

Back in 2017, I was sitting in a library conference program on eliminating late fees in public libraries. The research was all there: charging late fees was an unjust and oppressive practice, and most of the people in the presentation agreed. The question was whether libraries could convince their city and county councils. At the time I mused to myself, wouldn’t it be simpler if librarians were in those positions in the first place? In this era of fiscal responsibility, we need to make sure county, city, and district governments are full of people who understand the value of libraries, especially at a local level.

Certainly we can communicate that value, but the constant re-education of people is labor for librarians. We need people who understand the issues our communities from the beginning.  Public librarians in particular are often on the front lines of the opioid crisis. When naloxone started to become readily available, librarians were some of the first people to get trained (Correal 2018). Librarians often work with our cities’ homeless populations. Children’s librarians know quite a bit about early childhood development. Librarians provide research help for entrepreneurs in the community. In these initiatives and others, librarians are often at the center of their communities.

Librarians should run because we think differently due to the nature of our work. When your whole job is thinking about how to help find and use information, you developed a systems-focused mindset. I think about things in terms of inputs and outputs, processes and outcomes. Even a small policy can have a large impact upon my users, and as a librarian I take that responsibility seriously. Librarians really do believe in the public good. We really believe that our profession is designed for the greater good and librarians are already public servants. We really want to do everything in our power to make the world better, and that includes getting out of our buildings and into the community. What better way to serve your community than to serve on your city council?

Librarians have research super powers that come in handy on the campaign trail as well. Candidates have to dig through meeting minutes, task force reports, newspaper articles, and best practice presentations to find polices that will purposefully help the community. On the campaign trail, I often advised other candidates how to do advanced searches on newspaper archives, how to subscribe to Google Alerts, and how to find government reports on pesky websites.

Reference interview training also comes in handy when talking to people at their doors. There’s a misconception that people don’t care about local elections. People do care quite a bit, but they don’t have the language for how to talk about what they need. I found that often a conversation that started about trash bins often ended in discussing best practices for sustainability. A conversation about roads leads to talking about how to make public comment on transportation commission meeting. Does that mean that I always had the answer to their question? Does a librarian ever have the answer to every question that comes across the reference desk? Of course not, but we know where you might look, how you might think about the problem. Years of working reference desk really comes in handy.

Effects of my Run

I’m a 32-year old professor and librarian located in Indiana. In 2018 I ran against a two-term 75-year old incumbent who was also a retired school principal for a district position on the county council. I ran as a Democrat against a Republican and at the time I was running, there had not been a Democrat on the county council in 24 years. I was also running in an environment where in 2015 and 2016, women candidates had been almost consistently defeated. In the 2015 West Lafayette city council race, three women ran and all lost, leaving a West Lafayette City Council without female representation for four years.

County council deals with issues like roads, bridges, courts, Sheriff’s office, etc. It’s the budget approval body, and that is most of its focus.  I had become interested in running for office when I attended public office candidate trainings to help others. I’m a business librarian and work quite a bit with economic development and local entrepreneurs, so I understood many of the financial aspects from my work with the business community. I am also involved in critical librarianship and was feeling that I was reaching the limits of what I could do from inside of the system. Because I believe that librarianship is truly political, I believe we need to get involved in politics, where many of the decisions that can affect librarians and library partners get made.

On my college campus, I already really loved mentoring students, connecting colleagues, and was looking for ways the library could provide unique value. Campaigning is very similar. There were of course some negative interactions, but the vast majority were very positive in a powerful way for me. I knocked 2,000 doors in my district. I ran advertisements on the sides of buses. I attended neighborhood meetings, fish fries, county fairs, Halloween parties, fall picnics.  It sounds scary to put it all together in a list like that, but each of these in itself was less difficult than trying to plan a summer reading program or get a group of cross-campus partners to agree on a logo.

There were many positive effects of my run. First, as a millennial, I helped show the viability of millennial candidates in my town. Second, I was a successful woman candidate who beat a male candidate that year. And lastly, and perhaps, most importantly, I think it meant something to run as a librarian. Every time I talked about running for office as a librarian to other librarians, it blew their minds. Like many, they had never considered how their skill set would fit into being a local elected official.

I also like to think, in my daily conversations and exchanges as an elected official, that I help to reform people’s ideas about what librarians do. People without recent interaction with libraries envision librarians as some of book hoarder and don’t realize we do other things in the community. I’ve been able for these people to update their perceptions of the position and the role of the library in the community. When we talk about making government transparent, librarians already do that. When we talk about accountability, librarians do that. When we talk about open, thoughtful public discourse: that’s where librarians need to be.

Conclusion: But what if you lose?

I was lucky to win my race for county council, but I’m very aware that things could have turned out very differently in my race. About double the amount of people turned out in the midterm locally in 2018 than did so in 2010. I was lucky to have the support of my family, my friends, and many allies across local government. I had many other candidates running that pushed me to work harder.

Running for office comes with risks. It involves making lots of public statements that could be misunderstood. Running for a partisan position means all your friends and neighbors are aware of your political affiliation, and might make assumptions about your beliefs. It changes the way that people see you. And it’s certainly not a fair process. People who have run amazing campaigns sometimes lose, for reasons that have nothing to do with them. Sometimes turnout is low, or people come out to vote for the other party in a different race and in doing so they vote against you without knowing anything about you.

I thought a lot about what this experience would mean if I had lost. If I lost, I would have still started a conversation with 2000 of my neighbors. I still would have shown that millennials candidates can run serious campaigns. If I had lost, I would still have started community conversations about the opioid crisis, about fiscal stewardship, and about transparency in government. I had still influenced people’s perceptions about librarian work. I would have still contributed to the coalition of people that could respond the next time. If I had lost, I still would have shown how someone who looks like me and thinks like me can still be taken seriously as a candidate. Even if I had not won, I would have made real and tangible contributions to the people and systems around me that benefit both the public and the profession.

Librarians advocate in many different ways in many spaces. They write bills, they raise funds, they talk about library value and library needs. I don’t think running for office is something for every librarian. It take a lot of time and a lot of work. But I think as a profession, it offers tremendous opportunity for us to advocate for ourselves. Libraries and librarians matter. While citizens may able to lobby elected officials in office, ultimately the real conversations happen outside the county building and in people’s homes and offices, where they weigh how they will vote in the election. We need you.

Works Cited

Correal, A. (2018, February 28). Once It Was Overdue Books. Now Librarians Fight Overdoses.

Retrieved April 29, 2019, from

About the Author

Ilana Stonebraker is an Associate Professor of Libraries, Business Information Specialist at Purdue University. She represents District 1 as a member of the Tippecanoe County Council. She is a member of the Purdue Teaching Academy, a 2017 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, and a Greater Lafayette Commerce TippyConnect Top 10 under 40 Award Winner. She tweets @librarianilana .

Do I Library?

While this blog is mostly about teaching, I am also a librarian, though I’m not really sure about whether I am a librarian. I went to school and got a degree that is accredited by the American Library Association at a school that is listed one of the top library schools. And I needed an ALA degree to get my job, or a doctorate in a related discipline. There actually isn’t “Librarian” in my title at all. I’m an Assistant Professor of Library Science as my academic title and my other title is “Business Information Specialist”.

I don’t catalog books, I don’t usually buy books for my library. We buy databases, and I don’t even really have much control over that, as I think people would prefer that I just focus on my teaching and my research.

I like to think of myself as a librarian. I went to school to become a librarian.

My office is not technically in the library. It’s the floor above the library. I sometimes make a concerted effort to walk through the library floor versus take the elevator just so I can feel a little bit more like my job is connected to that space. I teach mostly in other departments. We don’t have a library school so I don’t actually teach students to become librarians either.

I have some colleagues who tell me that they don’t really think of themselves as being librarians, but rather as professors who research and teach.

I remember a senior official introducing me at an event to a newer person and saying that I was lucky that I had started in librarianship now because I didn’t have to relearn things. It’s actually a little concerning that I play the role of the librarian though I do very little that could be accepted as librarianship in my own work. I think it feeds my imposter syndrome. People sometimes offer me up as a “model” for how librarians should look and act in the future, which also feeds my imposter syndrome because I am not really sure that librarian is the right way to describe what I do. One of the benefits of being a picture person is that I can see the connection between my work, the overarching values of librarianship, and the objectives of my university library.

I imagine that others might feel similarly to me. I can think of all the times I’ve talked to other librarians, very resentfully, about how non-librarian folk think that every person that they meet in the library is a librarian. But I also feel a little jealous. It would seem as though “person who works in a library” would be a pretty good description for a librarian, and I wish sometimes that things were that simple.

Do I library? Does it matter if I library? For my institution, it probably doesn’t matter as long as I am valuable. I think it’s important to wonder, but to also question the boundaries of a professor, teacher and librarian. It’s our responsibility as libraries to find ways to make information and libraries valuable to the university, and our privilege to try to convince people of that role.

Really Excellent People I have met: Betty Nelson

I work at Purdue University, and I think one of the greatest gifts of working at Purdue University is all the great people I get to meet, specifically the great women that I get to meet. I hope that people don’t mind me talking good about them behind their back.

Betty Nelson is the first person I have met who I would describe as larger than life. She’s a giant in this community. There are a few people out there who just have an amazing presence that at once asserts that this person is important but also that this person is very kind and supportive. Betty Nelson was Purdue’s third dean of students in 1987-1995, after 20 years as an assistant and an associate dean. After she retired, she continued to be active in the community. Her nickname at Purdue was the iron fist in a velvet glove.

I first met Betty Nelson through another excellent person I met at Purdue, Mike Piggott. Mike was interested in talking to me because he worked with another group, the Greater Lafayette Quality of Life Council, on which I now sit. At that time, Betty Nelson chaired the committee. I met with Mike and I expressed my desire through the course to make the community better. He said something like “You’ve got to meet Betty Nelson.” He suggested I meet up with her and the impressive Tetia Lee. The meeting was really validating for me to discuss many issues in the community. Betty Nelson was, and is, a tireless advocate for women. One of the first thing she said to me when I said I was teaching a course in Honors was how she was so impressed all the Deans and Associate Deans were women.

I could talk to Betty Nelson all day. Betty is the sort of person with an eye toward implementation. She makes you feel supportive even when she is being critical because sometimes the best support is to help refine and strengthen your ideas. Betty told me of teaching that “rivers need banks” which I think is going to change the way that I structure final projects. Betty and I are both really interested in the Greater Lafayette. I think one of the amazing parts of Betty is how open she is to students. She really is always trying to understand young people and how to help them. Betty is an inspiration to me because she’s very good at directing the energy of others without really taking ownership or responsibility over their projects. This is something I have realized is very important as I increasingly move into the part of my career that is most focused on mentorship.

In meeting Betty Nelson, I knew I had met a legend, even when I didn’t know as much about her story. She’s the impetus for this blog series of really excellent people. I met her and I just felt immediately so grateful for being at Purdue and having the chance to meet her. I hope someday I have half the passion and drive that she has!


Really Excellent People I have met: Mike Piggott

I work at Purdue University, and I think one of the greatest gifts of working at Purdue University is all the great people I get to meet. Betty Nelson refers to Mike Piggott (Community Relations Director at Purdue) as the living embodiment of the Connector Bus – that the bus which runs from Lafayette to West Lafayette, connecting people together. It seems peculiar to refer to a person as some form of idea transportation, but I think in this case it works.

Mike Piggott does not have to be as nice to me as he is. The first time I was aware of Mike Piggott was when I was working on a library committee for an event called Boiler Gold Rush. I was putting together a presentation that needed to be funny to 3000 freshmen crowded into the Elliot Hall of Music on a Friday morning. I needed a “game show” personality. Since what we were talking about did not really need library skills, I thought back to the person that I had heard at faculty orientation a couple of year before. I remember being really impressed by Mike’s understanding of Purdue lore and also how much confidence and personality made him engaging and dynamic at faculty orientation. It turns out that was because he was a television personality, he was a retired reporter and anchor. I reached out to him and asked if he would be interested in hosting this event.

Mike Piggott did not have to say yes, but Mike said yes. To speaking in front of 3000 students. In a program that he did not have control over. That takes a very special person to agree to a random email. I think that even now I would probably not sign up for something like that. I don’t think that I would have the guts. Or the trust. In the end, we couldn’t do the game show due to other factors, but what an incredible person to just be willing to jump on to such a crazy plan. He didn’t have to do that, he could have said no, but he didn’t.

A couple years later, he cold-emailed me. He had been talking to Greater Lafayette Commerce, who had been one of the first groups that I had gotten to come talk to my Greater Lafayette Greater class. It turned out that he sat on the Quality of Life Council, which he was very interested in getting involved in the class. It turned out to be a great fit and the class benefited from interaction.

Mike reached out and found ways to get involved. He also went one step further, introducing me to other people in the community who could help me teach my class. He told me about events. He also linked me to a video of the totally amazing “Lafayette’s Great” theme song. This type of emotional labor is really something I’m used to only seeing in women on campus, but it’s by no means something that only women can do. He has a way of making you feel like you are very valuable to the whole organization, but also that there are ways that you could serve the organization better.

The thing I like the most about Mike is also how genuinely nice he is. What does it mean to be a nice person, even when you don’t need to be? It’s more than just showing people the door.  I am trying more and more to figure out what habits of niceness might look like, that sort of seemingly effortless way that you bring people into something.  Without him, I don’t think I would know where to go around Purdue. And I’m very grateful for that. Mike Piggott is making Lafayette great.

Really Excellent People I have met: Joy Dietz

For February, I am focusing on really excellent people. Call it the nice version of talking about people behind their back. I work at Purdue University, and I think one of the greatest gifts of working at Purdue University is all the great people I get to meet, specifically the great women that I get to meet. I like to highlight those people because I feel really lucky to know so many really excellent people. One who I really only got to know as she was retiring is the incredible Joy Dietz.

In academia, people like to talk a lot about coaching versus teaching or advising. Coaching drives us to direct our attention to the individual’s strengths and encourage people to achieve greater things. It’s really tough, but if I were to look at a model of effective coaching I would look to Joy Dietz. She’s the real deal.

Joy was Director of the Women in Management Center when I first met her, but she also ran the Leadership Communication Center during the same period. Her work involves incredible amounts of individual development. I have never met someone who is as good at encouraging people as Joy. Every conversation I have had, every project I have considering, no matter how big small or otherwise, Joy has found a way to encourage me. I like to think I am special (we are all above average after all) but I see this with students as well. Students and staff light up when she see her. I can tell why she was drawn the Women in Management project. There’s no better mentor in Krannert, especially for women.

It can be very scary to imagine a better future. One of Joy’s strengths is how much she makes people feel valued and how she really does believe we can make the world a better place. She is very interested in seeing everyone succeed in the community. Work in people-development positions can often be draining. It’s often very hard to see the forest for the trees. But Joy really has the vision see what things can be, versus what things always are. She can look at a group of services and see a center, or a group of people and see a movement. The world of work can be a challenge, especially for women, but she’s not afraid to imagine that better future.

I have benefit ted direct from her leadership and I feel very lucky to have her in my community.

Really excellent people I have met: Amanda Thompson

For February, I am focusing my blog on really excellent people. Call it my Valentines to people who inspire me. I work at Purdue University, and I think one of the greatest gifts of working at Purdue University is all the great people I get to meet, and more specifically the great women that I get to meet. There’s some really badass females around this place that I have had the great chance to work with.

One such person is Amanda Thompson, Entrepreneur in Residence at the Foundry.

I first met Amanda while I was co-chair of the Purdue Faculty Association. She was a regular at many of our events around town. I didn’t really know her very well except socially, but I grew to know her more as I worked with many of the entrepreneurship initiatives around campus.

The thing that most inspires me about Amanda is how much she really values the people around her. Amanda is the sort of person who really has people’s backs. When I was working on a business plan competition, I needed someone to help me pick out a financial model for how the theoretical company would make money. I know that there were lot of better ways that she could probably have spent her time. Instead she walked me through the complicated areas of a financial model, asking me all sorts of questions that I had not thought to ask, in ways that I had not thought to ask them. Because of our meeting, I feel like I now know a lot more about the details that I would need in a business plan.

Amanda is also really inspiring to me because she never gives up. While we have spoken several times about the idea of failure and how it seemed to be much more catastrophic for women than men, but failure doesn’t seem to stick to Amanda. She’s a woman with a thousand hustles. She’s a mom, a professor of finance, a CFO, a rock climber, and an all-around go-to person in town. It seems at times like everyone knows Amanda, and with good reason. The woman is simply everywhere.

From Amanda I have learned many things. I’ve learned a little about how cool numbers can be. And I’ve learned how important it is to support people even when they don’t know anything about what you do.

She’s very inspiring to me and I feel glad to have met her.