Literary Activism

15 Ways To Be A Literary Advocate

Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

Book Riot is featuring ways to be a literary activist this week. See all the posts here.

You have the power to impact change, especially when it comes to being an advocate for books, reading, and literacy. While you have the enthusiasm, the drive, and the interest, figuring out what and where to put your talents to their best use can be the biggest hurdle to jumping.

Find below not just a list of ideas for how to become a literary advocate, but ideas for every step of the way and for every budget — both financial and time. There are ways you can make a difference locally, as well as in the broader world, in ways that fit within your life now and what your life might look like down the road. This list is meant to be broad, though there might be specific examples highlighted to help generate ideas for seeking out these places where you can take part.



No act of advocacy is too small (or too big). You might make a tremendous difference in an individual’s relationship with reading or books or writing in ways you see and in ways you don’t. But each step you take, each task you take on, makes a difference.

This is in no way a comprehensive list of ways to be an advocate. If you have other ideas or suggestions, please feel free to drop ’em in the comments!

1. Get a library card for your public library if you don’t already have one. Library cards are free (except in rare circumstances) and having one not only entitles you to using the materials you’re already purchasing with your tax money, it’s important for the library as well. Library card counts are part of the statistical data that are collection and used to advocate for further funding. Forty-four percent of Americans do not have a library card, so even if you have one, take someone you know to the library and get them signed up for one. If you have kids, make sure they each have their own; all libraries have different age requirements for a first card, so double check what the minimum is before going in to sign up for one.

Another thing you might not know: many public libraries will grant cards to those who work for companies within their tax boundaries. This happens, too, in some stats in regards to those who own second or summer homes. Check the information on the websites of those libraries near where you live and work; you can also call them to inquire about these special-circumstance cards.

After you get those library cards, use them. Every item you check out is an item a library can count and with high card rates and high check out rates, your library can further prove its value to the community. Likewise, take advantage of digital services provided by your library; the stats here have value, too. Bonus of digital materials? You won’t accrue any potential late fees, since items will disappear from your account upon due date, unless you extend the check out yourself or return the items early.

2. Attend library/bookstore events. This is self-explanatory but again, it’s all about the numbers. If you attend events where books are being sold, purchase a copy. Even if it’s not something you might want to read, that support goes a long way for both the organization and the speaker. You can always gift the book or donate it to a Little Free Library.

3. Donate supplies to local classrooms half-way (& later) through the school year. It’s after the holidays, especially, when the supplies that were picked up inexpensively before school began start to run out or disappear. Families with tight budgets can often find the simple act of replacing a box of pencils or pens to be a strain. Team up with a local school and see what needs their classrooms may have in this respect and donate when you can.

Protip: those school supplies go on sale in August and September. Set yourself a budget (say, $10 or $20) and use it to pick up notebooks, pencils, pens, markers, and crayons during that time. That can go a long way when notebooks are 10 for one dollar. Save those supplies for donating.

4. Charter or “adopt” a Local Free Library. If your town permits and you have the space, consider chartering and curating a Little Free Library. You’ll get to start a program locally that encourages reading and sharing, and with the power to curate the collection, you can always ensure that there are solid choices inside for readers to discover.

If you can’t have your own LFL, consider “adopting” one. Find where there may be one near you, and set a regular schedule of donating materials to it. No need to tell the person who owns the library you’re taking it on as one you’re “adopting.” Part of the fun is the anonymity.

5. Leave reviews of books you love on consumer sites. It might not be your style to be a “reviewer” of any sort, but those short comments about a book you love do make a difference. For Amazon specifically, books will show up in their search algorithm and in their newsletters when there are at least 50 reviews. This helps a book you love find new audiences who might not otherwise know about it, and it makes them more likely to show up in those “you might also like” and/or “customers also bought” sections.

You don’t need to write anything long or in-depth. Write one review, say you loved the book and why, then copy and paste it across a few sites. This practice is one you can do quickly, and if you make a habit of spending 20 minutes a month doing it, you can help many of your favorite books continue to flourish.

6. Get involved in your library’s Friends group, Foundation, or become a member of the Board of Directors. There are varying levels of participation and time needed for each of these roles, but they all play a big role in advocating on behalf of the library and its patrons. Typically, a Friends group helps fundraise on behalf of the library — if you attend used book sales at your library annually (or more frequently!), chances are it’s run by the Friends group. There might be a small fee to become a Friends member, but that money is reinvested in the library.

A library Foundation may take the place of a Friends group or may operate in addition to the Friends group. They, too, seek funding and opportunities to advocate on behalf of the library, though they are often a more politically-leaning arm of fundraising and advocacy than the Friends are. They will seek out private opportunities to raise capital and are often comprised of those who have a background in fundraising. You can read a little more about the difference between the Friends and the Foundation here. In essence, you see the Friends in the public far more than you would see the Foundation when it comes to working on behalf of the library.

Have a lot of time to give and want to have a role in what happens with the library more directly? Find out about being part of the Board of Directors. In many instances, the Board operates independently from the city government and can often have more leverage and say over the budget, staff, policies, and more within the library itself. This may be an elected position and/or require a significant application and interview process.

7. Recommend books and media for acquisition at your public library, especially if those are inclusive and diverse titles. Your librarians often have forms at the reference desk or online where you can submit your requests. Come with not just the title and author, but why that book is something the collection should have. If you can snag a review or two — and often you can find those right on Amazon or Barnes & Noble’s websites — include them with your request.

This matters not only because it helps diversify the collection, but it matters because it’s what makes a community library truly a community library. It also can be super helpful in situations where a librarian may be behind in doing collection work and could help put a title in circulation quicker than it may have been otherwise (with all of the responsibilities a librarian has, sometimes reading reviews to order falls down the chain of tasks and those review journals can pile up months at a time).

8. Speak up if you’re invited to speak on a panel and it’s not inclusive. This isn’t applicable to everyone, but if you’re an author, librarian, educator, or other person who gets invitations to speak on panels relating to books, reading, literacy, writing, or other similar issues, ensure your panel is not homogenous. If it’s lacking women, say something. If it’s lacking people of color, say something. And more than simply saying something to the coordinator, suggest individuals who would be great additions to the panel. If you do that work, that helps make change happen more quickly and efficiently. It can be hard to be the sore thumb when it comes to things like this, especially if you yourself are thrilled to be asked to take part in a panel, but the risk is worth it. Not only do audiences notice and care, but you will find yourself enjoying the panel discussion much more. It’ll be richer and more representative of the world.

9. Give money when asked to support via money. It’s tempting to believe that giving items to an organization is the best manner of keeping it alive, but when a library or school or other organization asks for cash, it’s imperative that you do just that. Arguing about donating similar books or books in perfect condition when the request is for money to buy books doesn’t help the cause.

Often, there are many hoops that need to be jumped in order to put together a fundraiser, and in the case of organizations like Donors Choose, which help support classroom projects, there are layers of protection between the donor and recipient that ensure the money is being spent 100% on the project at hand. Donating items, even if brand new, requires staff time (and thus, money) that often organizations seeking funds simply don’t have. While it seems easier on the behalf of the donor, the truth is, it often is more costly on the part of the recipient. Donors Choose, as one example, takes that workload off the teachers and does the heavy lifting to ensure items are received and taken care of along the way.

It sounds nit-picky, but unless the ask is to send items, don’t. Give money. The organization knows its needs better than any individual outside of it, and their ask comes from a place of wanting to do the greatest good with the least amount of resources necessary.

10. Subscribe to — or donate subscriptions of — magazines, newspapers, and/or online outlets that are doing the kind of work you support. Even the smallest amount of money for a subscription (for example, the less than $12 it takes to subscribe to Teen Vogue or the varying levels of monthly and annual subscriptions you can have to be a member of Book Riot’s Insiders program) helps keeps the lights on and the staff writers paid. If you love the work being done, support it with your wallet.

11. Volunteer at a local literacy organization. Every town or city (or surrounding area) has some kind of literacy organization that you can volunteer your time for on a regular basis. There are, of course, different levels of commitment, just as there are different types of volunteer opportunities. While you might not always be hands-on with books or reading, the work to file papers, make phone calls, and advocate on behalf of the organization all make a huge difference.

Some cities have really excellent places where you can help new English learners strengthen their skills. You might spend one night a week helping hotel workers practice their reading skills or help new immigrants read the necessary documents to help them build the life they deserve in their new homes. Poke around online to find these places or ask around. They are out there, and you, with your passion, can have an impact.

12. Regularly contact your representatives and local officials about the value of your library, your schools, and other programs that promote books and reading. You can send those as emails or postcards regularly. Maybe throw a party with a bunch of people in your town who are as passionate as you are about, say, the outstanding story time sessions at the local library, wherein you all write postcards to your local government officials to tell them to keep funding the library. There’s also incredible value in sending a postcard to the librarians who do those programs, as well as the library’s director. Those things are not only “warm fuzzies” for hard-working staff, but they, too, help the library advocate, since they’re proof of value to the community.

13. Find where your book donations can go the distance. Generally, books you donate to the library do not end up in the collection. They usually go to the library’s book sales, which help raise money for the library (which is really a win-win — you clean your shelves and the library makes some cash to bulk up theirs!).

But libraries are not the only game in town when it comes to where you can donate materials.

Look around at the nonprofits and government agencies working in your area, and see if their websites have wish lists. In my area, for example, we have a shelter for children who are homeless and/or come from abusive backgrounds. They ask for books on their website, and, after calling to ensure a donation would be welcomed, it turns out those books are not only put into a collection on site, but the ones in good condition often become presents for those kids — something they get to keep and have for themselves. Dropping off loads of books knowing that those will become cherished possessions of kids who have literally nothing is one of the most satisfying feelings.

Ask, too, if any of your schools have classrooms which might want some new or gently used books.

14. Help classrooms build libraries by forging a relationship with your local school (if you have kids, this is easiest!) and/or by choosing classrooms through Donors Choose to drop a few bucks on. We do a weekly round-up of excellent projects on Fridays here on Book Riot, making the searching out part even easier.

If you’re able to work with a school or classroom, one way you can make the life of a teacher easier is by helping them create an Amazon wish list of titles they’d love to have and promoting that list. You might be able to do a book drive for them (perhaps, for example, hosting a holiday party wherein the only gifts to be exchanged are books from that list for the classroom and everyone brings one).

Another idea? Give teachers gift cards to local indie bookstores. If you don’t have a local indie, gift them a gift card to an online indie retailer. In either situation, you are supporting both a teacher/classroom and a small business.

15. Ask questions to the experts. This last suggestion is, of course, an extension of many ideas above, but it’s worth stating explicitly: use your reference librarians and your local booksellers. Ask them for books you might like. Tell them what you’ve been reading and want to know more about.

But you can do more than ask for yourself. Going to be gift giving and want to find the perfect book? You can ask a librarian or bookseller for ideas. Want to help build your kid a great library? Ask. Need suggestions for a very specific type of book? Your experts will know and if they don’t know off-hand, they will look until you’re satisfied.

Asking matters because these lead to numbers. And more than leading to numbers, they lead to stories — it’s often those stories, which end up in monthly and annual reports to those who support these organizations and those who might hold pursestrings, which makes an impact. As much as it does matter to know a librarian answered 15 reference questions in their 4 hour desk shift on a Monday afternoon, it’s that, combined with a story about how a parent asked for picture books of baby faces which were not all white and walked away with a pile of excellent titles, that shows how powerful a role these places have in the lives of the people in their communities.

You help shape those stories.