A Look Back at the Coalition of Library Advocates, 1982-2021

Saturday, August 07, 2021 10:25 AM | RILA Communications (Administrator)

As a RILA member you may have read recently about the dissolution of the COLA section. Some of you may never have heard of the group, so here’s the scoop:


Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was on the radio, “E.T.” was on the big screen, EPCOT opened in Orlando, FL, a severe recession began in the U.S., and the Coalition of Library Advocates formed.

Within weeks of the original group’s formation, President Reagan had proposed zero funding for libraries in the federal budget. COLA collected over 7,000 signatures to protest the cut. That spring, COLA members presented the petitions to their Congressional delegation in Washington, DC on Legislative Day. Library funding was preserved.

COLA began as an outgrowth of the 1979 Governor’s Conference on Library and Information Services, which was held to prepare for the first White House Conference on Library and Information Services. Until 1985, when it was incorporated, COLA was a loose “organization of organizations.”


By 1984, it became clear that COLA needed to incorporate and to achieve federal nonprofit status. It also became clear that COLA’s membership base should be primarily laypeople with input on the Board from a representative of each of the state’s professional library associations. Funds were needed to carry out its mission, making membership dues a necessity.

A 1984 conference, “Libraries in the Future of Education: A RI Perspective,” was chaired by Richard Olsen, then Director of the James P. Adams Library at Rhode Island College. This was the library community’s response—the first in the nation—to A Nation at Risk, published by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which deplored the poor quality of education in the United States and proposed a fix that said not one word about libraries. COLA’s conference brought keynote speakers, panels of educators, and representatives of public, school, special, and academic libraries together to discuss mutual concerns. It may have been the first time that educators and librarians met together in such a forum. The participants recommended ways of bringing together teachers, school and public librarians, students, and parents. They offered ideas on political action, advocacy, public relations, and—most importantly—the need for groups to communicate with each other.


COLA is instrumental in helping to pass—by 68% of the vote—the 1986 Rhode Island Constitutional amendment mandating state support of public libraries. Rose Ellen Reynolds, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and later a COLA Chair, shepherded the amendment through.


This set the scene for the 1989 legislation—advocated strongly by COLA—that requires Rhode Island to fund its public libraries by at least 25% of operating expenses. That mandate, combined with a generous state library construction program, makes the State of Rhode Island a national leader in library funding.

A statewide library fair, held in Warwick Mall. Then-Director of DSLS, Fay Zipkowitz, pranced around the Warwick Mall in a stiflingly hot gorilla suit, exhorting shoppers to learn about library services at the exhibits prepared by all types of Rhode Island libraries and library organizations during a statewide library fair. There were television and computer demonstrations, film showings, and a “Stump the RI Historical Society” exhibit.

 1991 COLA helped to organize the 1991 Governor’s Conference on Library and Information Services in preparation for the second White House Conference. Later, the group agreed on eight top-priority recommendations that became a blueprint for action for the Rhode Island library community. COLA published these priorities in a widely circulated Agenda for the Nineties.

1994 brought the renowned and hilarious Arch Lustberg to Rhode Island to teach laypeople and professionals techniques for giving testimony and persuading others.


A conference that brought together library Friends groups and library Trustees to share their experiences in supporting libraries was greeted with enthusiasm.

COLA Sweethearts: Each year the group honored a local library supporter as their “Sweetheart of the Year,” because the annual meeting had been held in February. These library advocates included the late Senator Claiborne Pell and our current Senator Jack Reed, along with our local grassroots supporters, including Joan Ress Reeves. COLA also awarded scholarships to URI GSLIS students.