Frontline Advocacy for Public Libraries

   Table of Contents

2.1 What Is Frontline Advocacy in a Public Library Setting?
2.2 Why Is It Important?
2.3 Who Me?
2.4 Frontline Advocacy Every Day : Leadership and Staff Working Together
2.5 Going Deeper: The Role of Library Leadership in Planning for Frontline Advocacy

2.6 More Resources

   2.1 What Is Frontline Advocacy in a Public Library Setting?

While the term “front line” initially was coined by the military to describe those troops at the forward-most point in the battlefield, literally the soldiers facing the opposing army, “front line” or “frontline” has more recently become an expression to describe those individuals who interact in the visible forefront of any situation.

You interact with frontline people everyday. A few examples include the helpful sales clerk at your favorite retail store, the restaurant server who knows you like mustard on your turkey sandwich and the cashier you see so often at your grocery store. These people all interact on a personal level with you. The kind of service they give you directly impacts your opinion of their business and of the value you get for your money there. Your interactions with them shape your decisions about whether or not to be a continued customer.

Frontline advocacy begins with you“Advocacy” means supporting a cause or course of action, and in the public library world, everyone who works for the library (clerks, librarians, catalogers, homework helpers, building maintenance workers and bookmobile drivers) needs to think of herself or himself as an advocate - a “frontline advocate” - for the library. Because e very staff member is the face of the library to its community, each influences what the community knows about the public library and what it thinks about it. All public library staff are perfectly poised to learn what customers and others have to say about the library, and to inform people about the library’s value and needs as part of a common and naturally-occurring relationship. Whether or not your job puts you in direct contact with library customers, you can still talk to others (neighbors, relatives and friends) about your library’s value to the community and your value as a library employee.

The purpose of this Frontline Advocacy for Public Libraries Toolkit is to provide simple tools and strategies for frontline staff at all levels of public library services, including you, to make advocacy part of your everyday activities. For some great ideas about frontline advocacy activities for all kinds of libraries, including public libraries, check out 2009-2010 ALA president Dr. Camila Alire’s 2.1.a 23 (Advocacy) Things (Tips) for Frontline Employees (PDF) / 23 (Advocacy) Things (Tips) for Frontline Employees (Word doc).

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   2.2 Why Is It Important?

Why Do Public Libraries Need Frontline Advocates?

The public library and the community it serves need each other. The public library provides important free programs and services to the county, city or township. It is the go-to place in the community for life-long learning for everyone, regardless of education, income or any other life circumstance. In return, public dollars come back to the library to support those programs and services.

When it comes to advocating for the public library, its formal leadership – administrators, trustees, foundations and Friends groups – have traditionally done much of the heavy lifting. They conduct public awareness campaigns and lobby legislators, both of which are important because those representatives need to know what their constituents think in order to make the best decisions about library support. They also seek out sources of private funding – corporate and philanthropic sources – to augment public support.

While there will always be a vital role for those groups to play, the truth is that people can use their library for years without ever encountering anyone in this leadership group.

They encounter frontline employees – like you.

That’s why the message of the library’s value and needs must be spread by every library employee. Every staff member should think about the power of persuasion and be willing to communicate in a variety of ways. In the public library, e veryone is on the front line.

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Why Are YOU Your Public Library’s Best Frontline Advocate?

Good question! The truth is, you are a valuable public library staff member and know your library best. Whether you have worked there for 6 months or 30 years, you are part of an important team that provides incredible personal service every minute your doors are open and access to valuable online information after library hours. You are someone your friends, neighbors, coworkers, family and others connect with the public library because they know you work there. You have credibility because you are the face and voice and hands of your library to the world.
You also live and work within a larger community – a county, city or township – and you know this community. You know who lives there, what goes on there, and how your library fits into the larger fabric of your community. You know who the decision makers are. Your relationships with others in the community matter.

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Why Are YOU Needed Now More Than Ever?

Counties, cities and other municipalities have lost federal dollars, tax revenue, and other critical sources of support over the last few years. Their budgets have shrunk, and those cuts naturally have spilled over into the agencies that depend on public dollars for their survival – including public libraries. ALA’s public libraries advocacy toolkit,  2.2.a Advocating in a Tough Economy, contains an introduction that sums up the public library’s situation today:

“Across the country, families are facing tough economic times. Americans are visiting their local public libraries more often and checking out items with greater frequency. Libraries across the United States report that more people are turning to libraries in record numbers to take advantage of the free resources available there. Ironically, at the same time, libraries are being forced to reduce hours, cut staff and even close their doors. Those who love libraries know that libraries are America’s great information equalizers—the only place people of all ages and backgrounds can find and freely use a diversity of resources, along with the expert guidance of librarians.

In times like these, when many Americans have fewer resources, shortening library hours or reducing programs and services hurts those who have the least access to such resources outside the library.”

Cutting library budgets, hours and services may be unavoidable in our current economy, but the extent to which the library’s budget is reduced may still be a matter of negotiation. Decision makers will listen to their constituents, but constituents can only be heard if they have someone to inform them of the library’s message. That is the reason that every library employee is being called upon to share the message of their library’s value with everyone they know.

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   2.3 Who, Me?

What Does an Effective Frontline Advocate for Public Libraries Do?

Frontline advocacy is all about informing and persuading. It’s about putting your library front and center at every opportunity. It’s about saying and doing the little things on a daily basis that give others positive feelings and an appreciation of your library. Don’t wait for a crisis or special issue to advocate for your library. Practice it every day, and, when there is a special issue or concern, you’ll be very good at it.

Before you can do that, you must first understand why your library is a valuable resource for the larger community. Once you can articulate that message, it’s important to keep this message in mind and look for opportunities to share that information with others. And guess what? It isn’t hard.

Don’t be shy, seize the moment! Share your library’s story, and, whenever possible, go one step further and encourage others (whether or not they are current library customers) to use and support their public library. Once you try it, you will realize that advocating for your library is actually pretty easy.  Click here for 2.3.a Six Ingredients for Frontline Advocacy Success.

Resist the urge to say, “Yeah, but…”

Instead, check out  Six Good Excuses That Won’t Work (PDF).

To get some specific ideas of activities you can implement in your own public library, click on a tool that is loaded with great suggestions and wonderful resources: 52 Ways to Make a Difference: Public Library Advocacy throughout the Year (PDF) / 52 Ways to Make a Difference throughout the Year (Word doc).

And if you need just a bit more help in getting started, take a look at Eight Steps to Getting Started (PDF) or  Eight Steps to Getting Started (Word doc).  

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   2.4 Frontline Advocacy Every Day: Leadership and Staff Working Together

There are really two kinds of frontline advocacy: 1) reminding people on an ongoing, everyday basis about the library’s resources, activities and value, and 2) communicating a special library message or advocating for a specific outcome of an important library issue. The better you become at everyday advocacy, the better an advocate you will be when the library has a special need, issue or crisis to confront. Practice does make perfect!

Ongoing, or everyday advocacy is so easy you may not realize that you’re already doing it. You’re a helpful person, right? Chances are, you’re already looking for opportunities to let others know why they need your library.

  • Is your neighbor considering replacing the windows in his home but is confounded by all the choices? Tell him, “Come to the library. We have tons of consumer information that rates the brands you’re looking at.”
  • Is a family member out of work? Let her know that the library has online job postings and classes for people who want to create or improve their job skills and resumes.
  • Have you met a family who is new to the community? Be sure they know that the library has activities for children and adults every weekend.
  • Are there some teens who are regular library users? Invite them to bring friends who aren’t yet coming to the library so they can share all the great resources there.

Look for natural times to promote your library’s value and resources. Go online and find out the dates for National Library Week, The Annual Day of Reading, National Bookmobile Day, and Teen Read Week and take advantage of the public awareness those events generate.

When the library has a special message, a challenging issue or a crisis situation to face, a combination of everyday advocacy and more deliberate, planned advocacy packs twice the punch. Issue-related advocacy is more conscious, more strategic and more outcome-focused than everyday advocacy. While issue-related advocacy by necessity involves the knowledge (and possibly the approval) of library administrators, it can still benefit from the passion and energy of non-administrative frontline employees.

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   2.5 Going Deeper: The Role of Library Leadership in Planning for Frontline Advocacy

While the ins and outs of everyday advocacy don’t usually require a formal plan, it’s still a good idea for library administrators to think ahead about how they can help non-administrative staff members become comfortable with their role as frontline advocates. Administrators’ leadership, encouragement and support of frontline advocacy actions are the key to motivating others.

Be sure all staff members understand:

  • What frontline advocacy is and why it’s important that they find their comfort level and practice it. (Point them to this toolkit!)
  • What some strategies for doing this might be.
  • How and why they are valuable to the library.
  • How and why the library is valuable to the community.
  • How many small positive actions by frontline staff make a big impact on library customers and non-customers alike.

Be sure that library administrators know about your plan to initiate frontline advocacy too.

More complex issue-related advocacy requires a coordinated effort, clear message and effective ways to communicate that message. It requires leadership, goals, objectives and strategies. It requires a Frontline Advocacy Plan (Download Frontline Advocacy Plan as a Word doc).

Creating a plan will allow you to sit down and think about your goal and how you can get there. It will also help you determine the best people to form a leadership team and the methods by which the team and others will communicate, both internally and externally.  Your plan should build in opportunities for staff input to create a clear, cohesive message, then to determine who needs to hear the message and how you can tell them. Your plan should include opportunities for every employee at every level. Ideally, your Frontline Advocacy Plan will also include some criteria that you can look at to help determine the success of your frontline advocacy efforts.

These 10 steps provide a good place for library administrators to start.

   2.5.a. Taking the Lead: Identify staff who will form an effective Frontline Advocacy Team

Some people may seem like obvious choices to lead your public library’s frontline advocacy efforts. They have infectious energy and enthusiasm. They are always at the forefront of activity. But other talents are helpful too. Who is really organized? Who is a good writer? Who is the person who always seems to think outside the box? Who has the time to devote to this initiative? Everyone on your staff is a potential member of your Frontline Advocacy Team. Think broadly; don’t overlook the circulation desk staff, acquisitions clerk or bookmobile driver. They have valuable perspectives and a wealth of personal contacts, too.

Important tip: Don’t stand up at a staff meeting and ask, “Who would like to be on our Frontline Advocacy Team?” Chances are, you will either get very few people, or perhaps the wrong people for the job. Be direct! Go to the person you think would be a great addition to your Team and say, “We’d really like for you to be part of our Frontline Advocacy Team because you’re such a people person.” Or perhaps, “…because you know so much about everything that goes on here.” Your listener will appreciate that you think highly enough of his or her talents to ask for their participation, and there’s an excellent likelihood that you’ll hear, “I will!”

Once your team starts gelling, choose a leader. This person will help keep things on track. How and when will your team get together? How will you communicate with one another and with other staff? What roles do team members feel most comfortable doing? You and your leader will help facilitate all of these issues and more.

   2.5.b. Look Closely at Your Library: What are your library’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats?

Understanding your library is the logical starting point for your Frontline Advocacy Team. Consider doing a SWOT Analysis, which stands for “strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.” You may already be familiar with this tool. It’s widely used to analyze a variety of organizations. What makes it really special is that it can help you think about your library in a way you may not have done before. Doing one is not difficult, and it’s a great group activity. Click on the 2.5.b.1. SWOT Analysis Template (PDF) or SWOT Worksheet (Word doc) and get your Frontline Advocacy Team thinking!

   2.5.c. Goals, Objectives and Strategies: What, How and Why

Once the Frontline Advocacy Team has articulated the library’s current strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, it’s time to move to the next step: a goal. Your goal states what you are trying to accomplish. Are you trying to bring more customers in the door? Should your library be open longer hours? Do you need additional computers or updated software? Do you want to create an area within your library dedicated to certain uses or users, such as a career center, homework center or for programming? Does your children’s department need hands-on resources to foster your early literacy efforts?

Here’s an example: Let’s assume your goal is to keep your library open as many hours next year as it is open this year. You’ve chosen this goal because the city budget cuts are impacting your library’s budget, and the city or county has suggested reducing library hours.

Your objectives answer the question: Why is this goal important? Using the above example, it’s important because your library needs to be open every day after school so kids have a safe place to do homework or just hang out. It’s important because many residents of your community do not have computers and need the library to look for work and to access critical information of all kinds. It’s important because evenings are always busy at your library. There are certainly other reasons as well.

You have a goal and you know why it’s important. How are you going to get there? Strategies are specific activities that will help you accomplish your goal.

Frontline advocates need to know how to talk both about the value of their library to the community and about special issues, needs and challenges their library faces. Again, using the above example of retaining your library’s hours, you might ask the parents and caregivers who bring children to story times to speak out on the library’s behalf, and ask them to tell other parents. You can contact teachers at your neighborhood schools and ask them for their support. Ask someone whose book club meets at your library or someone who uses the computers frequently to write a letter to the community paper. These are just a few ideas. Brainstorm these with everyone on your staff and put their ideas into action.

Read 2.5.c.1 Goals – Objectives – Strategies or use the Goals Objectives Strategies Worksheet (Word doc) for a simple guide to laying out these important steps.

Lastly, have a budget for your frontline advocacy efforts if at all possible even if it is a modest one. A small budget will allow you to do more than you can do without one.

   2.5.d. A Job for Everyone: Find roles for all staff

This is an important part of your Frontline Advocacy Team’s assignment. Because everyone on your public library’s staff is a frontline advocate, no one should be left out of your Frontline Advocacy Plan. How can the reference assistant help? The cataloger? The person who opens mail or repairs damaged materials? Those individuals who are not on your leadership team should nonetheless play a valuable role in reaching others with your library’s message. Get their input and ideas and brainstorm with them.

The most important thing to remember here? Be thoughtful and sensitive. Make advocacy something that everyone will feel comfortable doing!

   2.5.e. Working Together: Determine how traditional library advocates (administrators, trustees, Friends and others) and frontline employees will work together for advocacy

Library administrators, trustees and Friends groups have traditionally shouldered most of the responsibility when it comes to advocacy for the public library through lobbying, public relations and seeking private funds. It is important that they continue these activities while your frontline advocacy efforts take place. The message in all cases should be consistent, and there should be frequent and open communication between the Frontline Advocacy Team, library staff and others whose role includes advocacy. It is the job of the Frontline Advocacy Team to determine the best way to work together to get your message heard.

   2.5.f. Your Message: Say what matters

You have a charged-up Frontline Advocacy Team and a great staff who all understand that they are frontline advocates. You have a clear idea of what you want to do and why and how you want to do it. It’s time to start crafting your message.

What is your library’s message? Do you need to update your technology? Add to the size of your building? Reach employers or job seekers? Increase the number of hours you are open? Understand why the need is there and what actions will address it.  Does your Frontline Advocacy Team need help with crafting your message? No problem! Click on the tool 2.5.f.1 Crafting Your Message or download the Crafting Your Message Worksheet (Word doc) for ideas to get you started.

Be sure you have some facts and figures that will support your message. Remember, your library collects a lot of data – use it effectively. For help understanding how to make your data work for you, click on 2.5.f.2 Put Your Data to Work for Your Frontline Advocacy Team.

Once you have a great message, develop a “parking lot” or “grocery store” speech too. This is a brief version of your message that a staff member can comfortably convey in a very short period of time. Need help with this? Click on 2.5.f.3 Your Parking Lot Speech and train all staff to have the message on their lips at all times. After all, they are the library’s frontline advocates.

   2.5.g. Your Audience: Tell it to the right people

If your message falls in the forest, and there’s no one there who cares about it, does it make a sound?

Your audience Frontline advocacy is about talking to two groups of people: the people you know and see on an ongoing basis (those who think of you as “my neighbor or friend or ‘that helpful person’ who works at the library”) and those to whom you want to make an extra effort to reach because you want their support too.

The Frontline Advocacy Team should ask all staff to think about, then list, the many individuals with whom they come in contact every day. Those individuals are library customers, of course, but the group is much broader than that: friends, relatives, neighbors, volunteers, teens, parents, merchants, book club members – make the list as long as you can. Most of them will already be people the staff know by name, and who already know staff. That relationship is a great basis for sharing the library’s message in an easy, natural way. Tell your staff, “Remember that these people already believe in what you do and they just might be eager to help spread our message too!” Ask the staff to go one step more and tell their listeners to please, “Tell your friends.” That’s the way information travels.

What about those individuals who are not personally known by library staff but nonetheless are important to reach? The Frontline Advocacy Team should ask staff for help brainstorming who these potential supporters might be.

For help identifying these individuals and institutions, look at 2.5.g.1 Target Audience Planning for All Frontline Advocacy Staff or use the Target Audience Planning Worksheet (Word doc) in this toolkit.

   2.5.h Communication Tools: Choose paths to success

Your Frontline Advocacy Team’s job is to make it easy for library staff to seize every opportunity to effectively communicate why your library matters. There are lots of ways to communicate your library’s message, and the tools your Frontline Advocacy Team chooses will depend upon who you are communicating with and your staff’s comfort level with frontline advocacy. Remember, a frontline advocate’s main responsibility is not to lobby lawmakers, develop slogans or plan huge public awareness campaigns. It’s to use their position as the public face of the library to inform and persuade.

The Frontline Advocacy Team should suggest ways of communicating the message:

  • Have one-on-one conversations with library customers, friends, relatives and acquaintances. (This is always the best method!)
  • Speak to a group of people you know and feel comfortable with, your book club, for example.

(Everyday advocacy): “Before you go out and buy next month’s book, be sure to check the library. We have 6 copies on our shelves.”

(Issue-related advocacy): “If the library has to close on Monday evenings, we’ll have to find another location for our book club to meet. How can we keep that from happening?”

  • Make phone calls

(Everyday advocacy): “I know you love the ‘Indiana Jones’ movies. I called to say that the library just got the newest one!”

(Issue-related advocacy): “If you’re free Wednesday night, how about grabbing dinner, then going to the meeting about library hours? We want to be sure they’re not cut!”

  • Send e-mail messages
  • Write a letter to the editor of your paper that explains your library’s value or a challenge it faces. It’s a great way to reach a lot of people at once. For help with this, see the tool 2.5.h.1 Sample Letter to the Editor. 
  • Post a blog. Post this on the library’s website, if possible, or start your own. For links to free websites, click the 2.5.h.2 Blogging tool in this toolkit.

   2.5.i. Put Your Plan on Paper

Congratulations! You’ve done a lot of thinking and planning. You’ve looked at all the ways you can communicate your library’s message and who needs to hear it. Now is the time for you and your Frontline Advocacy Team to boil it down to a neat, two-page snapshot. Click 2.5.i.1 Your Frontline Advocacy Plan or download the Frontline Advocacy Plan worksheet (Word doc) for an easy-to-follow format.

   2.5.j. "How'm I doing?” Evaluate the effectiveness of your efforts

In the 1970’s, New York Mayor Ed Koch was famous for asking everyone, from the loftiest executive to the lowliest street sweeper, “How’m I doing?” He would literally ask that question of everyone he passed as he walked down the street. That’s because feedback on your efforts is important, both for measuring the success of what you’re currently doing and for determining your future actions. This is an important last task for library administration and the Frontline Advocacy Team.

“Evaluation” simply means looking at your goal and deciding how well you have accomplished it and whether or not your methods were effective ones. It helps if you have some measurements (data) to look at for comparison purposes. For example, if your goal was to bring more families into the library for Saturday afternoon family activities, did that actually happen? Look at your attendance numbers before and after your advocacy efforts. Did attendance increase? What was the best way of reaching people to let them know about these activities? Fliers? Phone calls? A personal invitation? Did the people who came enjoy themselves?

Using the above example, an easy way to find out is to ask program attendees the following questions before they leave the library:

  • Is this your first time at ‘Library Saturdays?’
  • How did you learn about this program?
  • Will you come back again?

Knowing what frontline advocacy activities succeeded and why (and what didn’t work and why) will help you know where to spend your time and resources in the future. For a simple worksheet that will help you with evaluation, click 2.5.j.1 Evaluating Your Efforts or download the Evaluating Your Efforts worksheet (Word doc).

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   2.6 More Resources

Don’t forget!! to look at 52 Ways to Make a Difference – Public Library Advocacy Throughout the Year (PDF) for excellent, practical ideas for frontline and other advocates. This tool also contains great resources for further reading.

What if you’re a passionate frontline staff member who wants to do more? You must first work with your library administration. They are the ones who can get you more involved at the appropriate levels. There’s a lot of advice out there about how to succeed at advocacy. Many advocacy tools are easily available over the Internet because a wide variety of organizations depend on advocacy for their livelihood. The American Library Association (ALA) has excellent online resources if you want to read more about public library advocacy:

Every Voice Makes a Difference! Flashcard for Public Libraries (PDF)

Advocating in a Tough Economy Toolkit

Library Advocate’s Handbook (PDF)

Libraries Prosper with Passion, Purpose, and Persuasion: A PLA Toolkit for Success

Smith, Meg, “The ABC’s of Advocacy: The Role of Children’s Managers in Public Libraries,” Children & Libraries, (6:3), Winter 2008, pp. 50-51.

Gordon, William R., “How Your Grassroots Garden Grows,” American Libraries, (28:7). August 1997, p. 33.

ALA President Camila Alire wishes to thank the Neal-Schuman Foundation for its generous support of the Frontline Advocacy Initiative.

The Neal-Schuman Foundation is a not-for-profit corporation formed to aid, assist, and promote research and educational activities for the improvement of library and information services. For more information, contact

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