Six Ingredients for Frontline Advocacy Success

Frontline Advocacy Toolkit

Think of these as “best practices” for frontline advocacy success.

1. Start by understanding your library

What are the resources that make your library strong? They include things like your location, collection, technology, staff, programs, and the hours you are open. Do you have a great computer lab? Are your afternoons always crowded with children and teens busily at work? Are your storytimes standing room only? Take the time to understand why each of your library’s strong points is important. Be able to explain how they help serve people’s needs and what will happen if they are reduced or go away.

  • Look at the environment in which your public library exists
    • How large a geographic area does your public library serve? Is it a county, city, township or other municipality?
    • What are its general demographics?
    • How has the community changed in the last ten years?
    • Has the library changed along with it?
  • Your public library’s value: what it provides that is unique
    • What does your library contribute to your community and what would happen if it goes away?
    • What resources and services does it provide that can’t be found anywhere else in your community?
  • Your library as an institution of trust
    • The public library has long been a trusted institution in our society. But do you ever think about why? Does your library have a long history in your community? Is it welcoming to everyone who comes in the door? Do people feel it is there when they need it? Has it always employed competent, helpful staff members (like you)? 
  • Your library’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities & threats
    • Your library is great, but it’s not perfect. What are the most important resources it offers? What are its strong points? What frustrates staff and customers? What could you do that’s new or better? What factors pose constant challenges?
  • Your value as a library employee
    • Don’t overlook this one! You are a frontline staff member, and that is true whether you interact with library customers or not. You are an integral part of your public library’s service team. Take a few moments to think about the important work you do, the contributions you make, the people you serve. The library would be diminished without you.
  • How others view your library
    • We know that people, in general, love their public library. They can’t imagine their community without it. It’s the neighborhood gathering place, the place parents take their children on a rainy day, the best spot for meetings. It’s the community’s “living room.” But, as a frontline advocate, you can’t assume that “business as usual” will keep your library front and center in the minds of those in their community.
      Ask them what they think about your library and, in return, be proactive about spreading the library’s message about its value and its needs. Remember that people’s views are always being shaped and that they are bombarded by others’ messages all day long. Keep your library’s message in their minds.
  • The issues that affect your library
    • There are lots of ways to learn about these issues. First of all, as a frontline staff member, you will glean information from your own personal observations . (Are customers grumbling over long waits for computers?) Your library system will likely send out internal e-mails and memos to keep all staff apprised of important issues that affect your public library. (“All library branches are experiencing this problem, and we are going to seek funding for increased technology support system-wide.”) A neighbor may tell you she had to leave the library because she didn’t have the time to wait her turn for a computer.Your local media may also run stories about it. Keep your eyes and ears open.
    • Are there legislative issues that could affect your library and its resources? Become informed about these too. Ask library administrators to help all staff stay up-to-date on local and state initiatives that impact your public library.

2. Work within your comfort zone, but consider stepping outside it…just a little bit.

You’ll find the challenge to be a real opportunity for personal growth. It sounds obvious, but we gain the most from situations that stretch us. If starting a conversation about your public library’s value and needs is difficult for you, practice until it comes easily. Keep it short and simple. You’ll find that, once you really understand your library and its message, words will come. Tell it to someone you know well before telling it to those you don’t know. And once you start looking for opportunities to speak up, you will realize that there are more of them than you may have imagined. If you develop a regular habit of sharing your library’s ongoing, everyday news with others and listening to what they value, you’ll find it easier to share information in a crisis situation if one arises.

3. Do it at the right time. Seize the opportunity!

There is a well-used expression that says, “Timing is everything.” It’s true. There’s not much point in telling a parent why your library needs her support for more computers if her child is crying and hungry, or sharing your library’s message with a person who can influence others after that person has taken a public position on your library’s needs. So it’s not just what you say, it’s when you say it that affects whether or not your message is heard.
Look for opportunities to let others know they need your library. Is your friend considering shopping for a used car and feeling confused by all the choices and promotions? Tell him, “Come to the library. We have lots of up-to-date consumer information that rates all the models 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 resumes. Have you met a family who is new to the community? Be sure they know where the library is located and that it has activities for families every weekend.
Look for natural times to promote your library’s value and message. Go online and find out the dates for “National Library Week,” The Annual Day of Reading,“ “National Bookmobile Day,” “Teen Read Week,” and take advantage of the publicity those events generate.
Stay current with issues that impact your services from day to day. Don’t wait until there is a crisis to talk up your library. And don’t think that your library advocacy efforts all have to take place at the library! No matter where you are, when people ask you about your job, speak passionately and enthusiastically about 21st century library jobs in general and your job and public library in particular.

4. Consider participating in training that will allow you to channel your knowledge about your library and its issues into advocacy activities.

Do a little old-fashioned reference work to find information, people and organizations that are all about building advocacy skills. There are many advocacy resources on the Internet. Click on More Resources  [2..6] in this toolkit and peruse some of the ideas there. Ask your library administrators if they know of local resources directed specifically at library advocacy. If your library has a Friends group, there’s an excellent chance that they are well tuned into this topic.

5. Get others on board with you by giving them something to do.

There’s strength in numbers! Who do you know? Who are your library’s most frequent users and/or its most likely supporters? What can you ask them to do? Have you thought about using the boundless energy of teens to help spread your message and inject a little eye-catching fun into the effort? Get their ideas, then put them to work. It’s a win-win situation. The teens gain valuable experience in public relations and maybe even public speaking, and your library gains an often-underlooked group of cheerleaders.
Do you have faithful volunteers? They already love you, or they wouldn’t be giving you their time. Expand their role and expand your capacity at the same time. What’s your most popular children’s activity? Think of ways that the people who enjoy that can become advocates for your library. Active seniors may welcome the opportunity to become library supporters. Don’t underestimate their experience and energy.

6. Say “thank you!”

It’s sometimes overlooked in our multi-tasking, sound bite world but it’s appreciated more for its rarity: the simple act of sincerely saying “thank you.” It’s more than just, “thanks,” however. Take the time to thank the person for what he or she did and tell them why it matters. “ Thanks for handing out our fliers at your book club. We had great attendance at our last author event.” “Hey, thanks for bringing your friends to the library after school today. It was fun to watch you working together.” And here’s the really cool bonus: When you acknowledge an individual’s help with spreading your advocacy message, you don’t just make that person feel good, you inspire him or her to keep helping.