Introduction: Frontline Advocacy Begins with You

An Advocacy Toolkit for Library Staff in ALL Kinds of Libraries

   Table of Contents

You are a Frontline Advocate for Your Library
Why Do Libraries Need Frontline Advocates? 
Why are YOU Your Library’s Best Frontline Advocate?
What Does an Effective Frontline Advocate for Libraries Do?
Why Now More Than Ever?
How Do You Become a Frontline Advocate?
What If You Want to Go Deeper?
How Do You Evaluate the Effectiveness of Your Frontline Advocacy Work?
Ready to Get Started?

   You are a Frontline Advocate for Your Library

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” more recently has become an expression to describe those individuals who interact in the visible forefront of any situation.

You are a frontline librarianYou 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.

Library staff are frontline people too. Some are obvious examples – librarians and administrators, of course, but frontline staff also includes clerks, circulation desk personnel, shelvers and reference assistants. They personally assist individuals who come into your library. They read stories to children or help with academic assignments. They assist people who need library cards or other access to the library’s resources. They work in partnership with teachers or management in a larger organization. It’s easy to understand how these individuals are on the front line. But the real frontline situation is even simpler:

Everyone on a library’s staff is on the front line. You are a frontline staff member.

Whether or not your job places you in direct contact with your library’s customers, you nevertheless live and move within a community, organization or environment that consists of your friends, coworkers, relatives and neighbors. Those individuals need to hear what’s important about your library because each one is a potential supporter of your library. You are the face and voice of the library to these people. You can tell your library’s story. You can deliver your library’s message.

The process of supporting a cause or course of action is called “advocacy.” When your library has a message to convey, as a staff member, you are in a perfect position to help with that cause or action, to tell your library’s story, to become an effective advocate - a “frontline advocate.”

ALA’s President for 2009-2010, Camila Alire, is excited about the idea of frontline advocacy. As she explains on the accompanying video, she has launched a new “Frontline Advocacy Initiative” to motivate, provide content and educate librarians and library workers about opportunities at all levels for promoting the resources and services of libraries that serve schools, colleges and universities, cities, counties and corporate and government structures. Promoting and/or advocating for these services, resources and expertise, while not typically everyone's job or passion, is essential to a healthy future for libraries in ALL kinds of communities and environments. President Alire's initiative calls for a vision, strategies and training materials on how to deliver messages from the front lines that illustrate the incredible value of libraries. Foremost among these messages is the library's role in the development of basic literacy skills, information literacy, research, economic development, life-long learning and the love of reading.

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   Why Do Libraries Need Frontline Advocates?

Every kind of library and the community or organization it serves live together in a mutually beneficial relationship. The library provides important resources and services and, in return, the community or organization dedicates a portion of its resources to supporting the library’s offerings. The library’s health and vitality impacts its community or organization in direct ways and, conversely, the community or the organization’s vitality is reflected in its ability to support the library.

While public officials, educational administrators and organizational managers ultimately make the choices that affect the library’s ability to operate effectively within its community, the truth is that a great deal of opinion is formed at a grassroots or frontline level. It is the result of many simple, routine interactions that happen every day between the personnel of every kind of library and the members of their community or organization, whether these individuals are direct library customers or not. The librarians who take the time to assist students with paper or resume writing, the circulation desk clerks who explain renewal policies, the research librarian who helps locate market studies and the school librarians who shepherd young readers from picture books to easy chapter books are just a few frontline advocates. There are many, many examples of the influence of library staff on their community or organization’s perception and support of their library. This is their role as effective frontline advocates.

Public opinion polls tell us that people love their libraries. They can’t imagine their communities, educational institutions or organizations without them. But in this day of competing messages and a growing world of media formats, library staff can’t continue to rely on people’s established opinions. They must be proactive in keeping their public, school, educational and corporate libraries front and center in the minds of everyone in their community.

That is why now more than ever, ALL library employees working at ALL job levels must understand their essential role as advocates on behalf of their libraries. They must ultimately be able to deliver powerful messages stressing the value of libraries in order to gain community understanding and support. Their unique role on the front line requires that they:

  • Understand the importance of frontline advocacy
  • Feel committed about disseminating their library’s message through the art of persuasion and influence
  • Are willing to create and deliver messages using a variety of communication strategies

If library staff have the tools they need to do this, they will feel comfortable in their role as frontline advocates. They will be able to motivate library customers and others to support the library’s initiatives and budget and help decision makers understand their library’s interests. In addition (and here is the really cool thing), they will build a cadre of supporters who will advocate for the library in their own environments and throughout their own organizations.

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   Why are YOU Your Library’s Best Frontline Advocate?

As a library staff member, you are the library’s best frontline advocate. Why?

  • You are the person who interacts with library customers as well as with your friends, neighbors, coworkers, family and others in your community or organization.
  • You know your library best.
  • Both you and your library exist within a larger community or organization. You know this community or organization best and understand the value of the library within it.

   What Does an Effective Frontline Advocate for Libraries Do?

We’re inclined to think about a virus as a bad thing. Spreading it should be avoided at all costs. But an “idea virus” can be a good thing! Spreading this kind of virus brings more people on board for your library and ultimately results in greater support. A library frontline advocate spreads this “idea virus,” keeping the library’s message and needs in mind, looking for opportunities to share that information and encouraging people to support the library.

Frontline advocates are in contact with a wide variety of people every day. Looking for ways to talk about the library’s value and seizing opportunities as they arise allow you to spread your library’s message to these people in a natural way. Thinking about who needs to hear your message and the best way to reach them are important too. Once you try it, you will realize that advocating for your library is easier than you thought.

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   Why Now More Than Ever?

It’s tough to deny that economic times in the 21st century have been difficult for many individuals and long-cherished institutions, and that libraries are among those institutions that have felt the impact of shrinking budgets. Reducing resources reduces access to knowledge. In today’s world, knowledge is power, so it makes sense to say that libraries make everyone more powerful.

Frontline advocacy begins with all staffMany kinds of libraries provide equal access to information and knowledge, regardless of a customer’s age, income level, educational attainment and position within the community or organization. More importantly, libraries are unique among other institutions because they don’t just offer this knowledge, but they also provide personal assistance in finding it. A few examples: the school librarian who helps both the honor student and the special education student with their research papers; the public library assistant who helps the new immigrant and the furloughed professional find employment resources; the university clerk who guides both the perplexed freshman and the tenured professor to the course materials they need. Technology? The Internet? Anyone who has scratched his or her head over software they didn’t know how to use understands how frustrating this is. A library staff member can provide guidance. Anyone who has searched the Internet with a few keywords knows that you will get thousands of “hits” for your inquiry, but the Internet can’t personally help you navigate the quality or reliability of its findings. A library staff member can.

These are just a few of the reasons why, as competition for funding increases along with demand for knowledge, advocacy for all libraries is not just the job of directors and administrators; it is everyone’s job and is more important than ever.

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   How Do You Become a Frontline Advocate?

Frontline advocacy is 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.

Because it’s every library staff member’s job to become an effective frontline advocate, and because frontline advocacy will be a new concept to some people (maybe you), a few simple ideas can help you take that first step:

  1. Start by understanding your library (its environment, resources, value).
  2. Stay current on issues that affect your library.
  3. Consider participating in training that will allow you to channel your knowledge about your library and its issues into advocacy actions.
  4. Work within your comfort zone, but think, too, about stepping outside it just a little bit. You’ll find the challenge to be a real opportunity for personal growth.
  5. Be sure your library administration knows you’re working to be an effective frontline advocate.

Want some good suggestions of the kinds of things to think about if you’re going to become an effective frontline advocate? Click on 23 Tips for Frontline Employees! (PDF) for some great ideas.

Need a boost getting started? Check out these Eight Steps to Getting Started (PDF).

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   What if You Want to Go Deeper?

A great deal of important, effective frontline advocacy takes place because of many positive day-to-day interactions that library staff may not consciously think of as advocacy. These include anything from sharing a simple smile to taking the time to tell a neighbor what the library can offer them to going the extra mile for an inexperienced or harried library customer. As a frontline library staff member, you engage in many of these kinds of goodwill building actions every day, and each one of them is frontline advocacy.

Frontline advocacy also extends beyond these daily interactions. On a deeper level, it is more conscious, more deliberate, more planned and often encompasses decisions and actions that affect a special issue, concern or crisis. You might presume that this kind of advocacy is the job of your supervisor, library director or, in the case of public libraries, your Friends group. It certainly is; but in truth, every library employee with an interest in advocacy can move to this deeper level if he or she desires. You can do it too.

Frontline advocacy of all kinds, but particularly that which is centered around a specific message, issue or challenge, has a better chance of succeeding if there is a “roadmap” to follow. To map out an effective frontline advocacy plan for your library, library administrators, supervisors and managers should consider the following steps:

  1. Identify staff who will take the lead and form an effective Frontline Advocacy Team.
  2. Find roles for all staff.
  3. Determine how library leadership (management, supervisors, trustees and Friends) and non-management frontline employees will work together for advocacy.
  4. Make advocacy something everyone will feel comfortable about.
  5. Determine a goal.
  6. Be able to say why your goal is important and what actions you will take to accomplish it.
  7. Craft your message.
  8. Tell it to the right people.
  9. Determine the best methods of communication.
  10. Put your plan on paper.
  11. Evaluate your efforts.

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   How Do You Evaluate the Effectiveness of Your Frontline Advocacy Work?

Busy library administrators, supervisors and managers may be tempted to overlook evaluation when an advocacy project appears to be finished. Resist the urge to skip it and move on to the next item of business. In order to determine whether or not an advocacy message has been successfully heard, library administrators and other Frontline Advocacy Team members should ask themselves why an evaluation is important. Your evaluation will be more meaningful if you think about it early in your frontline advocacy planning process so you can be sure to collect the data you need. When thinking about evaluation, start with:

    • What criteria can you measure?
    • How can you measure those?
    • How will you share your findings with all staff members?
    • How will your findings impact continued advocacy efforts?

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       Ready to Get Started?

    This toolkit was developed for you as a result of President Alire’s Frontline Advocacy Initiative. It is intended for you and other frontline advocates who want to make a real difference in their libraries’ present and future. Regardless of the kind of library in which you work (public, school, college/university, corporate or government) you will find simple, useful tools and tips that will make you an effective advocate for your library.

    Click the links below for coaching and easy, practical tools to help you become an effective frontline advocate for:

    Public Libraries

    School Libraries

    College and University Libraries

    Corporate, Government and Other Libraries

    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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