Frontline Advocacy for Academic Libraries

ALA Advocacy Library

Everyone who works at a college or academic library can be an advocate. The Frontline Advocacy Toolkit provides practical tools to help frontline library staff identify opportunities to advocate for the value of libraries and their own value on a daily basis.


Why Do College and University Libraries Need Frontline Advocates?
Why Are YOU Your College or University Library’s Best Frontline Advocate?
What Does an Effective Frontline Advocate for Academic Libraries Do?
Going Deeper: The Role of Library Leadership in Planning for Frontline Advocacy
Ten Steps for Academic Administrators

Why Do College and University Libraries Need Frontline Advocates?

The academic library and the institution it serves support each other. The library provides essential resources that are the foundation of learning and research. The college or university provides the reason the college or university library exists at all. In addition, the academic library is an important economic player in the relationship between the university and the larger community.

When it comes to advocating for the academic library, its formal leadership, library administrators, have traditionally done much of the heavy lifting. They continually work to raise awareness and to seek sources of funding to support the library’s needs. They often get precious little “face time” with decision makers and need to use that time to the greatest advantage. While there will always be a vital role for those groups to play, the truth is that people can use your academic 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 academic library world, everyone who works for the library is on the front line.


Why Are YOU Your College or University Library’s Best Frontline Advocate?

Good question! The truth is, you are a valuable 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 important personal service every minute your doors are open and access to valuable online information after library hours. You are someone whom students, staff, your friends, neighbors, family and others connect with your academic 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 – the college or university community, of course, but also 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. Your relationships with others in the academic and larger community matter.


What Does an Effective Frontline Advocate for Academic Libraries Do?

Frontline advocacy for college and university libraries is all about informing and persuading. It’s about partnering with your librarians and other staff to place your academic library in the spotlight 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 specific issue to advocate for your library. Practice it every day, and, when there is a specific issue or concern, you’ll be very good at it.

Before you can do that, however, you must first understand why your library is a valuable resource for the college, university and larger community. Once you can articulate that, 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 users of your college or university’s library, to understand its worth and believe in its mission. Once you try it, you’ll realize that advocating for your library is actually pretty easy. Check out Six Ingredients for Frontline Advocacy Success (PDF).

Resist the urge to say, “Yeah, but…” Instead, check out Six Good Excuses That Won’t Work (PDF).

Lastly, remember that any frontline advocacy actions you decide to take should be first communicated to your college or university library’s administrators. They are continually engaged in their own strategic advocacy work, and they need to know about your ideas to ensure that the message communicated is clear and consistent. Frontline advocacy activities are especially effective when they dovetail neatly with more traditional advocacy activities, such as lobbying, public awareness campaigns, etc., so remember to communicate!


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 specific 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 specific 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.

  • Did the secretary in the history department tell you she’s looking for a good winter read? Tell her, “Come to the library. I’ll be happy to help you find something.”
  • Is a student frustrated by not being able to find enough material in your library for his thesis project? Offer to schedule some time to help him use interlibrary loan services.
  • Is your friend who works in marketing trying to find information on an emerging trend? Tell her that anyone can come into your academic library and access current business journals.

When the library has a specific 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 who will develop the message, it can still benefit from the passion and energy of non-administrative frontline employees.


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

Although the ins and outs of everyday advocacy don’t usually require a formal plan, it’s still a good idea for college and university 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 college or university and to the community too.
  • How many small positive actions by frontline staff make a big impact on library users and non-users alike.

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 the knowledge (and possibly the approval) of library administrators - and a plan. For help download the Frontline Advocacy Plan Worksheet (PDF) or Frontline Advocacy Plan worksheet (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 (PDF) will also include some criteria that you can look at to help determine the success of your frontline advocacy efforts.


Ten Steps for Academic Administrators

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

Some people may seem like obvious choices to lead your college or university library’s frontline advocacy efforts. They have infectious energy and enthusiasm. They have worked there a long time. 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 staffer, acquisitions librarian or student intern. 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 have such a great relationship with our students..” 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. Look closely at your library: What are your academic library’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats?

Understanding your college or university 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. Download the SWOT Analysis Template (PDF) or SWOT worksheet (Word doc) to get your Frontline Advocacy Team thinking!

3. 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 provide a deeper level of database access? Do your users want you to be open additional hours? Do you want to promote interlibrary loan? Do you want to create an area within your library dedicated to certain uses or users, such as for group meetings and/or group research work? Are people asking for longer material check out periods?

Here’s an example: Let’s assume your goal is to keep your college or university library open as many hours during the next academic year as it is open this year. You’ve chosen this goal because state budget cuts are impacting your university’s budget, and the university has suggested reducing library hours on weekends, particularly on Sunday evenings.

Your objectives answer the question: Why is this goal important? Using the above example, it’s important because weekend evenings, particularly after 9:00 p.m., are a time of heavy student use. It’s important because some of your undergraduates do not have computers, so they depend on the library’s computers to fulfill all of their class requirements, and those computers are fully used on Sunday evenings. It’s important because certain services that you offer on weekend evenings, such as some student-to-student research assistance, have been highly successful in that time slot and need to continue. 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 for college and university libraries need to know how to talk both about the value of their library to the community and about specific issues, needs and challenges their library faces. Again, using the above example of retaining your library’s weekend hours, you might ask the faculty members you know well to speak out on the library’s behalf to others in their departments. Ask students whose study groups meet in the library on Sunday evenings to write letters to the university paper. These are just a few ideas. Brainstorm these with everyone on your staff and put their ideas into action.

Download the Goals – Objectives – Strategies Worksheet (PDF) or Goals-Objectives-Strategies Worksheet (Word doc) for a simple guide to laying out these important steps.

Lastly, see if you can find a modest budget for your frontline advocacy efforts. A little funding will allow you to do more than you can without it.

4. 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 academic library’s staff is a frontline advocate, no one should be left out of your Frontline Advocacy Plan (PDF). How can the reference assistant help? The cataloger? The student who checks out 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!

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

Library and university administrators, trustees and your institution’s development staff bear most of the responsibility when it comes to advocacy for your academic library. They lobby lawmakers, engage in public relations and seek private funding sources to augment other revenue streams. It’s important that they’re apprised that frontline advocacy efforts will be happening too; and that they feel confident that your frontline efforts will dovetail with their work. The message in all cases should be consistent, and there should be frequent and open communication between the Frontline Advocacy Team, library staff, administrators and others whose roles include advocacy. It’s the job of the Frontline Advocacy Team to determine the best way to be part of the team that gets your message heard.

6. 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 want to expand the use of your library building, such as for meetings or receptions? Add to a special collection? Increase student and faculty use of interlibrary loan? Add to the number of hours you are open? Understand why the need is there and what actions will address it, then craft a message that is clear and compelling. Does your Frontline Advocacy Team need help with developing your message? No problem! Download Crafting Your Message (PDF) or 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. If necessary, collect additional data that is directly relevant to your message. For help understanding how to make your data work for you, check out Put Your Data to Work for Your Frontline Advocacy Team (PDF).

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? Use Your Parking Lot Speech (PDF) to train all staff to have the message on their lips at all times. After all, they are your college or university library’s frontline advocates.

7. 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?

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 college 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 users, of course, but the group is much broader than that: other university staff, friends, relatives, neighbors, high school teachers and counselors, parents, merchants and retailers – make the list as long as you can. Most of them will already be people your academic library staff know by name, and who already know those library staff members. That relationship is a great basis for sharing the message of your academic library’s value 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 your academic library staff but nonetheless are important to reach? The Frontline Advocacy Team should ask library staff for help brainstorming who these potential supporters might be, then check with library administrators for their permission in cases where this step might be necessary.

For help identifying these individuals and institutions, look at Target Audience Planning for All Frontline Advocacy Staff (PDF) or download the Target Audience Planning worksheet (Word doc) in this toolkit.

8. Communication Tools: Choose paths to success

Your Frontline Advocacy Team’s job is to make it easy for your academic library staff to seize every opportunity to effectively communicate why your library is a critical source for learning and research. 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 his or her position as the public face of your college or university library to inform and persuade.

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

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

Remember the biography of Lincoln we read last summer by James McPherson? He’s going to be speaking on campus next month, and it’s open to the public. Let’s go!”

If the library has to close early on Sunday evenings next semester, we’ll have to find another location to meet. How can we keep that from happening?”

  • Make phone calls
  • Send e-mail messages
  • Write a letter to the editor of your college or university 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 Sample Letter to the Editor (PDF).
  • Post a blog. Post this on the library’s website, if possible, or start your own.

9. 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. Check out Your Frontline Advocacy Plan (PDF) for an easy-to-follow format.

10. “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 before-and-after measurements or data to look at for comparison purposes. Has your frontline advocacy work affected library funding? Campus perception and appreciation of your library? The library’s relationship with its stakeholders? With decision makers?

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



ALA Advocacy Library