Frontline Advocacy Is Everybody’s Job
ALA President Camila Alire’s presidential initiative offers a systematic approach to staff participation
Posted Tue, 05/25/2010 - 12:16
ALA President Camila Alire explains on video the urgency of frontline advocacy, which involves learning to articulate the message both inside and outside the library.
“What makes this initiative different from previous advocacy initiatives is that it engages and empowers frontline library staff to work on advocacy at a different level than how library administrators, trustees, friends, and grassroots users operate,” says Alire. “The traditional focus has been on how to interact with elected officials and decision makers. Frontline advocacy is about everyone else—those not in top-level positions who deal with decision makers—learning to articulate the message to people both inside and outside the library.” Frontline advocacy has long been a part of Alire’s approach to success.
The concept made its first appearance on a national level through the “Power of Personal Persuasion,” an initiative launched during Alire’s tenure as president of ALA’s Association of College and Research Libraries in 2005–06, so it comes as no surprise that Alire adopted frontline advocacy as part of her presidential initiative.
Frontline advocacy focuses on advocating at points of service and engagement and encourages staff and administrators in all types of libraries to work together to tell our stories about the value of libraries and the value of library staff as part of a larger theme, “Libraries: The Heart of ALL Communities,” which focuses both on advocacy and literacy.
“It’s important to emphasize that it's not just about the patron interaction,” says Marci Merola, director of ALA’s Office for Library Advocacy (OLA), “it’s also about everyone within a library employee’s circle of influence.
“The timing of this initiative is perfect,” she continues. “With so many threats to libraries around the country, we’re seeing time and time again that it’s citizen involvement that’s saving the day. Frontline advocates are the conduits to those citizens.
“It’s ironic that for every person who is reticent about getting involved in frontline advocacy, I’m finding that there is someone else who says ‘I do this every day … I just didn’t know that we had a name for it—I didn’t know it was called frontline advocacy.
“But what’s been missing up until now, and what Alire’s initiative provides, is a systematic, formalized approach to frontline advocacy. It’s not rocket science: I think that inherently, everyone wants to feel good about their job. And everyone who works in a library knows they’re doing something towards the greater good. But can they quantify it? Can they tell their neighbors exactly how their job is helping the economy or boosting test scores in the community? If you can empower those people with the right messages—talking points, statistics, and the relevance about what their library does, what they do—they’re not going to stop talking about it.”
ALA’s Office for Library Advocacy has played a key role in developing the initiative, as did the Office for Literacy and Outreach Services. ALA’s Office for Diversity and its Governance Office have been part of a steering committee strategically working on Alire’s initiative since her election to the post in April 2009. In addition, two member working groups were formed representing libraries of all types, including one to create and design planners and one to review content. Much broader than Alire’s “Power of Personal Persuasion,” frontline advocacy focuses on content specific to all types of libraries; content delivered in a variety of teaching and learning activities; and the widest target audience for involvement: all library frontline employees, at all levels of employment within organizations, including management and administration.
As libraries begin to or continue to integrate frontline advocacy into their staff’s daily routines, the reality is that the initiative becomes the core of communication between employee and patron (or friends, neighbors, relatives) no matter the type or size of library. The most successful frontline advocacy plan motivates employees to work together to represent the library and articulate library needs in positive language that emphasizes the value of libraries and library employees.
Working together in libraries to plan a frontline initiative includes the design and implementation of guidelines for frontline employees as well as guidelines for managers and, specifically, identification of library issues and needs; scripts of language/exchanges and interactions; articulation of the relationship between frontline advocacy and customer service; identification of frontline advocacy roles and responsibilities in all employee job descriptions; guidelines concerning communication among employees; and assessments to determine what activities, scripts, and patron/user exchanges proved to be the most successful.
Amid the myriad of resources there is much new content designed to articulate how frontline advocacy is different from every other kind. This content includes definitions of the new way of looking at advocacy, scripts of specific approaches for frontline employees to use in public service and point-of-use interactions at public service, reference, and circulation desks, as well as at community events and activities.
The initiative includes answers to excuses of “we can't do this!” as well as ways to make everyone successful at this important 21st-century advocacy.
Toolkit at ala.org
The initiative toolkit on ALA’s website in the Advocacy University section is a large toolkit with general content along with four smaller toolkits specific to type of library—public, academic, school, and special. Toolkit resources can be used as part of a whole or as stand-alone items. They include:
- A self-directed tutorial that can be used by frontline employees in all types of libraries.
- A train-the-trainer workshop with representatives from across the United States designed to focus on repurposing content in online formats as well as identifying individuals who can spread out across the country to present the frontline advocacy content to the greatest number of people possible.
- Four smaller toolkits with content designed to be used either self-directed online or as in-person training materials.
- A series of streaming videos of ALA President Alire introducing the content and motivating employees to embrace this job responsibility and expand interactions.
- PowerPoint presentations—some general, some specific to a number of target audiences, events, and lengths of events.
- A webinar with content and a panel of speakers delivered originally at the national level and then archived and made available for either individuals or groups to repurpose for any appropriate setting.
“If I had to pick my favorite part of the initiative,” says Alire, “I think I would have to return to the genesis of the frontline advocacy idea and my first discussions with staff over the need for them/us to step up to changing our frontline interactions with our patrons or audiences.” She refers to the resistance that she first heard when asking her employees to advocate for libraries in the course of their daily job responsibilities.
Responses such as “It’s not my job to advocate,” or “I don’t think I can do this, I’m too shy,” or “My director wouldn’t want me to do this” became a recurring theme—and a hurdle that was necessary to overcome. “I found that as employees articulated their feelings over the new roles, their ‘excuses’ for why they couldn’t make the shift were very real and needed to be addressed before the project was deemed successful,” says Alire. “I really wanted to emphasize the need for people to take frontline advocacy to their own personal comfort level.”
“During those first discussions with staff about changing frontline interactions with our patrons or audiences, we began to bounce ideas off one another. Thus, the Six Excuses piece became a reality—in fact, we started out with five! And realized we needed to expand it to six with special emphasis on addressing the discomfort associated with public speaking.”
Ways to make a difference
One initiative document, “52 Ways to Make a Difference: Advocacy throughout the Year,” serves as a master list of content that includes weekly themes, suggestions for building out weekly ideas and activities, as well as training and development recommendations and links to a myriad of web articles and toolkits. This wealth of resources seeks to cover every aspect of designing the 52 weeks of frontline advocacy with content on marketing and public relations, customer service scripts and training information, other advocacy content, activities to specific populations, diversity and special needs patrons, best practices from other libraries and associations, literacy, and budget process recommendations.
“52 Ways” is the culmination of all of the wonderful ideas from initiative participants as well as a central location for all of the specific and related content posted on ALA’s website and in other online Association environments.
Although the first “52 Ways” was designed for public libraries, the feedback was so positive that we revised it as a working document for all types and sizes of libraries. The strength of the document is that the activities work together and build on each other, but activities also work alone or in small groups. Libraries could just as easily pick 12 of the 52 activities (one each month) or four of the 52 activities (one major activity for each quarter)." The bottom line for all of us who understand the incredible return on investment that libraries offer to their communities—whether those communities are public, school, academic, or corporate—is that now more than ever we must learn to articulate the message both inside and outside the library at every point of engagement with our advocates and those who can become them.