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Magazines > Marketing Library Services > July/August 2010

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Preparing Frontline Staff for Advocacy Work
by Kathy Dempsey

While I was at the Public Library Association’s 13th National Conference in Portland, Ore., back in March, I attended a session that had some particularly useful advocacy tips that I wanted to share with MLS readers. It was titled Every Voice Makes a Difference: Frontline Library Employee Advocacy, and the speakers were Marci Merola, director of ALA’s Office for Library Advocacy, Jeannie Dilger-Hill, director of La Grange (Ill.) Public Library, and Camila Alire, president of ALA.

One of Alire’s presidential initiatives for her 2009–2010 tenure has been Advocacy on the Front Lines, and she has developed an Advocacy Toolkit (, which is part of a larger set of tools known as Advocacy University ( In this PLA presentation, Alire and her co-presenters concentrated on frontline advocacy.

Alire defined “advocacy” broadly as “active support of a cause or action” and then explained that the idea behind frontline advocacy is to help all of the staff members who come in constant contact with the users to be able to articulate the value of libraries and their value as library employees to the people they know best, at their comfort level. You can leave the big legislative advocacy work to directors and the like, she said; this initiative was created to help everyday workers learn three basic things to say to people when opportunities arise.

Everyday Advocacy From Attendees

This was an interactive conference session, and I want to focus on the part where attendees were asked what sorts of things they were doing at their own libraries to encourage this type of everyday communication and frontline staff participation. I was excited to see many in the audience respond. Here are some of the things they’re doing:

  • They name some frontline staffers to act as ambassadors between the public and the library managers.

  • They have staff members walk with the bookmobile in the annual town parade.

  • They partner with the employment commission to get library workers trained to handle employment requests, then use the success stories of people who get jobs with library help to encourage others.

  • They measure staffers’ advocacy efforts by designating a day for them to keep stats on how many people they talk to.

  • When one library did a “caddystacks” event (having miniature golf inside the library;, employees were positioned around the “golf course” to deliver talking points as attendees played through.

  • They give training for word-of-mouth marketing.

  • They take employees out to man tables at the farmers’ market and local festivals.

  • They encourage staffers to chat with popular community bloggers to help spread the word about library services.

  • When a patron complains to someone at a service desk about the library having too few hours or resources, the employee is trained to give him or her a slip of paper with funders’ contact info and to ask the patron to make the complaint directly, so the public official hears it from the citizen.

  • When a patron shares a compliment at a service desk, the employee is trained to say, “Please share that with the mayor,” and to hand out a paper with the mayor’s contact info. The attendee who shared this said that her library has handed out hundreds of these “compliment slips,” and the mayor has received a number of them.

  • They ask employees to demonstrate their databases of expertise to business owners via the chamber of commerce.

When a circulation-desk worker from the audience said that her co-workers are already talking up the library, Alire was pleased but strongly recommended that managers make sure it’s done systematically . They must urge all employees in all branches to deliver the same messages and give each of them the encouragement and training to do so. To be most effective, everyone should speak with one voice. (This session was not about crafting messages, because that needs to be done locally in order to describe each library’s greatest assets or to deliver their appropriate talking points.)

How to Implement This Right Away

The speakers offered the audience some advice for getting this rolling or for improving what they might already have in place. Their top recommendation was to focus on three main comments for employees to use. Each worker can make the point with words that are comfortable for him or her, but the points themselves should be universal throughout the system. (So managers and employees should work together to decide what is most important for visitors to hear.)

Sometimes it works in reverse, when workers want to talk up their libraries but managers have not made anything official. In that case, these presenters urged the workers to go to their bosses and say: “Do you know we’re already talking up the library at our personal clubs? How can we do this better or more consistently to be of greater help to the library?”

Finally, one idea to help managers encourage every employee to participate is to add a line item about advocacy work on staff evaluation forms. (Obviously, you can’t expect this work to be part of evaluations unless you’ve offered training.)

Where to Find More Information

President Alire’s co-presenters talked a bit about where to learn more about these frontline initiatives. Jeannie Dilger-Hill explained the concept of Snapshot Day, where an organization chooses one day to measure everything that happens throughout the system. How many books are checked out? How many people get homework help? How many periodicals are used? A number of states have done Snapshot Days statewide and then gathered the statistics to use for annual reports, promotion, advertising, and of course, advocacy. You can find details at

Marci Merola reminded attendees that the ilovelibraries .org site is actually a library advocacy website for the public and that you can always send engaged patron-advocates there so they can learn about supporting their libraries. She also said there’s more info at the Advocacy & Legislation section of ALA’s website ( You can also access Merola’s PowerPoint and the session’s main handout by going to and entering the session name.

Kathy Dempsey ( is editor of the Marketing Library Services newsletter.
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