Advocacy: creating champions for your library

Advocacy is the important work of creating and using evidence effectively. This can be shared with people who can champion your library, helping to build it a positive future.


Advocacy, promotion, public relations, marketing
Keys to successful advocacy
Customer focus is the key
Advocacy toolkits from AASL
Critical reflection on library practices
Evidence-based practice (EBP)
Framing your evidence
Communicating your messages
Overall approach to advocacy - in summary
Further reading

“Advocacy is about educating stakeholders using the best available evidence and it is an ongoing process.  It is a consistent message delivered in a variety of ways…” Kramer & Diekman (2010) p.27.

The most effective advocates for your library are people with influence, who know and value your services – referred to here as your key stakeholders.

Advocates are the people with whom you have built a strong relationship over time. They will be influential in championing the services you provide, as they know about the impact and value of your programmes for students in your school. Your stakeholders include the Principal and Board of Trustees, and extend from your direct library users to the wider school community.

Advocacy, promotion, public relations, marketing – definitions and differences

US library marketing specialist, Kathy Dempsey, makes the following distinction in her M-Word blog between some of the terms that are often misused: marketing, public relations, publicity, promotion and advocacy:

Marketing is taking steps to move goods from producers to consumers. It's determining what people want, delivering it, and then periodically updating that whole process.

Public Relations is a planned, long-term communication program (via various media) that has a goal of convincing the public to have good will toward something. It's helping people to think well of an organisation, product, or concept.

Publicity is sending a message via official channels such as news releases, newsletters, press conferences, etc.

Promotion is furthering the growth or development of something. It's not just aiming toward good will; it's encouraging people to use it by telling people how it would benefit them.

Advocacy is getting people who have good opinions of your organisation to speak to others on its behalf; to convince other people of its value.

While the focus here is on advocacy, you may also engage in the other activities as part of your library work.

Keys to successful advocacy: student learning, stakeholders and evidence

While strong advocacy cannot guarantee immunity from budget cuts, it enables you to give stakeholders (everyone in the school community) evidence of the value of library programmes and services. In particular to those who manage and govern the school, including those who make budget decisions.

Three key messages to guide successful advocacy, adapted from the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) Crisis Toolkit, place the library firmly within the wider learning context of the school:

  1. Schools are about student learning. School libraries are about supporting student learning, with a special focus on literacy and information literacy.  Key messages need to be about students and student learning, not about jobs of librarians.
  2. Identify your stakeholders: teachers, principal, Board of Trustees, the wider school community, and your students. All messages seeking support need to focus on what students will gain or lose educationally – not what the library will gain or lose. Improving student achievement is what every school is about. Your library needs to be about this too.
  3. Use your data, generate evidence, and connect the library to the educational priorities of your school. For example, provide data as evidence of the role your library plays in improving literacy levels. Use your data and stories to focus powerfully on the students, not on libraries and library staff.

Customer focus is the key

“Rather than creating a perfect library, we need to reshape our thinking and create the perfect library for our individual institution. We can do this by changing our mindset from adopting best practices as defined by our own professional organisation to adopting a 'customer service/support' orientation by crafting goals that support the larger goals of the organisation. In times of budget cuts, it cannot be only librarians who speak on behalf of libraries. Teachers, administrators, parents and students must demand the essential services we provide.” Valenza & Johnson (2010).

Advocacy toolkits from AASL

The theme running through all AASL Advocacy toolkits is the need to focus on the customer, and the evidence-based services you provide, not on the library itself. You are aiming to achieve sound stakeholder support, so that they will speak out as your advocates, in support of the value you provide to your students.

AASL School library program health & wellness toolkit:  Advocacy
This is the toolkit for school librarians to use to plan their advocacy programme over time.

The emphasis here is to build a relationship with stakeholders over time. Carefully plan your approach around the key support provided for students and student learning. Schools are all about building student achievement and effective advocacy needs to articulate how the library can support this. Direct quotes are from this Toolkit.

  • Advocacy is about collecting and documenting evidence. This should not be left until a crisis looms. Make it part of how you manage and report on the effectiveness of your library.  Whatever initiative you undertake in your library, you need to find a way to measure its effectiveness. Then you need to pass this information on, in succinct updates, to key people, including your school principal. Don’t leave it just to the Annual Report.
  • The best advocates for a service are not those providing the service, but your key stakeholders whose needs the service is meeting – the students, the parent community, teachers, school management. This AASL toolkit provides practical guidance on how to build support.
  • Look at each of your stakeholder groups and using this AASL tool, identify the “issues, concerns, priorities and needs” of each. This helps you focus on them and their needs. As you plan your advocacy process identify the kinds of evidence you need to generate and how you will communicate this. You will shift the focus from “what you want them to want” to “them and what they need”.
  • The point is made here and elsewhere on this AASL site that “School librarians need to be cautious when advocating for their own programs and jobs. When school librarians speak out for libraries or librarians, it can sound whiny and self-serving.”
  • “Data and evidence are key educational tools as school librarians work to educate stakeholders about the school library’s role in preparing students to live work and learn in the 21st Century.” Teachers work with student achievement data as a matter of course. Working with one or two teachers can help you to become familiar with processes involved in generating robust data and creating reports using this data as evidence.

“Advocacy is a long-term, deliberate plan that is designed to build stakeholder support. True advocacy is when stakeholders stand up and speak out on behalf of a cause, idea, program or organization.”

Critical reflection on library practices

Some critical reflection on your practices and policies to decide whether your library users see these as ‘barriers’ or ‘enablers’ to excellent service can be an important first step. See Libraries and Learning blog post.

These questions are adapted from the think about starters on the AASL website:

  • What do others see when they look at your programmes?
  • Why do you say ‘yes’ or ‘no’?
  • Are your policies about the needs of your users, or about your library team?
  • Do you have practices that you may want to reconsider? Have you inherited practices that have remained unchanged or unchallenged for years?
  • Do you need to educate others about why you do what you do?
  • Are there some things you need to stop doing?
  • Do people look forward to coming into the library or avoid it? How do you know?
  • Are people greeted with a smile?
  • What comes first, people or things?

Advocacy programmes are not going to work if the focus of your library is inward-facing rather than outward-facing. Advocacy depends on proof that your library is meeting the needs of your students and teachers.

Evidence-based practice (EBP)

Dr Ross Todd has written widely on the need for school librarians to adopt an outcomes-based approach, using research and evidence to document the effectiveness of the school library in supporting the school’s goals around student achievement. The 2007 Leadership Summit, “Where’s the Evidence? Understanding the Impact of School Libraries,” led to Todd’s 2008 Evidence-based Manifesto for School Librarians.

“By emphasizing outcomes, EBP shifts the focus from articulating what school librarians do to what students achieve. Accordingly, EBP validates that quality learning outcomes can be achieved through the school library and that the school librarian is an important instructional partner.” Todd (2008)

It is well worth reading the whole Manifesto, although its purpose is not directed towards advocacy. Accountability depends on evidence, and school library staff are not exempt – EBP and outcomes reporting will support advocacy initiatives as well as accountability.

Framing your evidence

Rather than just recording stand-alone statistics, such as numbers of students coming into the library, circulation statistics, or numbers of classes using the library, you need take a further step and ask some ‘so what?’ questions.

For example, perhaps you studied reading data analysed by your school’s teachers and ahve tailored your purchasing decisions in line with information in those reports. You built up your ‘quick reads’ in a secondary school with some appealing fiction and non-fiction and displayed it prominently as a response to low literacy levels in Years 9 and 10. Any increase in library borrowing by students – especially new users – is likely to have a correlation with improved literacy levels or attitudes to reading, which their teachers will have observed. Your intervention will have had a positive impact.

You may also have stories that illustrate how your initiative has succeeded in engaging a student in reading for the first time.

“Advocacy links the evidence gathered with the education of the stakeholders to answer the essential question:  How does the school library instructional program affect student achievement?…Kramer & Diekman (2010) p.29.

Communicating your messages

  • Advocacy includes using story as well as data.
  • Target your messages to key stakeholders, as well as to your wider audience
  • Use the ICT tools at your disposal, as well as print, to spread your message:  email, Twitter, Facebook, your web page.  
  • Keep your messages “short and simple. If your reports are too long they won’t be read!
  • Use flair and imagination to create messages with visual appeal.

Overall approach to advocacy - in summary

  • Evidence is essential – ensure you create ways to measure and document the impact and effectiveness of what you do.
  • Decide what actions / interventions to undertake, to make a difference to student achievement (and importantly, school librarians need to engage with teachers / school principal on this, so that any intervention is not a surprise, and has their support). These may be framed up as goals or objectives.
  • For every library initiative, you need to be able to measure your results / impact / effectiveness. You also need to work collaboratively with your principal or teachers to ensure your data collection and effectiveness measures are robust.
  • Document your intervention and your findings.
  • Report on this up the line: to staff, to your principal, to the BOT, to members of the school community – this is the groundwork for these people to become your advocates.
  •  Keep the messages coming, as you are building a positive picture in the minds of your stakeholders.  This is not a one-off report, but a series of regular high-impact brief messages. Advocacy is forever.
  • Talk to those in positions of influence – they are your potential champions, so need to hear key messages.
  • Use a variety of communication channels – electronic and print.  
  • Remember it’s about the students; it’s about improving student achievement. I t’s not about ‘the library’ and it’s not about ‘you’.


Further reading

  • Think you can't? Yes you can! Teacher Librarians' toolkit for evidence-based practice: This Canadian site has many useful tools for librarians to use for advocacy and evidence-based practice.
  • Bonnano, Karen. Do school libraries really make a difference? Originally published in InCite (May 2011) 32:5, p.5. Summarises the research into how school libraries make a difference to literacy, inquiry-based learning, ICT capabilities, and learning generally. Links to key pieces of research especially relating to Australia.
  • Bonnano, Karen. Successful school library advocacy changes people's perceptions. In a slideshare YouTube presentation Karen Bonnano discusses how promotion, public relations and market research tools can all be used very effectively to support a school library advocacy campaign.

Image: Advocacy for libraries by Gwyneth Anne Bronwynne Jones, The Daring Librarian on Flickr