Advocacy: reason, responsibility and rhetoric

[Reproduced with permission: Australian School Library Association, ASLA XXI Conference Committee, 2009 ASLA XXI Biennial Conference proceedings: engage, explore, celebrate]

Karen Bonanno, Executive Officer, ASLA (2009)
Rob Moore, President, ASLA (2009)

Advocacy is the responsibility of every person involved in developing information literate school communities. The Australian School Library Association’s publication, ‘A teacher librarian advocate’s guide to building information literate school communities’ should become part of every advocate’s toolkit. For any advocacy campaign about school libraries, teacher librarians and information literacy/fluency to be successful, it is important to plan the process by identifying the target audience, specific content and the most effective method of delivery. It is imperative that advocates are aware of the ‘why’ advocate before engaging in the responsibility of delivering a message about the purpose and benefits of an information literate school community. The ‘what’ of a message requires an ability to utilise the language that helps to sell the message effectively to the target audience such as government and public communities. Who do you consider to be the target audience for your school community? What is the key message and crucial information you wish to communicate to these groups? What is it you want them to think, feel and do? What is the best method of communication available to make sure your audience does actually read/see/view your message? “If you do what you have always done you will get what you have always got.” The mindset of victim or scarcity mentality can cripple any individual or group. It is time to courageously accept 100% responsibility for all thoughts and actions to overcome inertia, negativity and conflict. Being able to identify a preferred future for school libraries, teacher librarians and information literacy within school communities is paramount. A collective consciousness of what the message should be will assist in the continuing evolution of the teacher librarianship profession.

What is advocacy?

The Canadian Association of Public Libraries has developed a definition that is well worth considering.

Advocacy is a planned, deliberate, sustained effort to raise awareness of an issue. It’s an ongoing process in which support and understanding are built incrementally over an extended period of time and using a wide variety of marketing and public relations tools (Canadian Association of Public Libraries 2001, para. 1).

Over the years teacher librarians have used the terms of promotion, public relations, marketing, and advocacy interchangeably, but there are some distinct differences attached to each of the terms. A general reading of business management literature provides insight into the activities associated with each term. Karen Bonanno (2005) provides comment on these terms within the context of school libraries.

Promotion is about saying who you are, what you do, for whom, when and how. It tends to be a one-way communication much like public relations, which includes activities to promote the school library and teacher librarian to the school community members. Informational brochures, bookmarks, posters, newsletters, library signage, presenting a report at a staff meeting, hosting Book Week and storytelling activities, presenting at a conference, lobbying a government agent, or writing an article, tend to tell the target audience rather than engage them in collaborative exchange.

Marketing, on the other hand, attempts to find out what the school community needs and wants through mini surveys, market research, needs assessment, questionnaires, focus groups and studying demographics. The school library then focuses its attention on providing the information and/or service to meet those identified needs. The same tools used for public relations are applied, but the emphasis is on providing a response that will leverage the gained understanding the teacher librarian has of the school community.

Advocacy uses promotion, public relations and marketing to indicate that what is currently being done within the school community will be greatly enhanced by what the school library and teacher librarian can offer. Advocacy attempts to influence the perceptions of the target audience by connecting with their agenda to demonstrate how the school library and the services of the teacher librarian can advance the position of the school as an information literate learning community. Planned and deliberate advocacy activities will work towards building effective partnerships, influential relationships, interactive decision-making, and collaborative activity (Bonanno 2005).

Taking a narrow view of campaigning or lobbying for qualified professional staff for school libraries, as an example, without advocating why this level of staffing is needed only reinforces the perception that school libraries are very expensive places to maintain. For decision makers to consider they are investing in the school’s future it is necessary, when requesting additional funds and personnel, to also state how these resources will make a difference to student learning. It is important to utilise all the tools of promotion, marketing and public relations in any advocacy activity.

Ross Todd, cited in Hartzell (2002, para. 3), suggests when teacher librarians advocate on behalf of the school library emphasis should be on ‘connections, not collections’. The school library and its services need to connect administrators, teachers and students to the information they need to realise an information literate school community.

Reason: the ‘why’ of advocacy

The broad characteristics of an information literate school community can be demonstrated by:

  • a school based policy, procedures and information technology plan
  • a diverse, creative and integrated curriculum supporting student learning and performance
  • quality teaching and learning as a major focus modelled through lifelong learning practices
  • a range of pedagogical practices and strategies
  • a commitment to knowledge creation to make sense and meaning of information
  • all learners, including school staff, engage in inquiry learning, deep thinking, problem solving, decision making and transformational activity
  • the teacher librarian is integral to the process of teaching and learning activities, and information and knowledge management
  • collaborative teamwork, partnerships, shared learning and purpose, and interaction with the learning community is evident
  • an adaptive, living and organic system engaged in systematic thinking (seeing the whole rather than parts and acknowledging that change affects everything). (Henri 1999, pp. 6-8; McKenzie 1998; Cooper & Boyd n.d.)

These characteristics are evidence of a school community with a focus on its future and keen to embrace the cultural and professional practices of the teacher librarian. The characteristics provide a sound starting point for the development of an advocacy program. For example, the teacher librarian can provide opportunities for collaborative exchange with administrators and teachers in the development and ‘connection’ of an information literacy program with teaching and learning, pedagogical practice and strategies, and curriculum areas to assist the student to create new knowledge and performance.

It is one of the paradoxes of success that the things and the ways which got you where you are, are seldom the things that keep you there (Handy 1995, p. 49).

For any profession to be successful, advocacy is never-ending. It requires a commitment, a sense of moral purpose, continuous communication, intense interaction, flexible vision and creative leadership. In a dynamically changing information world an advocacy campaign will need to adopt new approaches, strategies and methods to get the key message out to the target audience.

Responsibility: is it someone else’s job?

Teacher librarians, in general, are very good at promoting their school library and its services to the staff and students of their respective schools. In the busyness of a teacher librarian’s day, marketing may be something they would like to get around to, but do not have the time. Unfortunately, advocacy is often viewed as the job of the state/territory and/or national teacher librarian associations. This perception is quite reasonable, but we need to factor in that there is a role for everyone in advocacy.

A teacher librarian advocate’s guide to building information literate school communities: ASLA advocacy kit 2006 (Australian School Library Association 2006) identifies the teacher librarian and school library advocates as the main players who send out a key message to school administrators, teachers, school board and parent bodies, government and policy decision makers, and local community leaders. Let us be realistic and acknowledge that it is imperative for the profession, broadly speaking, to be the main advocates for school librarianship otherwise the key message advocated by others may not be the preferred option. The advocacy leadership may be initiated by professional associations, or come from within the profession, but the impetus then needs to be articulated by those at the grass roots level.

Advocacy tools developed at a state or national level are only effective when skilfully used by the practitioner. For example, handing the principal a copy of the Standards of professional excellence for teacher librarians (Australian Library and Information Association & Australian School Library Association 2004) and indicating how it was applied to oneself, or the school library team, to identify the skills and expertise that benefit the school community in areas of pedagogical practice, curriculum development, information provision and service, student learning and performance, lifelong learning, and professional commitment would be a productive exercise.

Effective partnerships and influential relationships

Principal support
Research undertaken by Hay and Henri (1995) indicates that principals are prepared to support the teacher librarian, and the development of an information literate school community, as long as the teacher librarian is credible and there is a shared vision. Principals involved in the research had an expectation that the teacher librarian would ‘have a vision of the future development of information services’ (Hay & Henri 1995, Initial findings, para. 14).

Henri and Boyd (2002) reported on the findings of a case study of six Australian teacher librarians to analyse the level of influence of teacher librarians as perceived by themselves and by their principals. While the study demonstrated that teacher librarians are regarded as influential by their principals and that the teacher librarians employed a number of influence building strategies, the teacher librarians did not themselves appear to take full advantage of their potential for influence. The report indicated that ‘visible evidence of competence, commitment, and integrity is the building block of influence’ (Henri & Boyd 2002, p. 2). These attributes, if used wisely, contribute significantly to developing credibility within the workplace through visible demonstration of the capabilities of the teacher librarian.

An international study of the principal's role in developing and supporting school library programs was conducted in Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Japan, Scotland, and South Korea. The overall findings of the research project included the following:

(1) principals and teacher librarians differed in age and gender; (2) beliefs of principals and teacher librarians about the role of the principal were well-aligned except where librarians were not also qualified teachers; (3) principals and teacher librarians differed most on their current and future perceptions of the role of the principal in advocating and facilitating the development of an information literate school community; and (4) principals and teacher librarians agreed that principals should spend more time informing new teaching staff about the importance of collaboration with the teacher librarian (Henri, Hay & Oberg 2002).

By utilising all the tools of promotion, marketing and public relations in any advocacy activity the teacher librarian is able to build a working relationship with the principal to identify and agree to some common elements in respect to the role and function of the school library and its personnel and services. The professionalism and credibility of the teacher librarian is exhibited by making sure sufficient evidence is gathered to support the school vision, and ultimately the vision of the school library. School Libraries Work! (2008), ‘Research: the value of school libraries in learning’ (Department of Education and Training 2009) and School libraries make a difference to student achievement (2008) are examples of web sites that provide ample links to evidence and research.

Principal evaluation
Research findings by Everhart (2006) show principals use their own methods of information gathering to seek evidence that allows them to evaluate their teacher librarian and school library. ‘They are more likely to use their own observations, interviews, and data analysis than to rely on evidence provided to them by the school librarian, particularly in the form of reports’ (Everhart 2006, p.38). This report supports the visible demonstration of competence, commitment and integrity as holding influence within the school community. Observation is the prime source of data collection used by the principals. They can view the physical facilities of the school library, observe conversations between the teacher librarian, staff and students, note the teacher librarian’s behaviour in various situations, observe student use of the school library resources and services, listen to the comments from others (including the complaints) and note the ‘word-of-mouth’ referrals.

Rhetoric: the multi-sensory experience

Advocacy can be a highly contentious subject amongst teacher librarians when it is framed in terms of needing to mount a campaign to justify positions in schools. While this is an unfortunate reality in some schools, advocacy should not be thought of only in this kind of combative paradigm.

A teacher librarian advocate’s guide to building information literate school communities: ASLA advocacy kit 2006 (Australian School Library Association 2006) suggests a ‘Think, Feel, Do’ framework for advocacy activities. In the context of local, grass roots advocacy, what do we want principals, teachers, students and parents to think, feel and do in relation to school libraries and teacher librarians? As these are potentially important advocates for school libraries, what do we want them to say?

Advocacy works best when it is the by-product of quality work and programs being run by teacher librarians. That by-product is the thoughts, feelings, actions and conversations our principals and users have when they perceive the library and teacher librarian have connected with their agenda and needs.

Case Study: Concordia Lutheran College
Concordia Lutheran College is a Christian co-educational day and boarding school of the Lutheran Church of Australia for years K-12. In her role as teacher librarian at the secondary campus, Patricia Carmichael has pioneered the development of the school’s Independent Learning Centre (ILC). She states,

The teaching and learning undertaken in the Independent Learning Centre (ILC) as an integral part of the school library, offers unlimited opportunities to students as part of the secondary curriculum that reflects the change in pedagogy of the 21st century. This has resulted in a paradigm shift to a truly student centred approach to education (2009, p1).

This project is directed by the teacher librarian as Independent Learning Centre Manager and has grown to include nearly twenty other teachers and heads of department in its delivery. Embraced by the school principal, board and teachers, this program is now integral in curriculum delivery at the school, with all students undertaking a negotiated independent learning unit as a core elective.

What does the Concordia school community think and feel about the ILC project? What do they say? Mike Kaiser, Head of Concordia College, sees the program as being a key element in his vision of their school being a place where students are ‘challenged and excited by their learning experiences and feel encouraged and supported on their journey through secondary education’ (Kaiser 2009).

Carmichael’s research demonstrated that:
Students responded positively to the ILC program and both qualitative and quantitative results showed that on the whole students enjoyed themselves and gained skills and strategies for the future (2009, p13).

This is further supported through anecdotal feedback from students where they stated:

I have learnt that planning and managing my work and time is a good start to a good assignment.
I enjoyed being able to present my research and my topic to the class.
The power to manage your own time and learning is important because when you go to uni it will help with your organising and researching (2009, p14).

Furthermore, teachers have clearly expressed their support through explicit comments:
By providing a broad range of independent units, the ILC ensures that Concordia Lutheran College is offering students breadth, depth and flexibility to its students.
The skills taught in the ILC are utilised in other subject areas.
The time spent with each student enhances trust and respect for one another building constructive relationships (2009, p15).

It is clear that while advocacy was never central to the development and implementation of the ILC, it has proven to be a powerful by-product. This is further highlighted through recognition of the program outside the school. In 2008 the School Library Association of Queensland awarded Patricia Carmichael and Concordia a Certificate of Commendation in the Biennial Brian Bahnisch Award, stating that the program ‘exhibited significant leadership by the teacher-librarian, Patricia Carmichael, in working collaboratively with teachers and others in the school community. The project would appear to have a positive long-term impact on student learning and the team is to be congratulated on their collaborative approach to learning across all areas of the curriculum’ (SLAQ 2008).

The Queensland College of Teachers (2009) awarded Patricia a Teacher Research Grant. The advocacy affect continues to be extraordinary with the program being trialled internationally by Patrick County High School in the United States and a proposed trial involving Lutheran Education Queensland.

Case Study: Stanthorpe State High School
Stanthorpe State High School teacher librarian, Rob Moore, has created a very different program for his district’s educational community. Of Stanthorpe High’s 13 feeder schools, only two have a student population in excess of 100 (one state and one Catholic) and several are closer to 20 in total (inclusive of prep – year 7). This program recognises the culture shock that many students face when leaving the familiarity of these small primary schools to commence year 8 at a much bigger high school (with a student enrolment around 640). It is fundamentally grounded in a long term focus which sees the students return each year from prep to year 7, thus building a familiarity with both the campus and staff long before they enrol there.

The Bookfair Orientation Program provides key scaffolding for the Granite Belt Community of State Schools’ goal of a seamless continuum from prep to year 12. It annually offers students, teachers and parents from feeder primary schools an opportunity to engage with high school teachers, students and facilities in a fun and completely non-threatening environment. Since its inception in 2003, the program has effectively served to lay the foundations of a bridge between the small primary schools and the much bigger high school.

The school library and the bookfair provide the cornerstone from which the orientation program emanates, with three main sections co-hosted by the Drama, Science and Home Economics departments. The teacher librarian coordinates the event, dressing up in a thematically appropriate role. An emphasis on literacy skills and fostering a love of reading is central to the program.

While school library advocacy has never been central to the goals of this program, as with Patricia Carmichael’s experience at Concordia, it has been a significant by-product. This is clearly demonstrated through the feedback from teachers, students and principals involved in the program (Moore 2009, pp7-8):

This significant event provides literacy experiences for P-7 students from many schools across our cluster (and) gives students opportunities to: use the resources from a larger school; have additional transition experiences for year 7 pupils; integrate a variety of key learning areas. The positive feedback from students, staff and parents from across the 12 state primary schools within the Granite Belt has enhanced the already noteworthy reputation of Stanthorpe High and its library staff. (Andrew Helton, Principal, Greenlands SS)

My teaching colleague and I feel that this was a wonderful and valued learning experience for the students allowing them to visit the ‘big school’ that they will one day attend and to use the wonderful facilities the school has to offer. The students were also engaged in integrated activities that were age appropriate and well suited to their interests. (Kylie Farrell & Jane Johnson, Year 4/5 teachers, Stanthorpe State School)

Through the themed activities each year, we are able to introduce the notion of reading and following recipes to produce an edible snack, while health and nutrition are also covered. The bookfair program therefore plays a role in establishing these key concepts in our subject before students are even enrolled in our school. Students often reminisce about the fun they had in Home Ec when they came for bookfairs. They recognise and trust us and remember the safety and hygiene issues learnt during bookfair. Enrolments in our subject area are really strong beyond year 8. (Bobbie Moore, Home Economics teacher, Stanthorpe SHS & Ann Richardson, HOD Business & The Arts, Stanthorpe SHS)

Not only were we given the opportunity to perform several times to a live audience, we were also able to create our own short play from nothing but the theme, ‘Rocket into Reading’... it was a great creative outlet for ourselves and a thoroughly enjoyable experience for the primary school audience. (Tim Abbott & Matt Leigh, Stanthorpe SHS Senior Drama Students)

When surveyed recently, the 2009 Year 8 students’ data showed that:

89% strongly agreed/agreed that ‘the bookfair program was fun’.
76% strongly agreed/agreed that ‘the bookfair program helped me to know where things are at the high school’ (e.g. Library, Home Ec. Kitchens, Science labs).
91% strongly agreed/agreed that ‘all Granite Belt primary schoolers should participate in the Bookfair Orientation Program’ (Moore 2009, p7).

Like Concordia’s ILC project, Stanthorpe High’s Bookfair Orientation Program has been recognised beyond its own educational community, winning SLAQ’s 2008 Biennial Brian Bahnisch Award and an Education Queensland Regional Showcase09 Award for Excellence in the Middle Phase of Learning. The project has been shortlisted with eight other Queensland schools for the State Finals where the winner will receive $25000.

As both of these case studies clearly demonstrate, an important paradigm shift occurs when the focus of advocacy is changed from being a combative survival campaign to the by-product of effective engagement by the teacher librarian with their educational community. The thoughts, feelings and actions of staff, students and administrators as they engage with their library and teacher librarian become the most powerful form of advocacy. Their personal and professional conversations regarding their experiences are ultimately of much greater value than an explicit advocacy campaign or library report.


Advocacy is the responsibility of every person involved in developing an information literate school community. For any advocacy campaign to be successful it is necessary that the process is planned by identifying the target audience, specific content (the key message) and the most effective method of delivery. School library services, programs and activities based on the identified needs of the school community are highly effective, visible and contribute significantly to the teaching and learning program.

Who do you consider to be the target audience for your school community? What is the key message and crucial information you wish to communicate to these groups? What is it you want them to think, feel and do? What is the best method of communication available to make sure your audience does actually read/see/view your message?


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Carmichael, P 2009 ‘The Pedagogy of the Heart and the Mind - Cultivating Curiosity and a Love of Learning, Part 2’, School Library Media Activities Monthly, Vol. 25, No. 6, pp. 55-58, Feb 2009.

© 2009, Australian School Library Association Inc., and therein by its authors.

Last updated: 12/4/2018 3:37:55 PM