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Talking with a library lobbyist about “selling the library”

Jason Kramer, New York State Higher Education Initiative Chrysanne Lowe, Corporate Brand Elsevier | Aug 01, 2008

Earlier this year, I had the great pleasure of meeting Jason Kramer, the executive director for the New York State Higher Education Initiative, an association of the state's public and private academic and research libraries. Jason brings a skillset not often taught in library school and a practical perspective on growing the impact and influence of libraries in today’s society.

— Chrysanne Lowe, Vice President, Global Customer Marketing, Elsevier, San Diego, CA, USA


Chrysanne Lowe: Jason, please tell us a bit about your background.
Jason Kramer: Let me start by telling you what isn’t in my background. I am not a librarian, researcher or businessman. My background is in politics. I’ve had a few policy research and management positions, but my real experience is in government relations, public affairs and political communications

In terms of practical experience, what does that mean?
I have worked on and run many campaigns. I have lobbied legislators; worked with the media; courted donors; written speeches; created TV, radio and print ads; and so on. All of this is a fancy way of saying I try to influence people. I try to sell them something, like an idea, a piece of legislation or a candidate.

And what are you selling today?
I “sell” libraries to the state government. More specifically, I work to inform education policy makers about the critical role of academic and research libraries to academic enterprise, research and development and our state economy.

In 2007, you became the NYSHEI executive director. Please can you give us an idea of how your role fits into NYSHEI's work?
Founded in 2002, the New York State Higher Education Initiative (NYSHEI) is an association of public and private academic and research libraries in New York. Among our 130+ members are nine ARL institutions. At least in New York, professional advocacy for academic and research libraries is a very new idea. Hiring someone like me is an admission that academic and research libraries must be “sold.” Hiring a professional like me demonstrates the determination of NYSHEI libraries to make certain that key off-campus decision makers understand the value of academic and research libraries — and support them.

Yours sounds like a challenging role.
Selling libraries is both easy and problematic. It is easy in the sense that libraries have no natural predators. No one hates libraries. But while academic libraries have no passionate enemies, too many libraries have cultivated no passionate allies. When I first visited legislative leaders and other key policy makers, I was stunned to learn these people never heard from academic libraries, did not quite know what they were and consequently never thought about academic libraries, including at budget time.

“Achieving your self-interest is often a matter of helping someone else achieve their self-interest.”

Out of sight is out of mind.
Yes. In nearly every way, NYSHEI is starting from scratch. A culture shift was needed, in New York academic libraries and at the state’s capital.

How so?
In the political world you are in ascendancy or decline. Competition is part of life. Winning voters is like winning customers or retaining patrons. Every day you must work to earn them and keep them. The moment you stop, someone else will come along to woo them.

How have librarians reacted to this approach?
Most librarians don’t view the world in this way. Perpetual competition is not in their DNA. The library is synonymous with stability and longevity. But born from this sense of institution, there‘s a risk that complacency can set in. Libraries should not wait for students and faculty — their customers — to come to them and they cannot wait for campus and state decision makers to support them.

What’s the result of this complacency?
In 1996, the New York state government appropriated US $1.8 million to support academic libraries. In 2007, the state increased its appropriation to academic libraries from the previous year. The result was a return to $1.8 million. Over those intervening 10 years, costs continued to go up while state support was stagnant or shrinking. This year, as last year, the governor again proposed a cut in funding for academic libraries. What happens is that the libraries find themselves increasingly stressed to acquire the resources needed to fulfill their mission.

So what are you and NYSHEI doing about all this?
NYSHEI’s approach is to adopt the notion of libraries as a means to an end, not the end itself. Libraries are wonderful. Everyone likes them, but so what? What good is that in a competitive world of finite budget dollars with hundreds of lobbyists, thousands of organizations and millions of political dollars vying for limited attention? If librarians and their corporate partners want to see library budgets grow, they must identify who can make that happen. Then identify what these decision makers’ interests are, and find a way to explain to these decision makers that their needs and libraries’ needs are one and the same.

How are you applying these ideas?
The crook Willy Sutton was asked why he robbed banks. He replied, “Because that is where the money is.” In New York, the state budget is growing to $127 billion. So, in the spirit of Willy Sutton, NYSHEI has turned its eyes to the New York state government. Doing so, we don’t talk about “library things.” No one cares about collection size or FTEs or whatever. In the political world, folks do not care about libraries. Instead they care about things like jobs. Jobs support families and communities and create tax revenue. Jobs are what voters want and the voter is the decision maker for the politician.

How is NYSHEI talking about libraries and jobs?
We speak of libraries as not holding books and periodicals, but information resources. We’re cultivating the idea of libraries as a vital information infrastructure, as necessary for economic advances as power utilities are for manufacturing. Information resources are the raw materials of research. We talk about creating a COMMUNITY CONNECTIONS statewide information infrastructure which will power innovation and lead to patents and licenses, revenue and jobs. We argue that our information infrastructure will support faculty research, thus making recruitment of top-shelf talent more likely. This is not revolutionary thinking. But it needs to be spelled out. Academic and research libraries connect campus and state decision makers to the things they want. We are the means to their end, and therefore worth an investment.

Your work may not be revolutionary, but it is impressive. I hope Elsevier can help you in this endeavor.
We at NYSHEI are thankful to have partners like Elsevier to face this challenge with. Everyone has an interest — NYSHEI, the state government, campus presidents, Elsevier and other publishers, and librarians and researchers. Achieving your self-interest is often a matter of helping someone else achieve their self-interest.

NYSHEI Website