September 15, 2014

Why Advocate for Libraries? | Advocate’s Corner

Humbled by the opportunity to contribute to the esteemed Library Journal, I hope I can lend some lessons from my twenty-plus years of politics to the cause of “selling the library.”  Before taking up that challenge of how to advocate, I think it important to say a few words about why we need to advocate.

Apply a two question test to determine if you need to advocate: is someone making decisions that affect you?  If not, could they?  Answering yes to either question means that you need to make your case.

There is no way to avoid the fact that we live in a competitive world. Advocacy—and its reviled but misunderstood cousin, lobbying—is natural and necessary activity that most people do every day. We carefully write resumes and do research before applying for a job. The possibility of a finding a significant other is why many people shower and brush their hair. We pitch the benefits of a certain restaurant, or movie, when making plans when friends. Like it or not, each of us is constantly selling something. Why then would you think your profession is exempt from this reality?

We need not review the incredible moment of change that the world of information is facing. Technology, media, expectations, and alternatives are each morphing daily into something new. If we find this daunting, consider the confusion facing most users. These users are often in a position to influence the library. That is why we must advocate.

Five years ago, when I first began representing New York’s public and private academic and research libraries, I had an enlightening conservation with a director of a mid-sized college. He did not believe that advocacy was appropriate. As we walked across campus I asked him, “who is your decision maker?”

Try to imagine the incredulous look on his face as he scoffed that he was the DIRECTOR of the library, therefore he was the decision maker. He was wrong. He had a President and Provost and bevy of budget officers. He has productive and connected faculty members. He has competing publishers, active student groups, aggressive staff members, and a variety of other political, fiscal, and social campus challenges. His situation is not unique, but he had never framed the issues in this way. Other people were making decisions, or could make decisions, that affected his life.

The first and most essential task in advocacy is identifying and prioritizing the “decision makers.”

Chances are, you will never command the resources and expertise that McDonald’s or Coca-Cola can apply to a marketing campaign. Overwhelming advertising is not an option, so we must be smart, almost surgical in our approach. Hence the hierarchical focus on decision makers.

Advocacy work is always imprecise, and serendipity looms larger than science in determining effectiveness, but you can improve your odds with careful consideration of the decision makers.

Managing my first political campaign provided a valuable lesson that applies to all my efforts. The campaign had a finite time period to achieve success, and a shortage of dollars. The candidate was a good one, but the district sprawled out over multiple counties with an excess of 125,000 voters. Of course, there was an opponent, making the whole thing a zero-sum proposition.

Calmer minds can deduce that the task need not be so intimidating. For starters, the campaign did not need to win all voters, or even half. To use round numbers, of the 125,000 eligible, less were registered to vote, and only 30,000 were likely to vote. So already, the election day goal was down to 15,000 plus one. Of course, very many of those voters have already made up their mind based mostly on party identification—this is why Presidential candidates spend more time in places like Ohio than in New York. As the numbers broke down, we were able to target about two thousand households. The costs of campaign mailings, and the ability to hone a specific message, got much more reasonable.

While we ran a campaign with tactical focus, the opponent took the shotgun approach and flooded the air waves, bought up all the billboards, and dominated newspaper advertising. In the end, he spent twice as much money, while we won nearly seventy percent of the vote.

Library advocacy is not without its unique challenges, but the lessons of campaigns and lobbying, of advertising and marketing, all apply.  I appreciate this opportunity to bring this consversation to the pages of Library Journal, and look forward to exploring library advocacy with you.

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 Why Advocate for Libraries? | Advocates Corner

Jason Kramer is the Executive Director and principle lobbyist for the New York State Higher Education Initiative (NYSHEI), an association of the state’s public and private academic and research libraries. Prior to joining NYSHEI, Mr. Kramer has held various positions in politics, communications, and government relations.

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