Libraries have no natural predators. Believe me. Having worked in partisan politics and lobbied on contentious issues, I know what it means to have opponents. Since I started lobbying for libraries no one has called me names, hung up on me, or slammed a door in my face.
At first, I reveled in the change. I used to have people argue with me every day—and those were the good days. The bad days involved yelling and fingers poked into my chest. The worst days involved accusations of nefarious motives. Not with libraries. Now I can walk into the office of any elected official and be greeted by a pleasant smile.
Everyone likes libraries. Everyone has a nice story to tell about their hometown library. Everyone has a family member that works in a library. Just talking about libraries seems to make people feel warm and fuzzy. Therein lay the problem.
In the highly competitive and aggressive world of politics, no enemies usually means no allies. In my experience elected officials (and staff) have nice feelings about libraries, not strong feelings. As a result libraries, politically, suffer from benign neglect. The warriors don’t go where there is no war.
Like everything else, politics runs on currency. In the Capitol, the preferred currency is money or votes. That translates to campaign donations and the ability to mobilize reliable voters. Some groups, like a big labor union, have both. Libraries and library groups have neither dollars to dole out nor the ability to sway significant numbers of voters. To emphasize the depth of the problem, consider your own voting behavior.
As a reader of Library Journal, you are a committed and informed information professional—a front-line library partisan. How often do you base your vote primarily on a candidate’s “library positions?” I wager never. Like everyone else, how you formulate your vote is predictably biased by demographic identifications and determined by hot-button issues. Taxes, gun rights, gay rights, abortion, and so on; these are the things that sway voters, and thus motivate decision makers.
Do not despair. So what if the library is not a thing that pushes opinion? The library is not a thing at all. The library is tool. Therein lay the solution.
A hammer is a tool, and no one has a strong feeling about hammers. There is no pro-hammer lobby or an anti-hammer coalition. Yet we need hammers. Hammers mean construction of homes and business. Hammers mean economic growth. It is the same with libraries. As we argue at the New York State Higher Education Initiative (NYSHEI), libraries are the information infrastructure of the modern world. This information infrastructure is correctly understood as a utility, and as necessary as transportation networks and power grids to the economy.
The lesson is elementary, but always worth a review. Academic and research libraries make innovation possible. These libraries provide the raw material—information—that is needed to fuel researchers, incubators, and entrepreneurs. The library is not an end in itself, it is a means to an end.
I once received an email from the New York Governor’s director of higher education policy. Responding to me, he wrote, “I got it. Whatever the question is, the answer is the library.” He was right.
If the issue was grant money won by public colleges, the answer was the library. Need to encourage public-private partnerships and start-up companies? The library can help. Want to lower the cost of business for job creating entrepreneurs? Give them access to information. Improve faculty recruitment and academic standing? Improve the library. Want to cultivate jobs, improve workers skills, or help someone find a job? There is the library for that. In each case, as soon as a policy issue emerged, I quickly demonstrated that supporting the library was important to achieving the goal.
This approach, of course, does not guarantee success every time. What it does is ensure that libraries are in the conversation. After a while, the decision makers start to think about libraries as an answer on their own. Each successive time the approach is easier, and the probability for victory increases.
Libraries may not excite partisans to action, but that does not mean that libraries cannot be valued partners. Libraries are, and should be, the allies that others need to achieve their goals. When we help them win, we win too.
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.