October 30, 2014

The Downside of Being Universally Liked | Advocate’s Corner

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.

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 The Downside of Being Universally Liked | Advocates CornerJason 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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Comments

  1. “How often do you base your vote primarily on a candidate’s “library positions?” I wager never.”

    It depends on what level of politics they are at. When it comes to local and even state politics my vote is heavily swayed by their position on libraries. Especially if I feel they are anti-library in terms of funding, etc. Considering my job depends on continued funding locally it has a large effect.

  2. Well said. Libraries commonly referred to as the “soft service” need to be more agressive in advocating to its public that we are an essential community service. Advocate, educate and prove our worth not just to the citizens of our community but to the American public as a whole. We’re worth, let’s spread the word.
    Michael

  3. I love this – especially this quote: Whatever the question is, the answer is the library. It is So true. I’ve worked at libraries, my mom and 2 aunts were librarians, my granny – an archivist.

    I also think it helps that quote in today’s rapidly changing world, in that libraries are flexible and adapting to today’s needs – online activities, ebooks, offering computer usage, etc.

  4. Cameron Tuai says:

    Great point. To often we forget that libraries have a specific ideology associated with intellectual freedom and civic discourse. While those in the civil majority may view these ideals as a “warm and fuzzy,” for those in marginalized communities, these ideals represent a scarce and valuable tool. So as you suggest, libraries need to identify and prioritize, at the expense of others the marginalized communities that represent the “libraries public” or our constituents.

  5. Melissa says:

    Very well said.

    I do vote solely on where my local politicians hold the library in their hearts. It means a lot to me to actually see them at library programs, borrowing items and attending our many galas because we still only make up less than one per cent of our municipal budget. And, I never miss an election.

    Local politicians and policy makers make very serious decisions about their city or town’s library budget based on the idea that the library’s likability will ensure donations and grants. Unfortunately for library users, we librarians and our boards fall right into line with this thinking. We have come to measure the success of a library board and/or director on the outcomes of fundraising. Rightly so we should be proud of winning a grant to promote early literacy or courting the right donor who contributes enough money to have his name etched on a doorway. It seems that libraries have come to think that innovative library programs or needed infrastructure work can only be financed by fundraised dollars. We end up competing with ourselves and other nonprofits for valuable grants and generous donors. Instead, we should begin the process of organizing and educating our local leaders (not just the politicians) about the economic, social and educational value of open public libraries. Imagine what a municipal library funded at its full budgetary need would accomplish. We would be able to grow our libraries from a sustained foundation and infrastructure. Our directors would not be so consumed with chasing funders. They could actually implement all of those idealistic and innovative five year strategy plans (we all have them!) and our boards would help make the vision of our institutions into transformative engines for our communities into a reality.

  6. Bob Bobberson says:

    You lost me at “Libraries have no natural predators.” I’m in a very red state in a very Tea-Party loving area. I’ve had it recommended to the branch manager — while I and other employees were present — that all but the manager should be fired and replaced with volunteers. We’ve had the funding cut, libraries declared useless since “everyone can afford books” etc. The buildings are hated by the rich white Republicans and the employees are treated horribly by the same.

    Not all patrons are like this, but I definitely wouldn’t say I haven’t dealt with a lot of bile for being in my profession and for being in a building that “wastes taxes” by providing services — especially those for the poor and ESL individuals.

    And no, my system doesn’t self-advocate either.

    • Wendy McLeod says:

      I agree with Bob Bobberson. I guess, depending on where you are and who you are talking about, there is an active opposition to libraries. It is in relationship to a reprioritizing of tax dollars and also, I have found, in the growing ideology of obsoleteness which can typically go hand-in-hand but not always.

      I understand (being a library employee and user) the metaphor of a libraries as ‘hammers’ but by a growing sec of society we tend to be looked at more like Paul Bunyan or John Henry and being replaced out but other ways of working things out. People may (or may not) have fond memories but still hold a nostalgic perception which is frozen in a time before technology. Libraries in their mind are not something that is relevant or compatible to their current needs and, even if they may be, it is in a very literal remote way via their computer. Our Paul Bunyan’s and John Henry’s are losing to the forest to something else.

      Still, if the forest is the communities we serve, don’t they still need to go somewhere, see new things and meet new people? Not everyone gets to have the newfangled thing-a-ma-jig to cut and grind all their needs and wants down to usable form and those who do, don’t always intuitively know how to use them without a face to face guide.

      Not everyone believes that funding for such services is a good use tax or even donation dollars. They follow a more survival of the fittest mentality that screams ‘the information is in the internet, find it yourself or die’. But how will that kind of thinking serve our community as a whole.
      We have an opposition, a strong opposition and it will wear down our hammers slowly and quietly like wind on rock and leaving our communities to a biting wasteland if we’re not mindful.

    • Several years ago in my state (WA), the Democrat governor cut all funding for the Washington Talking Book and Braille library, the only statewide source of books and other materials for individuals who are blind or visually impaired, thus essentially ending services to all WA residents with print disabilites.

      It was only thanks to a Republican, Secretary of State Sam Reed, that this service was retained (incorporated into the State Library system) so that people who had print disabilities wouldn’t be denied equal access to library services.

      More recently, there was the big slashing of library funding (specifically the LSTA, Laura Bush’s 21st Century Librarian Program, and the IMLS ) by the current administration just a couple of years ago.

      A person’s political party isn’t an automatic indication of how much they value libraries, just in case anyone mistakenly thought it was.

  7. Great article. I try to teach librarians how to prove their value, and I’ll be referring to this.

    It’s just not enough to say “We have storytimes for kids and computer classes for seniors.” Lawmakers don’t see those things as vital. We need to arm every library worker and advocate with the messages (and the confidence to share the message) that libraries are at the center of the information age. They’re more than “warm and fuzzy” — they’re essential.

  8. Stephanie says:

    One line in the article to which no one has yet referred is “The warriors don’t go where there is no war.” Love it – and to me, that says that we need to advocate so that people are aware of the ‘war’. Because there is one, all right. With a thousand (budget) cuts, there’s a war being waged on education, and on people’s ability to understand information and to be discerning about the sources of information they utilize.

  9. I am gratified that this post struck a nerve on at least a few people. I want to make a general response to a few points.

    1) Identifying the problem necessarily precedes finding a solution. I maintain that rather than “predators” most libraries are beset by indifference and erosion.
    2) Exercise caution in classifying critics as enemies. Often, those who challenge most pointedly can be among your greatest allies.
    3) Avoid partisanship in your advocacy. While most librarians (demographically speaking) skew strongly to the Left, advancing or defending party lines does not help library advocacy. As an anecdote, here in New York (the bluest of the blue states) the #1 library advocate in the state legislature is a conservative Republican. This has been true for the past 20 years.

    Thanks for reading and responding to my column. I always appreciate the debate.