February 16, 2018

Librarian of the Year 2008: New Jersey State Librarian Norma Blake

By John N. Berry III — Library Journal, 01/15/2008

You hear it from the beaches and pine forests in the southern end of the state to the Delaware Water Gap in the northwest corner. Librarians and officials in education and government all recount the leadership and creativity brought to library service in New Jersey by State Librarian Norma Blake. She has sparked proactive, collaborative initiatives that have taken libraries of all types “out of their comfort zone,” as she puts it, and into working partnerships and relationships with educational and corporate institutions as well as the state’s economic development and commercial players, from small businesses to the huge biotech industry.

Under Blake, the New Jersey State Library (NJSL) supports everyone in New Jersey with a new kind of library service while it works to put the state’s libraries into the trenches in the highly competitive battles to bring jobs and business to the Garden State. NJSL also helps workers in the state, including those in libraries, grow and develop their expertise and talents for a more demanding future.

Rarely has LJ been blitzed with as much impressive evidence of the contribution of one librarian to innovation that converts formerly skeptical citizens, politicians, and other public servants to the view that strong libraries are central to the future of their states. For that leadership and more, Norma Blake has been chosen LJ‘s 2008 Librarian of the Year.

Access to knowledge

A glowing example, the New Jersey Knowledge Initiative (NJKI) is one of Blake’s proudest achievements. It created an information infrastructure for small business. Blake attended sessions of the Einstein’s Alley initiative, started by Rep. Rush Holt, to bring pharmaceutical and other smaller biotech firms to his district in central New Jersey. Blake realized they needed an “information infrastructure” and pointed out that libraries can and do provide it. She pushed for resources to create it and conducted an NJSL online survey of businesses, their statewide organizations, and every college and university to identify the databases they would need. The survey found that access to such information services would help companies decide to locate in the state. Blake took the results to state agencies like the Economic Development Authority (EDA), Department of Commerce, Small Business Development Centers, and Incubator Centers (seven sites where very small businesses can spend their first year using common meeting rooms, secretarial pools, etc.). The state Commission on Science and Technology approved the plan.

Blake stretched the $6 million from the legislature for NJKI to cover two years. NJSL negotiated licenses for a dozen high-end databases specializing in time-embargoed materials in science, technology, medicine, and business and made them available at every college and university, including every county college, and to 350 small businesses, especially those served by the incubators and EDA.

More than ten million searches were conducted in the program’s first 18 months. Their retail cost would have been $74.5 million. “We’re saving millions for people, companies, and organizations,” Blake says, proudly reporting that NJSL won the national Council of State Governments 2007 Innovations Award for NJKI. When asked how NJSL convinced vendors to let them have the licenses, Blake replies, “We told them NJKI would reach a market that they would never get to any other way.” Users were mostly firms with 50 or fewer employees that could never afford such services. Before NJKI, one user had to drive hours to get database access. With entry from his desktop, he won a large federal grant and, ultimately, invented a new insulin pump.

Blake works to continue NJKI funding and got $2 million more for FY08. She envisions joining others to develop a Mid-Atlantic or East Coast initiative.

Besides NJKI, using NJSL’s JerseyClicks, a web portal that delivers federated searching of 27 databases to homes, schools, offices, and libraries, saved taxpayers $26 million.

Blake’s leadership also helped NJSL build JerseyConnect, an expansion of an existing program to bring low-cost Internet access and related services to public libraries. Launched in 2006, it serves over 320 libraries. Verizon donated $1.7 million worth of equipment to pull it off.

For these efforts, NJSL was one of five U.S. libraries honored for outstanding YouTube library-related video production at the 2007 Computers in Libraries Conference new InfoTubey Awards. NJSL technology director Rob Zangara received a Leadership Award for his work on JerseyConnect.

Recognize good ideas

Featured on New Jersey governor Jon Corzine’s web page, another NJSL initiative is QandANJ, a virtual 24/7 information system through which librarians answer inquiries from across the state in real time. Karen Hyman, director of the South Jersey Regional Library Cooperative, came up with the idea and was about to start the program in her region.

“One of the most important things a state librarian must be is someone who knows a good idea when they see one,” says Blake. “I thought Karen [had] a very good one that would have statewide impact, so we came up with financial support to take that system statewide.” It is clearly a case of mutual admiration. “It has really been a golden age for all of us,” says Hyman, referring to library service after Blake’s arrival.

“When I first came into the state library, I wanted to tap the talents of the four regional library directors,” says Blake, who is quick to recognize and employ their talents. In addition to Hyman, Blake praises and was praised by Joanne Roukens of the Highlands Regional Library Cooperative, Cheryl O’Connor of INFOLINK (the Eastern New Jersey Library Cooperative), and Connie Paul at the Central Jersey Regional Library Cooperative.

“One of the NJLA Emerging Leaders asked me why so many good things happening in librarianship are coming from New Jersey,” says Paul. “I replied that it started with Norma Blake becoming state librarian seven years ago.”

The Super Librarian

Blake’s leadership triggered the state’s first library marketing campaign, featuring some 2200 creative TV commercial airings, a Super Librarian figure, and an online store, aided by a grant from the H.W. Wilson Foundation.

“We wanted the Super Librarian image to help make tweens and teens comfortable with libraries and librarians. A little humor and an image with a familiar comic book look would be a fun way to introduce libraries to that group,” Blake says with pride. “It captured imaginations around the globe. People from Australia called for permission to use the image, and we have a whole line of online products. More important, we’ve reached teens through billboards and other media. Our video contest and our comic book contest are both going on right now. Kids can go online to view the videos and comic books to choose their favorites.”

Another notable NJSL marketing effort is the “Three Reasons” campaign. It got citizens to state on video three reasons they like or need the library, and the results were used for some of NJSL’s most effective promotions.

This diverse marketing effort is clearly a factor in the state’s circulation of over 52 million items from public libraries last year, an increase of about one million; some 42 million people went to public libraries, a million more than the year before.

Diversity and development

Two diversity recruitment grants NJSL won from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) enable workers in urban libraries to get associate, bachelor’s, or master’s degrees. The second grant allowed those who earned bachelor’s degrees to go on for a master’s, so they could continue their work in city libraries as degreed librarians. The program made laptops available to those who didn’t have home computers and paid for staff coverage at the libraries when employees were at school or studying. “We’ve tried to devise a system of leadership growth at different levels in New Jersey,” says Blake. In addition to the “Emerging Leaders” program for new librarians (a concept picked up by the American Library Association nationally), NJSL added a Leadership Academy for “middle managers who want to take the next step.” A new segment of the academy aimed at seasoned librarians includes succession planning, reenergizing, and much more. Paul got NJSL to tie the leadership opportunities to mentors and to participation in NJLA. Everyone in the program has a personal mentor and must get involved in NJLA.

Managing the politics

“My job is to tell government my opinion on legislation,” says Blake, “and I can explain to the library community what government is thinking. I am required to monitor compliance with laws and to work on draft legislation,” she says, quickly explaining that her role also puts limitations on her political activity.

Blake’s political partner is Pat Tumulty, NJLA’s executive director. “She can do things at the legislative level that I can’t do, even though I have more leeway than a lot of state librarians to work with the legislature. Pat can speak and write more openly about library issues. She is the one who can better rally the troops,” explains Blake.

NJSL is the only state library in the nation attached to a higher education institution. It is affiliated with Thomas Edison State College, Trenton, and Blake reports directly to its president, George A. Pruitt. The relationship is a natural fit, since Edison focuses on adult learners and operates both distance ed programs and learning assessment centers. The NJSL-Edison arrangement, begun in 1996, “has absolutely changed things in a beneficial way,” Blake says. Blake admires and tries to emulate both the style and substance of Pruitt.

Finding funding

During Blake’s entire time at NJSL, New Jersey officials have struggled with rising costs and shrinking revenues. She has had to find inventive ways to allocate NJSL resources from grants and the state and raise income from other sources. The state contribution to public library funding, no more than four percent, has been stagnant for a number of years. “We refined and refined and refined what we were doing,” says Blake. “We stretched the money as far as we could. We finally got a $900,000 increase for the operation of the state library, but that has been slowly eroded because of the state’s revenue difficulties.”

To augment state funds and the many grants from IMLS and others, NJSL has reached out to dozens of agencies and organizations. A grant of $34,000 from WebJunction went for Spanish outreach. Another $200,000 came from the Gates Foundation for computer security, while Verizon kicked in $56,000 for literacy. Barnes & Noble came up with $8000 for NJSL’s statewide summer reading program, and $21,000 from the deForest Trust helped acquire NJSL’s literacy van. A $463,000 IMLS grant helped digitize New Jersey historical resources in partnership with academic and historical organizations. One thousand digital objects have been added to the web site on immigration.

NJSL’s $45 million library construction program for 68 libraries actually resulted in $220 million in economic development statewide. Recognizing the budget struggles of most communities, NJSL created a program called “Trading Spaces” to find ways to renovate an old library building with very little money. One library in South Jersey was changed so much with only $45,000 that its use and circulation doubled. Upgrades include a browsers’ rack, an Internet café, floaters on the floor, and book dumps for all the returns. The latest is a space designed for work with older people in the Old Bridge Public Library, offering technology geared to their needs.

Blake’s local roots

All of Blake’s education and career have taken place in the Garden State, and she came up through the library ranks. With a BA in English and reading from Montclair State University, Blake taught in adult education and in junior high school. She then earned her MLIS at Rutgers. She’s worked in libraries of every size, from the small public library in West Deptford to directorships in South River, Gloucester County, and Burlington County Library System, the largest county in the state.

“In going to the state library, I resolved to try to make sure that whatever we did had statewide impact…. If we helped one place do a pilot, we expected it to be widely viewed and replicated in other places,” says Blake.

Future libraries

NJSL helped host a recent Mid-Atlantic Library Futures Conference to which librarians from New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania came to hear noted anthropologists, demographers, futurists, and librarians.

That experience inspired Blake to set up a 50-member Blue Ribbon Task Force to develop not only innovative ideas but also the plans for their implementation. After six months, the task force will tell Blake what the state library should do for the future of libraries. Blake says they have already discussed a kind of technology garage where people could go to see new technology demonstrated.

“I see libraries as community centers, but I think we must also show what librarians can do out in the social networking environment,” says Blake. “People will be needed who can use technology in a more social context, as teachers and guides.”

And she sees a changing role for brick-and-mortar libraries. “They will be a place both to employ and learn the technology, a place to pull out the laptops, a place for group meetings, with a multipurpose room and a conferencing center,” Blake continues, warming to the ideas. “We’ll be able to hold meetings online with programming from all over the world. It will change the design of library buildings.” Blake’s thoughts resonate with the spirit that has made her such a dynamic force.

Summing up how Blake operates at NJSL, “I believe in the Wayne Gretzky theory of management,” she concludes, quoting the hockey star: “Skate where the puck is going, not where it has been.”

Author Information
John N. Berry III is Editor-at-Large, LJ