The Digital 'Sizzle'
When Computers in Libraries editor Kathy Dempsey
offered me the job of writing the Building Digital Libraries
column, I had two immediate concerns. First, I'm a Web
administrator and developer, but not a programmer. I'm
Second, I'm more interested in how people stumble around
with new technology platforms than I am in new products.
When asked if these biases were issues, Kathy's reply
was, "Go for it!" But the fact of the matter was that
I had inwardly said "Yes" the moment the offer arrived.
Pass up a soapbox? Me? Members of the San Francisco Bay
Region chapter of the Special Libraries Association would
beg to differ. What's more, funding and collections,
the theme of this issue, is a good topic to take up by
way of introduction.
Attendees of the Internet Librarian and Internet Librarian International
conferences have often heard me talk about "strategic thinking," whether
the subject of my presentation was portals, hosting digital collections,
or multi-disciplinary searching. I have strong feelings about the library
profession's successes and failures in proving its relevance, and my
own career path is an interesting case study in getting (and keeping)
money. Rather than focusing on nuts and bolts of grantmaking or fundraising,
I'm going to explore what attributes distinguish effective fiscal managers,
as well as some valuable tools at our disposal. I'm also going to explore
some of the fundraising "sizzle" that lies beneath the digital library
paradigm, and throw in a few strategic successes (and flops) of my own.
Exploit Past Experience
A lot of librarians are second-career professionals, and I'm no exception.
I was in business before joining the profession. My first career, nonprofit
bookselling, was a good foundation for librarianship. Businesses require
balance sheets, profit/
loss statements, presentations to trustees, analyses of industry trends, and
sales patterns. Bookselling as a profession has faced continuous change, including
many rumors of its imminent demise (at least in the shadow of national chains).
Hmmm: continuous change ... sound familiar? How odd to think that launching
a library career brought me once again to that familiar ground of constant
change and creative crises of professional identity.
But there's one huge difference between what I recall from bookselling
and what I've seen at work in libraries. Digital librarians have done
remarkably well in facing continuous change. Our most vocal champions
can trounce competing ideologues in open debate, and wonder of wonders,
library construction at colleges and universities is booming. That goes
for digital library construction, too.
While the details of our fiscal lives vary depending on our environments,
I think it's possible to make a few conclusions about what works and
what doesn't in funding cycles. Moreover, I believe it's possible to
improve our funding prospects by focusing on strategy, whether "funding" means
state budgets, corporate budgets, or fundraising. That means making use
of your entire career experience with organizations and politics when
forming a budget strategy.
Three Traits That Really Make a Difference
Digital library development is at its heart an entrepreneurial (or
intrapreneurial) challenge. I've found that effective entrepreneurs share
three traits, regardless of whether they have to deal with civic leaders,
deans, or executives. First, they have a bias for action, instead of
waiting for things to just happen. Second, they study both industries
and trends, at the local and "big picture" levels. No matter how odd
or obscure the forces, they find patterns and form response strategies,
forming alliances for mutual benefit as they go. Third, they're not afraid
to step forward with a vision and make the case.
The good news is that there are many librarians who have these traits.
They're the ones we think of when we talk about "moving up the value
chain," "reinventing the profession," and so on. What's less obvious,
though, is the fact that most of us practice these three traits more
than we realize. It takes brains to do reference, content development,
and information architecture; what you have to do is apply the same brainpower
to organizational politics and the funding process, whatever that may
be at the local level of your workplace.
What applies to the library as a whole is doubly true for digital libraries.
The digital libraries we build have become our most visible outward faces.
And in order to build them, the leaders in their development have learned
that "You gotta have friends." Collaboration and coalition building are
all-important, and the technologies we use require serious partnerships
with several kinds of colleagues. Fortunately, we're more adept at relationship
management than many other professionals, and relationship management
forms the basis of gaining and keeping the funding you need.
Tell a Sizzling Story
If you don't have friends, you can make them by "telling the story" of
your library's mission. It may take a while, but it's well worth the
effort. Digital libraries depend on steady funding and strong partners.
In order to engage stakeholders, you need to interest them in what you
do. Fortunately, most library schools have a high-tech, cutting-edge
course that explores the latest innovation in human and machine interaction:
For fundraising and for budget battles, digital librarians need to
tell a story that engages everyone. Indeed, professional fundraisers
know the value of storytelling, which is more an art than a science.
Years ago, I volunteered to help a friend raise funds for the Maui Arts
and Cultural Center, a $35 million project. My role was to handle prospect
research on some major Hawaii-based corporations that had not yet stepped
up to the plate. As we were preparing for a major "Ask"that's a
direct request for a seven-figure gift in this caseone of the trustees
said, "Remember, you sell the 'sizzle,' not the steak."
Engaging the audience is a lesson every librarian learned in storytelling
class. It's a "killer app" for digital librarians who know how to transfer
storytelling skills to where they're needed the mostthe funding
process. The digital "sizzle" is a tremendously exciting vehicle to engage
cynical or disinterested leaders in the tale of the digital library's
evolution. It's not dull, it's not boring, but all too often we miss
the storytelling mark trying to tell someone what the Dublin Core Metadata
standard is. Library collections touch hearts and minds, over and over
again. They are also expensive, and they depend on the kindness of both
friends and strangers.
Online Snake Oil
Sometimes the most mundane aspects of our jobs yield jewels of political
advantage. I've been a librarian for 16 years now, and it's hard to keep
track of all the golden opportunities that digital librarianship has
created (even before we called it that). Here's one from the Stone Age
that illustrates how strategy can bring a budget boost.
Remember when "online" meant LexisNexis, Dialog, Orbit, and STN? I
was a private law librarian at the time. When I joined the law offices
of Epstein, Becker, Stromberg and Green in San Francisco, I discovered
that the firm had not been charging its clients for online searching.
I started billing clients for my research, and three things happened.
The firm started billing my time at the same rate as first-year attorneys,
$115 per hour in 1989. Second, my library budget tripled, and they tacked
on professional travel funding.Third, I started attending the attorney
meetings, where I learned firsthand about the firm's practice. In short,
they took me seriously. The crux of what happened was that I told the
firm a story: "Hey! You gotta research problem? I can help, and we can
bill the client." The story matched the audience, the "hook" was new
billing income, and the online library came to life.
Fast forward to the "first wave" of really big library Web development,
which I define as 199596. We were all getting used to the Web,
especially in academic libraries like those here at the University of
CaliforniaBerkeley. Web traffic was growing fast, "real" content
like licensed databases ruled on campus, and people were, as usual, two
steps behind the library profession in recognizing the potential. The
Institute of Industrial Relations Library (where I worked then and still
do) had assumed oversight of the Webbecause no other staff had learned
how to code HTML. But even more interesting: No one had yet realized
that the Web could be a vehicle for advancing the academic work of our
institute. We needed to define high-quality content, and no one else
was going to do it, so we did it ourselves.
We knew we could do three things right away. We could point to labor
resources on the Internet; we could tell people how to find literature
by topic, type, and location; and we could start publishing the faculty'sresearch
online. We knew we could develop site searching, interactive forms, and
Web-based datasetswe just weren'tready yet. By 1996, our daily
traffic exceeded 10,000 hits per day, and when we posted faculty papers,
downloads sometimes exceeded 2,000 in the first hour, depending on the
topic. In fall 2002, a Google search on the string "labor research" listed
our Center for Labor Research and Education first, and we were named
an Internet Scout Site for library content. The labor to achieve this
was obvious, even mundane; but the political support we've gained from
this strategic labor has limitless value.
OK, so those of you who've done all this and more know the truth of
it: It's sizzle, not steak. But the sizzle works as an attention-getter,
and new opportunities often follow in the wake of the sizzle. In our
case, the Institute of Industrial Relations Library has enjoyed greater
fiscal support. In the early 1990s era of budget downsizing, we held
our own. When new funding followed California's boom in the late '90s,
we doubled our staff. Most important of all, we advanced our values and
mission into the mainstream at the Institute of Industrial Relations.
That set the stage for our eventually overseeing statewide Web services
for some related programs, and for getting stronger buy-in from our power
players, the faculty. While there's no guarantee we'll stay in this enviable
position forever, it beats being on the outside looking in.
Using the 80/20 Rule
These old and new examples of well-timed service upgrades can build
financial support. But collections themselves offer tremendous opportunities
to make digital libraries relevant for non-librarian power players. The
trick is to communicate the value without getting lost in a recitation
of volume counts, digital files managed, or even hit rates on the Web.
We've all heard of the 80/20 Rule on work: 20 percent of effort yields
all the benefit, while the other 80 just keeps you busy. Collections
operate in the same way in the life of an organization or community.
If your collection mission encompasses interesting, unique materials,
keep track of how they link to the interests of your funders.
For example, my collection has extensive materials on the maritime
industries. In fall 2002, when the West Coast dockworkers and shipping
companies were at an impasse, our print collection was pretty darn popular
with the press and the faculty who needed to "bone up" on the historical
issues. The sudden relevance of some very old vertical files, which weren't"shortlisted" to
be digitized, opened doors for the real issue on our minds just then.
As it happens, we were ready to explore the logistics of scanning our
unique materialslike those about labor and the maritime industry.
The 80/20 Rule for using the collection strategically is pretty simple.
Exploit the promotional value of whatever 20 percent of it happens to
be in high use, and keep track of what's in repose.
Adjust the Jargon and Play the Political Angle
Digital librarians often find themselvesin the interesting situation
of having to make the case for expensive technology to non-technical
managers. Recently, our library sought funding for an interactive map
project that would cover California's labor history. We got very technical
in our grant narrative, but we also needed other campus partners who
didn't care too muchabout the back end. That dialogue was more about
the visual thrill of interactive searching of historical events, geography,
social evolution, and the potential benefits for labor scholars. We didn't
get the grant,but we made some new friends on campus and in state government.
It's worth mentioning that because many funding agencies need to get
to know you, and the skillslearned in this funding cycle may lead to
success later on. Moreover, it may take time to gain a deeper understanding
of what a funding agency is really looking for. So we can learn from
our funding flops.
Experienced fundraisers and budget shepherds know that securing individual,
corporate, and foundation support depends on relationships. It really
is who you know and how you manage the relationship. In civic and academic
politics, it's all about relationships, too. In private law libraries,
I found that firm politics operated by a complex array of mutual back-scratching,and
it paid to know how it worked. Digital librarians can improve their program
budgets if they can understand whatever subtle politics drive the organization,
the funding agency, or the governing bodies they are supported by. This
may seem obvious, but as any mid-career librarian will tell you, politics
is never obvious. The good news is that the digital revolution, as made
tangible in our well-organized and engaging collections, has dealt us
a sustained opportunity to harness the value in our collections and services,
and make them pay. Call it sizzle, call it snake oil, call it storytelling,
but just do it, and keep it up for the long term. In the end, the sizzle
will get the funds, so you can dig into the steak.
Terence K. Huwe is director oflibrary and information resources at
the Institute of Industrial Relations, University of CaliforniaBerkeley.
His responsibilities include library administration reference and overseeing
Web services for several departments at campuses throughout the University
of California. His e-mail address is email@example.com.