Tuesday, November 4, 2014

On "Pitching" and What Goes Unmentioned

I'm not sure if a few recent articles constitutes a trend, but I have noticed pieces imploring librarians to get better at "pitching" ideas to their funders, be they administrators, boards, or communities, among others.

While I understand that asking for things is a skill, I, like many librarians, find it somewhat unseemly. In no small part, this is because I view libraries not just as a public good, but as being, morally good, even though there's ample evidence that as an institution, institutions, they, we, are not.

Nonetheless, in the current political and economic climate, at least in the United States, funding is often hard to come by. Public libraries face shrinking budgets while institutions of higher education are subject to the same whims if they are public, and, when taken as a whole, continue a dangerous dalliance with neoliberal policies.

These pitching articles are very much agent-based, and are within the neoliberal locus. They focus on the need to pitch, without taking into account the structure, the political and economic milieu in which libraries and library staff find themselves. Given this structure, sometimes even the best pitches can fail and fall short, and that should be noted by authors.

So if you're writing one of these articles, I want to know details. What did you pitch, to whom did you pitch it, and what strategies and sales tactics did you use? Moreover, have you pitched something at a given time and failed, only to retry it later and have it work? What changed? Again, I get that pitching is a skill we library staff should have, but I want to move past it being "good," I want to know when it works, why it works, where it works, and how it works. I want to know who has had success with it, and who hasn't. Is there something like best practices for this? Can it be replicated? Can pitching move from anecdotes to social science?

Here, I'll start:

I have some experience with pitching, having successfully advocated for a discovery layer and link resolver. It took me well over a year to from the time I started lobbying the administration, our IT department, the university president, some deans and faculty, and the business office. I first brought it up to our then-provost at a time when my place of work sought to expand enrollment by more than thirty-three percent (33%) over five years. I mentioned, and cited, the library's role in student success and retention and led people through how our community went about using the library for research, and how that would change (in short, fewer clicks, less friction) under a discovery layer and link resolver. I invited stakeholders to meet with vendors, giving our campus partners some ownership of the process. I used powerpoints. And it worked.

But sometimes it doesn't. I ask for more full-time staff in much the same way; how I pitch is how I pitch. We're still in that five-year plan. Student success and retention remain concerns. Armed with memos and data from other libraries, I presented, and continue to present, my case to the administration. And I fail. But it's not me, and I write this as much for myself as anyone else. It's because full-time staff are more expensive than a discovery layer. Much more expensive. And that's structure. And it's missing from too much of what's written in and about libraries.

There's too much agency, too much bootstrapping, too much of what is basically the respectability politics of library advocacy ("if only I had pitched better!"). And while that's important, sometimes it doesn't matter how well you pitched, because it's not up to you. And if you want to wallow in nihilism about it, I understand that impulse. I've done it. I'll do it again. But I'll also get back up, and try again.

So what works for you, dear reader? Think about not just how you pitch, but when and where as well, and please let me know, because I always want to be able to navigate structures, when possible.

Elsewhere on this site:
Libraries as Structure, Libraries as Agents: Late Capitalism Edition
Exit, Voice, and Loyalty in the Academic Library
Toward a Unifying Field Theory of Librarianship, Or Not

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