JCLC 2012, KCPL & Library Marketing

Last night, the Kansas City Public Library hosted the opening reception for the Second National Joint Conference of Librarians of Color. I was honored to be a part of such a gathering! More than just an opportunity to show off our gorgeous Central Branch, it was a wonderful chance to mix and mingle with librarians from all over the country. I loved engaging so many people in passionate conversation about libraries!

Over the course of the evening, I noticed that there was one question that got asked by everyone I spoke to:

“Where did you get the money for all this?”

  • Our Central Branch building is a retrofitted bank. How were we able to get the building and convert it the way we did?
  • Where do we get the money to present 20-30 free-to-attend public events each month – ranging from scholarly presentations, to art and artifact exhibits, to movie screenings?
  • How can we afford to keep two full-time professional graphic designers on staff?
  • Where do we get the funding to maintain our dedicated business information center?
  • Etc.

Funding questions became the ongoing theme of my evening.

After last night, it’s apparent to me that the way we do things at KCPL is different. There’s not a lot of public library systems out there who manage to do, for example, the extensive and high-quality public programming that we do. So… How do we do it?

It comes down to marketing. Survey the professional library literature from the past several years, and you’ll see lots of discussion on the topic of marketing for libraries. Pretty much all of it is about how to market library services to the community. This is what marketing professionals call business-to-customer marketing. It’s about advertising, and community involvement, and reputation management.

What I don’t see in the ongoing discussion of library marketing is any mention of what marketing professionals refer to as business-to-business marketing. It’s this type of marketing that enables KCPL to offer our extensive public event programming, as well as many other services.

Relationships with Local Business

The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation has provided the Kansas City Public Library with two $4 million grants over the past 10 years. This works out to $600,000-$800,000 annually. These grants fund our Public Affairs department and our event programming. This is how we maintain two full-time graphic designers in-house. It’s how we pay for our original promotional materials and extensive community mailings (at current count, the mailing list for just our monthly event calendar is approximately 13,000).

The Kauffman Foundation is dedicated to fostering entrepreneurship and encouraging economic innovation in the community. When I described the Kauffman Foundation to other librarians last night – their mission, what they do – I was told by many that they would never think to approach an organization like that for library funding. On the surface, they wouldn’t even make the list of potential grantors for a library to approach in the first place. So why did we think to approach them? Our Library Director and the President of our Board of Trustees have extensive connections in the Kansas City business community; they convinced the Kauffman Foundation of KCPL’s utility in helping to improve the local economy and the role we can play in revitalizing downtown KC.

Kansas City is the headquarters for H&R Block. They sponsored our H&R Block Business & Career Center; we use part of the Kauffman Foundation grant for ongoing operations. Our Business Center is a service solely dedicated to providing community members and aspiring entrepreneurs with access to extensive business information resources.

Our relationship with both the Kauffman Foundation and H&R Block fall into the category of business-to-business marketing for the library. The value of a public library system to the local business community is significant. Assistance with résumé building and job searches is the most obvious role we can play. But also, for entrepreneurs seeking to start a new business, or expand an existing one, access to timely, quality information is essential – information on how to properly incorporate and handle taxes and payroll; zoning laws; local, county, state, and federal commercial regulations; demographic and consumer data; professional literature and the core works of business philosophy and practice; etc. Public libraries can provide all of this, and more, in one place, on an ongoing basis, and for free. There have even been studies done in some metro areas that demonstrate how having a library branch in a neighborhood increases foot traffic and sales to local businesses. The quality cultural programming we offer plays a role in drawing people downtown and helps to revitalize this district – to the ultimate benefit not only of KC culture but also local businesses.

Considered from this perspective, connecting a public library system to the local business community is obvious. Libraries can turn to local businesses as potential sources of funding in these lean times. Of course, for many this raises concerns about the potential commercialization of libraries, and rightfully so – but we’ve not had any problem in that regard at KCPL. Businesses understand our value and have no wish to interfere with us. Libraries that pursue these options need to vigilant against making their institution answerable to private interests, and there can be unique long-term challenges in maintaining such relationships. I have no desire to tout such options as panaceas for libraries, and there are dangers to navigate. But I was asked how we do what we do, and this is a central part of the answer. To be honest, I’m surprised at how few library systems go this route.

Relationships with Local Cultural Institutions

The Kansas City Public Library also pursues relationships with other cultural organizations in the metro area. This, too, falls into the category of business-to-business marketing. For example, over the past seven months we’ve been working with the Truman Library Institute in Independence, MO, to present an ongoing series of programs called Hail to the Chiefs, that bring world-renown scholars to our library to speak about U.S. Presidents. This series will continue for another two months and then we’re planning a similar series for 2013. The current series has 15 events total. Average attendance for the 11 events we’ve held so far has exceeded 300 people per event. The lowest attendance has been 276. Thus far, we’ve printed approximately 38,000 pieces of promotional materials for this series, and sent multiple mailings per month to a contact list of over 3,400 people. It’s the most successful event series we’ve ever done – and every event is completely free to the public.

Neither us, nor Truman, would be able to pull off an event series like this on our own. By combining our resources – Truman provides all the funding; KCPL provides the space, personnel, expertise, bookings, and logistics – we’ve been able to contribute something of real value to the intellectual and cultural life of the KC-area community.

The Kansas City Public Library has working relationships, some more extensive than others, with several other cultural institutions in the area: we occasionally partner with the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art to present programs that compliment their exhibits; we work with leading scholars at the United States Army Combined Arms Center Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, KS, for presentations on the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War; and many others.

These relationships give us access to experts in multiple fields and enable the library to connect with new audiences, as well as allowing us to share resources and programming expertise with other organizations to our mutual benefit. They allow us to deepen and expand our role as an active contributor to, and supporter of, the vibrant cultural life of Kansas City, beyond our essential role in preserving it. They generate greater community awareness for other cultural institutions in KC via our library branches. This type of business-to-business library marketing benefits the intellectual and cultural life of KC as a whole, and increases the value of all cultural institutions to our community.

It’s a win-win for everyone!

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