The Paula Gordon Show
An Economy of Ideas

William J. Kramer

. . . was president of Sidney Kramer Books for almost 30 years, the prestigious Washington, DC, book store his father founded. Kramerbooks & afterwords, Bill's creation in 1976, helped shape what "bookstore" now means. Kramer now spearheads The Knowledge Initiative, a collaborative project in human capital development and capacity building through world-class resource centers -- bringing the Internet, books and people together. Bill is also deeply involved in privacy issues, courtesy of Special Prosecutor Ken Starr. The Kramer family lives near Washington, DC.

Excerpts3:30 secs

How people get and share knowledge is an increasingly urgent question as we enter the information age. Given the increasingly competitive global marketplace, people in developing nations risk being crowded out of the information mainstream. At the same time, those of us in the developed world stand helpless as publishing becomes an increasingly market-driven (rather than content-driven) industry. If our intellectual economy drowns in an economic one, we put ourselves at great risk. Books, it turns out, still matter.

Bill Kramer was born into the book business and has spent his life there. His father founded Sidney Kramer Books in Washington, DC, just after World War II. Sidney Kramer Books became internationally know for having -- or getting -- books on politics, economics, and area studies, issues involved in rebuilding a world devastated by war. Following his father's death and having graduated from college, Bill Kramer became President of Sidney Kramer Books in 1968. In 1976, Bill created Kramerbooks & afterwards. It was known first as the cafe-book store which changed the face of American bookstores, then for Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr's subpoena of sales records which threatened the privacy of us all.

Kramer's stories about books, the publishing world and technology parallel the world's post-World War Two era, including the demise of Sidney Kramer Books in 1997. But Kramer's not content to sit back and decry the declining condition of the publishing world. He demonstrated with Kramerbooks & afterwards how effectively books grease the wheels of social intercourse. Now Kramer's creating The Knowledge Initiative. With it, he hopes to bring together people, books and the Internet -- a technology which he believes is absolutely revolutionary. Gather local people in emerging economies together. Enhance their ability to survive in a changing world economy by giving them access to reliable data bases organized around industry sectors. Provide them with a resource center -- what we used to call a library but with education and training facilities attached -- which ties print and digital information together, where knowledge is valued and accessible, regardless of format. Let them learn from each other and the rest of the world. Create a non-national human community. The Knowledge Initiative is piloting these very ideas in South Africa (telecommunications) and in The Czech Republic (forestry).

The Marshall Plan helped rebuild the world after World War Two. Carnegie Libraries gave millions of Americans access to the world of knowledge. Bill Kramer's vision is to bring these two powerful ideas together in the emerging world. He believes the only way to stave off disasters looming on the future's horizon is to let people everywhere come together, across national lines, to figure out how long a lever is required to move the world.

Conversation 1

Bill Kramer tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell how his father and mother, both librarians, came to Washington, D.C. at the outbreak of World War II; how they worked at the Library of Congress during the War, when it was this country's only intelligence agency; how Bill's father founded Sidney Kramer Books, which became world famous as the Capital's focus of interest in books on politics, economics, area studies, and issues involved in rebuilding the world devastated by war.

Conversation 2

Kramer describes the remarkable changes in Washington and the world following the Second War. He recalls how people explored what levers were necessary to change the world's political and social and cultural structures. Kramer recalls the role Sidney Kramer Books played in the flow of information and the effects that growing up in that environment had on him. He describes his early sense that individual human beings could actually make a difference. He tells how customers helped his father create a world famous bookstore, whose books were a contributing factor to the growth of American power and influence. He describes how the book business and publishing have changed dramatically since then.

Conversation 3

Books are extremely personal purchases and possessions, Kramer believes. He tells how this led to Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr's subpoena of Kramerbooks & afterwards' sales records. Kramer explains the privacy issues at stake as new means of information dissemination evolve, issues so important that Kramer is willing to go to the Supreme Court for their protection. He describes how the increasing commercialization in the book trade is affecting what books are available to us all. He worries about the writers and subjects which are being marginalized in the process, but offers his hope that the direst predictions won't come true. He predicts a backlash to today's large super book stores and a swing of the pendulum back toward more personal book selling and smaller stores.

Conversation 4

Kramer describes his years in retail, starting in 1968, creating the first scholarly remainder book store, then a book and record store, and a remainder business which is now Daedalus Books. He tells the story of conceiving the idea of a bookstore-cafe, which came to life in 1976 as Kramerbooks & afterwards. He describes his most recent venture, a not-for-profit corporation called The Knowledge Initiative, which will bring people, technology and information sources together around industry sectors. Kramer explains how his life experience facilitates the creation of state of the art, world-class resource centers to help people in developing nations be globally competitive.

Conversation 5

Kramer describes The Knowledge Initiative's work with the telecommunications sector in South Africa and the forestry sector in The Czech Republic. Both countries, according to Kramer, have one foot in the First World and one foot in the Third World. He tells about new ways to use books as the medium by which to increase the chances that such countries can be globally competitive. He explains why advisory boards of international scientific bodies will be involved, offering his vision of The Knowledge Initiative providing immensely valuable tools that will relate the world of print-knowledge to the world of digital-knowledge. He wonders how long a lever is required to move the world? He describes why he believes it is important to maximize the potentials of new technologies while combining them with proven human capabilities.

Conversation 6

Declaring the Internet "absolutely revolutionary," Kramer describes how it provides the opportunity for people to connect with the world in ways never before possibe, creating capacities to sustain their own existences and that of their fellow human beings. Kramer offers his hope for a new environment which sustains and enhances the world of knowledge, combining the powerful ideas embodied in the Marshall Plan and the concept of Carnegie libraries. Kramer offers his optimistic vision of how the world can emerge quite differently from potential disasters, blossoming out of the human experience.


Bill Kramer, his wife Judith Duffield, and their sons Jacob and Michael made us thoroughly welcome in their home and their lives when we arrived to record this conversation with Bill. So did their cat, who rings the doorbell when he wishes to enter the house. We thank them all.

Cheryl Burke, Andrew H. B. Tonkin and Durham graciously facilitated our visit with the Kramer-Duffield family and more. We also appreciate them.

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