Hi, this is Circulating Ideas, the librarian interview podcast hosted by me, Steve Thomas. My guests today are the two candidates for ALA President this year, Barbara Stripling and Gina Millsap.
Up first is Barbara Stripling. Barbara has recently joined the faculty at Syracuse University as an Assistant Professor of Practice. Prior to Syracuse, she was Director of Library Services for the New York City schools for seven years. She’s the former president of the American Association of School Librarians, a former member of the American Library Association Executive Board, and a current member of ALA Council. Thank you, Barbara, for agreeing to do this show.
And my first question is, why do you want to be ALA President?
Ah, good question. I want to be ALA President because I have spent my entire career as a solution-maker. I am really good at building collaborative teams, at understanding the strengths of others, and pulling people together to accomplish an important goal. I am absolutely passionate about the power of libraries to change lives, and to change communities. I know that we can change ourselves to be more effective, to have more impact on our communities, and I also know that by working together in an association, we can have much more impact than each of us working separately. So, my whole career, I have seen the value in professional associations. I’ve been an active member of ALA since I first took classes, way back. [laughs] And what I’ve discovered is that there are lots of opportunities for leadership, for pulling people together. So, through the association, I’ve grown my own leadership skills, and then, as I do that, I’ve found the power of pulling people together through an association to accomplish a great goal. And that’s really what I want to accomplish as ALA President. I know that I have a lot to offer. I’m really good at getting to the heart of issues, at being very thoughtful and not going for superficial answers. But I’m also very positive-oriented; some people call me a lemonade-maker. I always see the positive ways to come to a good solution, and then work to pull people together to accomplish it. So, that’s what I hope to accomplish, and that’s why I would like to be President.
And I have a question that’s sort of related to that. Since ALA is so big, sometimes it can be overwhelming, especially for new members, just to sort of see how big it is and all the different divisions. How do you think, especially new people but anybody can get involved without feeling overwhelmed? How do you get into starting with that?
That’s an excellent question, and that’s actually one of the things that I’ve thought the most about. When I think about transforming ALA, I think about the inclusiveness of it. I think we have a misunderstanding that the only way to get involved in ALA is to be on one of the 20 committees, or however many. But actually, I believe that the best way to get involved is to find others who are concerned about the same issues as you are. And therefore, I think we need to be much more transparent about ways to set up interest groups, about the work of interest groups. I know we have those on ALA Connect, but we need to work on that. With social media, we have the ability for people to become involved sitting at their desktop, or at night, at home. And so, we need to provide opportunities for people to find the niches that they’re interested in. And then the second piece of that is to give them an opportunity to contribute to that. My first involvement, really, in ALA was as a co-editor of the Journal of the American Association of School Librarians. Because I was given the opportunity to contribute to the Association, that satisfied me professionally, and it also gave me a real attachment to the Association. Each of us has something to contribute, so ALA will benefit, as will we as individuals, if we have those opportunities. And the third thing that I would say is that not only do we need to give people an opportunity to contribute and give them a voice through social media, but ALA needs to listen. We’re really good at not paying attention, maybe, to the diverse voices, and making a change. So, ALA needs to be more flexible, more responsive, and pay attention to what our individual members are saying. And when interest groups form, they form for a reason, so that needs to impact what we do as a whole association. So, another piece of what I would do as President is, not only make those opportunities available and make them substantive so they’re real contributions, but also pay attention as a leader, and listen very hard, figure out how to connect one interest with another, and address that through the Association.
‘Cuz that sort of address another related question that I had about generally — when I first wanted to do this interview, it was sort of to get the word out about you and Gina, so everybody can hear what you guys have to say and really make their choice based on real knowledge of what you guys stand for and what you think about. But there seems to be general voter apathy [laughs] as a whole. Like, one thing, when I put out a call several times to people to ask, “Oh, do you have a question for them? Let me know.” And I didn’t hear back from very many people. [laughs]
And then, maybe a lot of that is just that, like you said, they feel like they’re not being heard, and so their voice is not important to the organization. So, I mean —
— how do you think we can make the members more interested in the organization as a whole?
I think part of what happens is that the translation between what ALA does and the impact on the local librarian is very hard to see, and I think that’s ALA’s fault in a lot of ways. I’ll just take the e-book controversy as one example. Each one of us is confronting lots of questions and issues and real problems with trying to make e-books accessible to our users. We can’t solve that on an individual level, and I doubt that very many members know what ALA is doing on the national level to really address, substantively, address that situation. So, part of it is communication, and I think we need to be better at using different venues. You certainly have one that is — it’s a good venue. But ALA tends to just stick with the ones we have set up: ALA Connect, which silo-izes us, and AL Direct. So, I think part of it is on us, of letting people understand the impact that they can have on the Association, but also that the Association has for them as professionals.
Right, like on the e-book thing in particular, I mean, we have heard generally that they — I don’t know the right word, the faction from ALA going to speak with the publishers, and we got that, finally. But then, before that, yeah, we didn’t hear a lot about what ALA was actually doing.
Exactly. Yes. Exactly. And they have task forces. There’s a lot of work going on, but it’s buried in committees, et cetera, and I think if you’re on ALA Council, you know a lot of those things. But that’s not a lot of the membership. [laughs]
So, we really need to do a better job, I think.
And I wasn’t sure if I was gonna ask this, but I guess I will, because it sort of matches the same sort of “why members are disinterested,” I guess, in the organization. I had, so, I did finally get a few questions after Buffy Hamilton tweeted stuff out for me, and people responded to her asking questions for you guys. The one thing that I got several times, and again, I didn’t want to ask, but I will [laughs] —
— several complaints about, dues are too high. [laughs] How do you address how high the dues are? I guess more, the dues are what they are, and I know ALA does a lot of work in trying to keep them as low as they can, but how do we make sure members feel like their dues are going to do something important? ‘Cuz I think that’s really what it’s coming down to. It’s not so much that, “Oh, I’m paying too much money,” it’s “I’m paying all this money and what am I getting out of it?”
Yes, exactly. And I understand that. I understand that, because all of us are dealing with really tight budgets, in our libraries and in our personal lives. And so, if you see no impact from an association, you kinda go, “Well, why am I doing this?” And even if it aligns with your core values, at some point, you go, “Mm, how much am I paying for core values?”
But I think it ties to what I was just saying, that we need to make sure that the impact that we can have as a national association is very strong, that we communicate that to our members, what we’re doing. But I come from an educational background where it’s not so much outputs as outcomes. And so, what really matters to our members is the value that they get, and that’s the same issue that we’re confronting in our libraries: how do you show value for your library service? So, ALA, and our libraries, and we as individuals need to get smarter about assessing the value in a very rational way, actually looking at the value, the value on investment, and then making that public knowledge and circulating it and using it for advocacy. So, ALA is always advocating for libraries, but it’s not always a value-based conversation, and indeed, ALA doesn’t do that for itself. We don’t do a value-based conversation with our members so that they can see, “Well, what am I getting out of this?” The value is there; we just haven’t been good at assessing that value, and then communicating it.
Right. And it’s also obviously important that we make people outside the organization see values in libraries.
This was in the list of — I sent you a list of topics ahead of time. I was gonna ask you about a feasibility of doing a national campaign on behalf of libraries, something like an @ your library thing. And it was funny, this morning on NPR, there was a story about the Ad Council, the people who do the —
— “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drink and Drive” and “Rosie the Riveter” and all that kind of stuff, that they’ve been around for 70 years now. And it seems like that’s exactly the kind of thing that I was thinking of, of having — not so much ALA do a campaign on behalf of libraries, because it’s nice when librarians campaign for libraries, but there’s sort of a self-interest thing there. So, it’s almost better if we can convince somebody else [laughs] to do a campaign for libraries, you know?
I totally connect with that. I’m co-chair of Molly Raphael’s advocacy initiative, and the whole basis of that is empowering voices, empowering community voices to speak out for libraries. I absolutely agree that part of what we need to do is to empower others to be the strong voices and build a public will for libraries, which we can do. We have examples of that all over. We just, that needs to be our orientation. The basis for advocacy is connecting to the priorities of the people you’re speaking to, so you don’t go to a Principal if you’re a school librarian and say, “We need a good library because we need a good library.” We need to go to the Principal and say, “Our library will help you bring student test scores up.” That’s the Principal’s priority, and we need to show how we meet that priority. Well, I think it’s true for anyone: for legislators, for community members, for business leaders, for immigrants, immigrant parents, for families. Everyone has priorities, and when we can figure out how to connect and advocate for how we can help them meet their priorities, then that’s a strong advocacy, and that’s how we turn people into advocates for us. I was thinking some about the ad campaign that you were talking about, and there’s value to that. But I actually would do a switch a little bit, because I think we need to transform our libraries and our vision of libraries to be virtual spaces for our communities as well as physical spaces. So, I wouldn’t say “at” your library; I would say “through” your library. [laughs]
Right. Right. Right. Of course.
Something like that. Because that way, we can connect to what’s happening out in the community, and not expect everyone to come to us to get benefit from what we can offer.
Right, and that seems like that’s some of the things that some of the publishers seem to have their biggest complaints about with the e-book thing, is that they want people to come to the library. That whole idea of friction, that they have to —
— make it harder. [laughs]
Yeah. Yeah. It is. It’s tense. It’s very complex. I understand where the publishers are coming from, to some extent. I also, absolutely, understand where librarians are coming from. We’ll get to a solution, but it’s complex.
I mean, do you think e-books are essential to what — especially public libraries, and then school libraries, and academic libraries to a degree as well — but do you think that’s really important to our future, or do you think we need to shift our focus a little? ‘Cuz it seems like e-books are sort of dominating the discussion now.
Yeah. Absolutely. I think e-books are essential for the future of learning and reading, and the way all of society is moving. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to eliminate print books. There are some times when that’s absolutely what our patrons want. You don’t curl up with your 13-month-old and read an e-book. You may, some, but you also may want a print book.
Right, and Apple may want us all to go to e-books for textbooks. [laughs] We’re not there yet.
No, no, we aren’t. I have some concerns about e-books which go beyond the publisher dilemma, and the piracy, and everything else that’s rolled into all of that controversy. My major concern is a widening of the gap, because if you don’t have ready access to e-book readers, or the technology, you’re really being marginalized when libraries move to a predominance of that format. So, at the same time that we figure out the e-book, we have to figure out how to make sure that there is equitable access to it.
And I particularly think, in terms of school libraries, well, I was in New York City, and I can tell you that there is not equitable access to technology, and certainly not to e-readers. And I think it’s gonna move more and more into the mobile realm. A lot of kids have mobile phones.
So, maybe that’ll help, but that’s not really a great environment for reading a book. It’s OK for headlines and newspapers and chats and whatever else, [laughs] but for reading
And maybe even, like, individual homework assignments, at some points, that you could just have your phone. But not a whole book, necessarily.
Yeah. Yeah. So, I think a lot about equity issues, and so that’s a huge piece of the e-book, e-reader issue that keeps me up at night.
[laughs] Yeah, that was really my main reaction to that recent announcement that Apple did with what they’re doing with textbooks, is that that’s great, but are you gonna give iPads to all these schools, so all these kids can have these new textbooks?
And I was really disappointed, actually, that there was not even a discussion in that of a discount plan or anything for schools to buy them in bulk, or anything. It’s just sort of — it seems to be the kind of thing that’s supported by some private schools that have enough money to purchase iPads for all their students, but the public schools are gonna be kind of left out.
Yep. I agree.
In the cold. [laughs]
And public libraries — we have a lot of patrons in public libraries who don’t have ready access.
It’s even trickier to check out equipment from a public library than it is from a school library.
So, what’s the solution? We’ve got to figure it out, and we can, but it’s high on my agenda to be a part of figuring that out.
And, do you think it’s important for libraries to be part of the conversation about DRM and coming to a standard format with that? Or do you think the publishers are gonna have that discussion on their own, and fight it out with Amazon?
Well, I think they would like to have it on their own. I think. But we absolutely need to be at the table. We need to be part of those discussions, because we have a perspective that we listen to our users, we listen to our patrons, and it needs to be part of that discussion. It’s gonna be too much of a commercial conversation if it’s just with Amazon.
And the publishers at Amazon obviously are not coming at it in the same direction, either.
Right. Exactly. I mean, they’re a business. So, that’s, again, paying attention to their priorities at figuring out how we can come to a solution that helps them meet their priorities, but really satisfies what we need to do as librarians. The intellectual freedom issues are just rampant [laughs] through the whole DRM conversations. And I understand where they’re coming from, but at its base, it really does deny some equitable access and intellectual freedom principles that I hold very dear.
Right. And by the very fact that we’re just licensing these things and not purchasing them, that’s sort of breaking that whole first sale doctrine thing that we’ve, that have been at the core of libraries for a long time. [laughs]
Yeah. The whole OverDrive issue, that’s a whole other realm of, “How are we going to do this?” How are we going to purchase — we can’t purchase anymore with the shift in the contract of OverDrive. So, that’s a lot of — that brings up a lot of issues as well. All of this being said, I don’t think that we ought to sit back and wait for things to be resolved. I do think that the National Association and the leaders need to get in there. We need to be a part of these conversations. We need to be very forceful, and we need to understand what it is we’re trying to accomplish, and stand firm on those. But at the same time, I think local libraries need to experiment. We need to try things. We need to buy different e-readers, try different checkout modes, try OverDrive, or not, but make those decisions at the local level. That’s not something that a national association will do; make it easier for people to know what their options are, and try to work through all of the dilemmas. The decision-making needs to happen at the local level. To some extent, I almost — I understand wanting to wait until, for example, the e-readers get sorted out — “What kind am I going to buy?” But what I really believe is that we need to do pilot programs and try out different things, and be a part of figuring out the solutions by actually trying and implementing in our local libraries.
What do you think can be done at the legislative level to support libraries, and how would you support that? And then I have a follow-up question, but if you can answer that one first? [laughs]
This is not a very good political climate for good decision-making, in my opinion. [laughs]
It’s too focused on the politics and not enough on the issues, so for example, what’s happening in Arizona is abhorrent to me, and that’s an example of a law which was passed by a legislature that banned ethnic studies.
And so, that’s really dangerous. I think we need to use our Washington office, our Office of Intellectual Freedom, all of the agencies and offices that we have in ALA, and do strong lobbying, not only at the national level — which the Washington office does a really good job of — but also at the state level. Because some of the most dangerous legislation is coming in at the state level, and that marginalizes people through a whole state. The repercussions are sometimes stronger when it’s state legislation, for the local people, than when it’s national legislation. So, it needs to be lobbying, but it also needs to be working with partners. One of the things that I have done recently was testify for the ACLU on an internet filtering case. I think it’s important not only to work with the Library Association, but other organizations that have similar values and are willing to stand up and either lobby for or take action against legislation that doesn’t fit with what we need for our patrons.
Right. Like, I assume ALA as a whole — I know ALA as an organization is opposed to filters, but most of the public libraries do use them so that they can get the E-rate funding. I assume ALA works on things like that, of trying to get that — I don’t know if “appealed” is the right term.
Because so many public libraries do depend on that E-rate funding that we can’t get unless we do filter.
So, even if philosophically you might be opposed to it, well, we need that money. [laughs]
Yeah. Well, one of the — in fact, the first decision that I was involved with on the ALA executive board was to sue the federal government over CIPA. I have a long-standing [laughs] opposition to government-mandated filters. I understand the reality. I do believe that we as an association need to be very strong about how to — against government-mandated filtering, but also how to work with that, provide guidance how to work with that, so that your patrons’ rights are not marginalized. And a lot of the law is not as punitive or as restrictive as some local policies make it. And part of that is from not wanting to get into trouble and not understanding where the line is. So, you have problems with somebody blocking everything and thinking that they’re actually complying with the law, when they’re going much further than the law requires, or than E-rate funding requires. So, ALA can have a place in providing that kind of guidance and support to libraries as they’re making these types of decisions.
And I think I — I’m not gonna address it specifically — I think I told you that I had heard from somebody who opposes, is very much in favor of filters.
Yes. I know.
How do you respond to those people who are for filters and say that filters are good enough that they do filter out everything that you would need to filter out? How do you respond to that, or how would you as ALA President respond to that?
Well, I would respond to the whole issue of filtering in a couple of ways. One is that there are filters and there are filters. And the way you administrate a filter makes a huge difference. The ACLU suit is a result of a filter that is crowdsourced that uses broad categories with no specificity and has no criteria for evaluating what falls within the criteria or not — falls within the filter, broad categories or not. And so, it’s very discriminatory. It is possible to administrate filters so that they are not discriminatory, and to be flexible in the administration so that when a site is discovered, that it’s blocked because it has been miscategorized, that immediately, that can be solved. So, that’s an approach to filtering that, even if you have to do it, that you have to pay attention to how it is administrated. Because they aren’t all the same. Not all filters are the same. And they’re not administrated the same. And librarians need to be involved in that conversation. In some organizations, especially in school systems, sometimes those decisions are made by technology people rather than librarians having any input at all.
And that’s not good. That’s not good. You end up over-blocking just to be safe, rather than paying attention to the actual granulated use of it.
Yeah, it seems like, in general, from what I’ve gathered — I’m a public librarian — but it seems like in general, in school systems, IT and libraries are not connected at all. But in public libraries and a lot of academic libraries, they’re a little more connected, but school libraries, they don’t seem to be — they’re different departments and [laughs] —
Yes. Yeah, I think that happens a lot. I think you’re absolutely right. It sort of depends on the size of the school system, on the people involved. But I think that’s a really important connection to maintain, to build a relationship that’s important for our kids, because even though schools are required to filter and couldn’t even be part of the CIPA suit, there are some filtering programs that work much better than others, and there are ways to administrate them that don’t result in kids not having access to what they need.
Right. And I know a lot of schools will just filter out YouTube in general, or Tumblr in general, and that’s cutting a lot of good content.
Well, yeah. And actually, that’s a whole other issue. It’s not even a filtering program; there are a lot of school systems that don’t allow any use of social tools at all. And to me, that’s a real issue that needs to be addressed. I understand the motivation; they don’t want to get into trouble, blah blah blah. But the uses of social tools are phenomenal, and the educational value is phenomenal. So, that’s kind of peripherally related to the government-mandated filtering, but it is having a very dampening effect on intellectual energy in schools.
Right. I want to get back to school librarians in just a second, but before we get away from the political thing, how involved with politics in general do you think the organization should be, ALA? The one thing I’m kinda thinking of is, I know on a whole, I would say most librarians, and the organization maybe, are leaning more a little on the left in politics. But how do we balance that — because there are obviously a lot of — ‘cuz librarians, like everybody, there are different views — of the more conservative members who don’t like what, maybe, more quote-unquote liberal things the organization is doing? I’m thinking more, not so much of filtering and Patriot Act and CIPA things that directly affect the library, but I remember there was a big outcry from some conservative members of the organization when ALA came out against the Iraq War. Things like that, that aren’t directly related to politics. How involved do you think ALA should get in things that like, that aren’t directly related to libraries?
I think ALA should be involved in library issues. I, however, have a fairly broad view of library issues to include core values, so when it involves freedom of expression, or freedom of the press, or something like that, I do think ALA should be involved. But when I say ALA should be involved, I consider ALA to be a democratic organization. I’ve been on Council for a lot of years. One reason that I’m on Council, that I love being on Council, is that that is democratic conversation. I thrive on listening to the variety of viewpoints on Council floor. ALA does not do a good enough job of engendering that kind of diverse conversation among members at large. If you’re not a member of Council, you don’t see all of those viewpoints, and the opportunity to speak out with your own voice in the same way. I think it should be encouraged. I think that that’s how we come to good decisions, that’s how we come to understand other people. I did my doctoral work on the development of empathy in students, and what I understand is that you can’t develop empathy unless you understand where someone else is coming from, that the only way that we’re going to progress in our society, really, is through conversation and civic engagement. I don’t mind at all if people want to have conversations about the Iraq War. That is something that I do not think is an ALA issue, and I don’t think, as an organization, we should take a stand on something that is political but not library-related. However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t think we ought to — we ought not to provide opportunities for our members to talk about it, because it’s an issue that we deal with as people, and as community members.
Right. We always want to have an open conversation about anything, and I think opening lines of communication is one of the core themes of our profession. [laughs]
Yes. And I also really am interested in pushing or supporting the idea of engendering those conversations at the local level. I think that’s one way that we need to transform our libraries, so that they become spaces of conversation with others who have different viewpoints. There aren’t very many places in our communities where you actually have an opportunity to talk to people who are not like you, who have different ideas. That conversation happens best when it’s facilitated, and I think that’s a wonderful role for our libraries to engage in
And to shift now, back to school libraries, of what we sort of started getting into, Molly Raphael launched the School Library Task Force recently.
How would you continue that work if you were elected president, and how in general, even outside that task force, do we support the importance of school librarians, in general?
Well, now is the time. [laughs] We need to step up and have great national leadership on school libraries, focused not so much on why we ought to have school libraries, although that is ultimately what the focus is. But the real goal is what school libraries do for student success. I personally am passionate; I have a 35, whatever, year career of knowing that’s true, of making that true, and so I would be very strong in building a national agenda. I think there are things that we can do beyond a task force. The task force is, I’m sure, doing good work, but it’s kind of isolated, and it’s out there. So, ALA leadership actually needs to step up and be very public on several fronts. The idea of legislation that builds school libraries into the ESEA, that’s essential. And I know the Washington office is working on that, but we need to build public will for that, and the way we do that, I think, is through that value conversation that I was talking about. We need to make sure that the research that has been done is available and accessible, but also to push new research in the field, of the connection between school libraries and student achievement, and student life growth, the personal growth that they get from what they discover, and the experiences that they have in school libraries. I think that one of the — I was saying that the important thing, whenever you do advocacy, is to connect to the goals of the people you’re talking to. One of the big issues across the country is the Common Core standards. These have been adopted by almost all the states. If you do a very careful analysis of the Common Core standards, what you see are the skills that we teach in school libraries. I don’t know how many people in the education world understand that that is the curriculum and the mission of school libraries, and that school libraries will make a difference in the implementation of Common Core standards in every school in the country. So, that would be absolutely one of the areas of focus for my conversation with national education leaders, with administrator groups, with school board associations, with the government, with legislators — that they see the connection to their priorities, and we make a very forceful voice that makes it clear. Research backs up the power that school libraries can have in developing the critical-thinking and literacy skills of our students, and therefore their ability to learn any content area. I don’t think that we’re going to get to school libraries unless we make sure that all of us are delivering. And so, another piece of this, I think, is very strong professional development for school librarians — not just at ALA conferences, but also pushed out through webinars, through Just-in-Time professional development that people can access. AASL has already started that work by aligning the national standards with Common Core. There’s a lot of work that is being done, and we need to push that out and make it available across the country, so that every school librarian who’s already in place is empowered to be making that kind of difference, and therefore we can bring the successes, then, to the national conversation and push it out even more.
All right. And that sort of leads into my last question I had for you, just a little positive one. I watched the video of the candidate forum you guys did in Midwinter, and you talked a lot about 21st century libraries, 21st century librarians. What do you think makes a good 21st century library and/or librarian, and how do we ensure that current and future librarians get the training they need to become that ideal?
Good question. [laughs] I think you can tell that, when I think about libraries and librarians, I focus on the core, the vision, and I’m really concerned that we have the flexibility and the foresightedness to transform our libraries to meet the needs of our communities, wherever our communities are. So, certainly, I think 21st century librarians need to be grounded in our core values, and I would call out intellectual freedom and equitable access as two — but also, attention to diverse perspectives as another essential piece. When I think about how that comes out in the 21st century, I think about the whole idea of digital citizenship, of — how do our patrons navigate the world of information, locate diverse perspectives, and good, valuable information, and then be able to use that information to accomplish success. There are lots of things that we can do as librarians, that we must do as librarians, to make that happen. We have to be willing to educate our users, and that’s going to look different in every type of library. But we need to look on ourselves as educators, not just suppliers of resources. A second thing we need to do is that we need to step up and be leaders in guiding and framing access to resources. And that involves curation, it involves preservation, attention to digital access and digital resources. It involves, probably, building virtual knowledge centers to provide context for these digital resources. So, there’s a huge amount of leadership that we need to do to frame this access to resources. And then, we need to — as I said before — foster conversations and civic engagement. Libraries need to become community centers where everyone feels at home, everyone has the opportunity to participate. And a lot of that needs to occur face-to-face. But we also need to build digital centers of conversation and civic engagement. I was noticing a few years ago that the Chicago Public Library had a One Community One Book campaign, and they would post questions on their website about their book, that they were all reading — and provoke, support community conversation around a book that they were all reading together. It’s that kind of effort that I think builds community and builds the individuals in the community. I think 21st century librarians also need to support innovation and creativity. Our libraries can be places where people try out new ideas. There’s a library here, near Syracuse, the Fayetteville Free Library, that has an innovation lab with a 3-D printer, inviting their community members in to try out their new inventions, and print them out and see how they work. That kind of thing can happen for all ages in all types of libraries. It’s a safe space to try out ideas and to get support from others who come into the library, and from the librarians, and from the resources. I think 21st century librarians need to advocates, but my definition of advocacy, as I said, is connecting to the priorities of others. And so, it’s by building up the strength of others that we are our best advocates, and by empowering others to speak out for us, we can maintain strong advocacy. But we can’t just expect it to come to us if we want to build great libraries and serve our communities. We have to make it happen. So, 21st century librarians absolutely have to be leaders. We are at a time when we can step up and make a huge difference for our communities, but it’s not going to come to us. We need to step forward. We need to have a clear vision of what we want to have happen for our communities through our libraries. And then, we need to figure out how to make it happen.
Definitely. Thank you, Barbara, so much, for talking to me. I hope the membership listens to this, and learns more about you and Gina, and can make a more informed decision. [laughs]
Thank you. Thank you for this opportunity, really. Last year, they did a survey of why people didn’t vote in the ALA election, and the biggest reason was, they didn’t know the candidates.
Well, I hope this helps people learn you a little better.
And so, thank you very much.
All right. Thanks.
Next up is Gina Millsap. Gina Millsap is the Chief Executive Officer of the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library. She has been recognized as a Library Journal Mover & Shaker and is past President of the Library Leadership & Management Association. Gina, thank you for talking to me for the show.
It’s my pleasure, Steve.
And my first question is, why do you want to be ALA President?
Actually, I asked myself that when the nominating committee contacted me and asked me if I would put my name up for consideration. And I finally decided “yes,” and I thought about this long and hard, not because I’m not excited about that leadership opportunity. But I have a big day job. I’m the CEO of the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library and I love doing that. And I had also made some commitments in my community. I’m currently co-chairing the strategic planning process for Topeka & Shawnee County. It’s called Heartland Visioning. So, you know, whatever I take on, I just want to be sure I do the best job that I can. But ultimately, what it came down to is this. We’re really at a pivotal point for libraries. And I mean, I know people say that all the time. But especially — I’ve worked in public libraries virtually all of my career, but I think this is true of all libraries — with the advent of digital content and all the uncertainty and the dynamic marketplace now, we really need strong leadership, and we need direction and support from our professional association in really facilitating relationships with publishers. Libraries participation in just being at the table for discussions about copyright, about libraries abilities to really do our fundamental mission, which is building collections for our communities and serving the needs of readers. And in addition to that, there’s the issue of ALA itself. ALA is a huge organization. It has 60,000 members. A lot of those members actively participate in decision-making and really working within the organization. And the very thing that makes ALA so cool to be part of — all that variety and all those options and choices — also makes it really hard to mobilize around really big topics like e-content, like diversity. And one of the things that I do, and I’ve been doing for the last 15 years, is facilitating really smart groups of people, getting them to work together, and coming out with great results, and actually taking action. So, I want to do something. How’s that?
That’s a good answer. [laughs]
And as you said, ALA is very large, and that can sometimes, I think, be overwhelming to, especially, new members. So, it just sort of this — you’re dropped into this big mass. I mean, that’s obviously not even every librarian in the country. That’s just ALA. How do you think people can get involved with ALA without feeling overwhelmed and just thrown in the deep end?
Well, I think people actually do that in a variety of ways. But one thing I think that a lot of people overlook is New Members Round Table. That group does a phenomenal job of helping you kind of find your feet. And actually, it used to be called, back in the previous century when I was a baby librarian, it was JMRT, Junior Members Round Table. That’s kind of where I got my start, too. And so, I highly recommend it as a customer. But the other thing I would say to librarians who are relatively new to the field or at least new to ALA, and you can be a veteran librarian and not have gotten really involved in ALA, even if you’re a member — is to find a mentor and a coach, somebody you really admire that you know. And do it on a very personal, individual level as well. You know, the Association itself, I think, we’re working towards providing those types of opportunities. But I also think we need to help people do that for themselves. You know, that gets to other things, like, “How does ALA help people find jobs?” But I think one of the best things that we can do is help people build their own tool kits and their own strategies for taking control of this themselves.
Does ALA currently have anything like that in place, or is there anything that you have any ideas on of how to give people these tools?
I think that the New Members Round Table is definitely working in that direction. And I know because I served as the president of the Library Leadership & Management Association. LLAMA and NMRT have formed a partnership as well. LLAMA already has a mentoring program, and so they really see this as an opportunity to help people, say, once they’re in, say, New Members Round Table, to help them transition from that into, say, other opportunities within ALA. You know, so what’s your next home, in effect, gonna be? Typically, when people join, we really affiliate with our tribes. It’s very anthropological. Somebody should do a study. So, generally, we go for our library type, right? I’m a public librarian, so I head for PLA. Or I’m an academic librarian; I head for ACRL. I’m a school librarian; I go for ASL. I’m a cataloguer, so — you know, so it’s either what we do or what type of library we work in. And those are very helpful. Finding our tribes and finding our colleagues that we can learn from and respect and help in return? That’s all good stuff. We want that to keep going. But beyond that, I mean, one of the reasons I migrated, I gravitated to LLAMA, was because it represented all types of libraries. And I ended up getting to know and working with librarians from academic and research institutions, school libraries, special libraries — and realized very quickly that we have a lot more in common than we have differences.
And that’s really important, I think. Especially when trying to have a unified front to tell people about libraries, that it’s sort of hard because the everyday work is a lot different at a public library, as a school library, as an academic library. But we do, like you said, have a lot of similarities.
Well, what’s really powerful for librarians, and I think people in other professions — I kind of feel sorry for them for not having this in some instances. We have a set of core values that we all really believe in, and we may interpret those in different ways, and we may not completely agree on all of them. And that’s OK. That’s the way it should be. But we all believe in serving our communities or our constituencies, whoever they happen to be. We believe in free access to information, and we believe, really, that democracy itself, our representative democracy, really owes a lot to the existence of libraries, in terms of making sure that citizens have access to information.
Right. And sort of related to that is, one of the main reasons I wanted to do this interview was to get the word out about you and Barbara to the members, so they could get a better idea of what you stand for, what you would champion as president. And there seems to be, overall, sort of a — I don’t know if “apathy” is the right word — just on the part of the voter. It’s sort of the same thing as in the general public, that a very small number of the membership vote, just like a small number of the country votes in elections. What do you think you could do to help members become more interested in that sort of thing?
Well, you know, you’re right. ALA has 60,000 members; less than 10,000 of them vote in any election. And if you look at, kind of, the trajectory for that, that’s been going down in recent years. Part of it, I think, is just the big scale. It’s, how many people do any of us know within the Association? I mean, we may know several hundred or even thousands of people, or a thousand people, but when you’re talking about 60,000, how do you engage those folks? I mean, there’s always gonna be a group of folks that belong to the Association because that’s part of their professional commitment. And they may not have an interest in who the current leadership is. And I get that. We hope to increase the number of people who do care, but I think that basically, you have to give people an incentive to engage. There has to be something that speaks to them, that’s important to them. As ALA President, essentially, you have three years to get something done, to make a difference. You’ve got your president-elect year, and whoever is elected will have the wonderful opportunity of working with Maureen Sullivan, who’s following Molly Raphael. I mean, there’s been this whole series of — you know, Roberta Stevens, Camila — there’s been this whole series of incredibly great ALA Presidents that have really, they’re getting things done, and they’re focusing on the important issues. And basically, in the aggregate, the impact of that, hopefully people are beginning to see that. I’m not gonna convince anybody by what I say today. People are convinced by what they see, and the actions that are taken, and the difference ALA is making for them. You know, typically people get involved for one of two reasons, right? Either they’re really pissed off about something [laughs] —
— pardon my, you know, being so blunt, or they’re really excited about something. And so, that’s really, that certainly would be my goal, is to maybe even piss people off a little bit. You know, challenge them a little bit. But also, to do things — to focus on things that are really important to them, and to get them excited about that, and say, “Here’s an opportunity for you to get engaged at a grassroots level.” Because so much of what affects libraries, all types of libraries, is local. All politics are local. It is true. And so, while our professional association can do things for us at the federal level — we have a great ALA Washington office — the reality is, a lot of stuff is determined on the ground in our communities. And so, that kind of engagement and understanding of what’s happening on a large scale, that then scopes down to the local level so that you can speak knowledgeably about that, you can work with decision-makers and stakeholders in your own community — if we’re doing that for people in our profession, I think they will be more engaged. And they’ll want leaders who know how to do that.
Right. And this is kind of a question you already got, I know at the candidate forum in Midwinter. But somebody asked about continuity of how you have just three years, but you have other people who have their own — like, Molly has her own ideas, Maureen has her own ideas, and the person who comes after, whoever’s elected this time, will have their own ideas. How do you maintain a continuity and keep the energy going when you only really have, like, one year as president. I mean, you have the three years, like you said, to influence. But how do you keep the ideas going after the time is done?
Well, you know, we all have a blueprint that we’re following, and that’s the strategic plan. And actually, this strategic plan, if people haven’t taken a look at this, I actually got to work on this when I was LLAMA President. So, that was a great opportunity to really put my money where my mouth was, and talk about what ALA really needed to be working on. If you look at that plan, it’s a good plan. You know, the bones of it are good, and it’s flexible in terms of allowing us to address, certainly all the external opportunities and threats that are facing libraries, but also to really begin to evolve the organization itself, to be more flexible, to be able to respond in a more timely manner. So, that would be the first piece of that. And then the other thing for all of us as leaders is — I’ve said this — there is no need to start a bunch of new initiatives here. We’ve got plenty on our plate. The real question is, how will I take my skill set and what I know and who I know, my networks that I’ve built over the course of many years, plus utilizing the influence of being the President of the librarians’ professional association in the United States of America, and take that and really work on behalf of the profession?
Right. One topic, when I was making up — I had put out a call, just on Twitter and Facebook and everything, if people had a question that they wanted to ask you and Barbara on this, let me know — I got a few responses, and the one thing that I kept getting questions about and I kept saying, “I’m not gonna ask about that; I’m not gonna ask about that; I’m tired of asking about that,” but since I got so many questions, I do want to ask about dues. People were complaining that, “Oh, dues are too high. Why are dues so high?” And I think what the core of that question actually is, is they don’t see the value for their dues. Not so much that it’s too high, but “I’m paying X amount of money for membership and what am I getting out of it?” How do you address the people who are, I don’t want to say “whining,” but complaining about dues?
[laughs] And actually, you know, any professional association you’re in, there’s always gonna be, you know — what is that value to members? I mean, and if members aren’t saying that, then what do we need to do to demonstrate that more effectively? If you just look at the advocacy and the lobbying efforts by itself, to me, that’s worth a few hundred bucks. But that may not be true for everyone. But if you look at the combination of the external advocacy that ALA is doing, and maintaining a Washington office — you know, it maintains two separate offices — there’s some real cost here. Plus, the options that are offered for affiliation within the divisions, the quality of the continuing education that isn’t just restricted now to two conferences a year, but is available year-round, through Big ALA and its divisions and round tables, and then, the networking opportunities. I mean, to me, there is a significant dollar value associated with all of those things. The real question is, and I would say to my colleagues, “What are you doing to take advantage of that?” It’s up to each of us as individuals to say, “OK. I’m writing my check now. Now, what am I gonna do to get my money’s worth?”
Right, and you have to put in the organization to get out, not just put in a check every year, but put in your effort.
Well, you do. I mean, you have to decide, “Yeah, this is worth it to me because I know that I don’t know as much as I need to know about anything.” Or, “I need to grow my professional network because I have goals in my career, and to hit them, I understand that one of the most important things to move forward is relationships, and learning from people that I really respect.” And then, part of it is giving back to the profession. I’m at a point in my career where I feel like I don’t know everything, and I get that every day.
Because I still make mistakes and I’m constantly learning from my colleagues. But I also know a few things, and I would much rather share that, the things that keep me coming back to work every day that I love and I’m excited about, and I know work. And then, all the things I’ve screwed up. I mean, for God’s sakes, make some new mistakes; don’t make the same old ones. And you learn that by listening and working with your colleagues.
Right. I mean, you’re never gonna get everything right.
Well, and that isn’t even the point. The thing is, if you’re really taking risks, if you’re really trying things, you should assume you will get things wrong, and getting things wrong, actually, it’s true — you’ll, a lot of times, learn a lot more from something that didn’t go well than something that did.
And you mentioned earlier that one of the things that you get out of ALA dues is the Washington office, and what they’re doing there. What do you think that’s currently being done and what else can we do at a legislative level to support libraries and how would you support those sort of initiatives?
Well, I think that, basically, ALA can only do so much. I mean, we talked about this a little bit before: all politics are local. Librarians need to know who their legislators are, and they need to have relationships with them. They need to know their elected officials. They need to know their school board members. They need to know their local boards and commission members. That’s true of librarians, it’s true of library directors, and it’s true of other volunteers like trustees who serve libraries, or work on behalf of libraries. I’m really interested right now in — I’ve advocated for school libraries my entire career. I did legislative advocacy. I was Governmental Affairs Committee chair for the Iowa Library Association for four years. I spent a lot of time at the Iowa state house. And a lot of what we were working on at that time was specifically focused on school libraries. And I’ve become convinced that — certainly, there are issues at the state level that must be addressed, but so many decisions get made at the local level. They get made at the school level, at the district level, by school boards. And so, I think that we need to look at — certainly, there needs to be that librarian-to-librarian communication and understanding. It needs to be from public library administrator to school library administrator, and school administrators. But I also think it needs to be at the governance level. Boards — governing boards — need to be talking to each other and knowing each other as well, and working together to make good decisions on behalf of the community. And that’s a model that I’m really interested in facilitating and exploring. And I think that ALA can help us develop some models for that, and work on how we think about that, by reaching out to other professional associations: the Association of School Administrators, the Association of School Boards. Because we make assumptions about groups all the time. We’ve seen that recently with publishers. Publishers have assumptions about libraries; libraries have assumptions about publishers. It’s not based on real knowledge. It’s not based on real relationships. And that’s the reality: it’s all about relationships. Because once you have those in place, even if you don’t always agree, at least you have trust.
Right. And it sounds like, from the recent talks — they’ve talked about the group from ALA going to talk with the publishers — it seemed like that was very encouraging on both sides, and they kind of understood each other a little better now.
Right. And again, it’s just amazing the things we think about each other, with absolutely no empirical data to support it. And if anything, I am very data-driven, and very process-oriented as well, but I also very much feel that everything starts with people. And so, my feeling is, if you’ve got a problem with somebody, you go talk to them. You don’t talk at them, you don’t tweet at them. [laughs] You know? Social media’s great, and all kinds of communication is great, but there’s nothing like what you and I are doing right now, is there?
Right, right. Back-and-forth. [laughs]
We are talking face-to-face, and we’ve exchanged email already; we learned a little bit about that. I checked you out; I checked out your website, and that kind of thing. I’m sure you’ve done the same thing for me. But nothing replaces this one-on-one that we’re doing right now.
Right. And I think that’s a good reason to keep the physical conferences going and not just change everything to virtual conferences, because just that face-to-face meeting — you can learn a lot more from that, a lot of times.
Well, and we have a mantra around here, at my library, and it’s, “There is no one-size-fits-all.” And I say that to myself every day, because it’s always funny when people think, “OK. Well, this is here now. E-books are here now, so print is dead.” Well, no, it isn’t. Gimme a break. I mean, human beings are wired to want choices and options, and a lot of that’s situational. “I want it this way for this situation, but I want it this way for another.” And so, basically, the real challenge now is, given the fact that there’s more options and choices, where do we place the resources to accommodate all of that?
Right. And I did want to ask something else about the political end of things. In the past — well, the question basically is, “How involved with politics do you think ALA should get?” And specifically, not related to things like the Patriot Act, CIPA, things that are basically directly related to libraries. But I’ve heard complaints — ‘cuz generally, I don’t think it’s a big surprise that on the political scale in general, the profession leans on the left side of things. And I’ve heard some people complaining — conservative librarians complaining that, oh, they’re using my money to do all this quote-unquote liberal stuff. How do we balance the different political views of people and how involved should ALA get in things? ‘Cuz one of the big complaints I know that I got from somebody was back when the Iraq War first started, ALA came out with a pronouncement that they were against it, and it was sort of, “What does that have to do with libraries?” Should ALA do things like that, when it’s not library-related?
Well, you know, I always say — and I say this somewhat facetiously but I am actually dead serious about it — when Congress actually gives ALA the same powers as Congress to wage war in those kinds of things, then we should be taking a stand on that. I guess my question always is, when people ask this, what’s our endgame here? What’s the point? What’s our intent with this, and what impact can we have? I think that our professional association works on those issues that affect libraries: certainly, our core values, but also our ability to operate in our communities, representing our users. But you raise another topic that I think needs to be aired. And that is that I don’t think — and I won’t say ALA as an organization — but I think our profession needs to look at itself in the mirror and say, “Are we truly hospitable and tolerant and open to our colleagues who may have different political opinions than ours?” And I have heard from people who have self-identified themselves as conservatives or libertarians, it’s like, “I need to keep my mouth shut, because if I say something, I get shouted down or frozen out.” And for a profession that purports to be all about — our libraries are safe, neutral places to talk about the tough issues, where all perspectives are welcome — if we’re not modeling that, what does that really say about our core values?
And so, I think that as a profession, we do need to work on that. Just because we don’t agree politically, that really isn’t germane to the issue. Did I answer your question completely?
Yes, you did. Yes.
On a slightly different topic, in the list of topics and things that I had sent to you, I had mentioned something that somebody had mentioned to me recently, about doing, like, a national campaign on behalf of libraries.
Like an @ your library campaign, but make it bigger and push it out more. And it was funny; this morning on NPR, I heard a story about the Ad Council, the people who do the “Don’t Let Friends Drink and Drive” and all these different campaigns.
Right. “This is your brain on drugs” and, yeah, all those things.
Right, and they started 70 years ago as part of the — Roosevelt had started them. “Rosie the Riveter” was their first big project, of getting women into work.
Now, I didn’t know that. That’s cool.
During World War II. Yeah, so that was really neat. They had a really neat story. I guess this is their 70th year, so that’s what they were doing the story about. But I thinking, that would be the kind of thing that I was thinking of, I guess, somebody like that — an outside group, not necessarily ALA doing a national campaign, but getting somebody else, like them or somebody else, to do a campaign. Because there seems to be — when we campaign for ourselves, that’s great, but there’s always, even if it’s at a low level, there’s a self-interest thing there. Everybody can always come back and say, “Oh, well you just want to keep your job.” Or, “You just want to do, da-da-da.” So, it’s always nice when somebody else advocates for you.
Well, of course it is. It’s great when our users do that, or our volunteers. I’ve always said that to volunteers when we’re talking about any kind of advocacy, “It’s a hundred times more powerful when you’re talking than I am, ‘cuz when I talk, it’s job security, right?” No matter how passionately we talk about it, that’s how it can be perceived. Actually, this is something I’ve been yammering about for a while. Because the recession hit, there were — one after another, all of a sudden, the big media outlets like Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and a lot of news media outlets on television, were all of a sudden like, “Ooh, look what libraries are doing.” And it’s like, “We’ve been doing this a long time, folks. Why is this news?” And part of me was delighted, ‘cuz it’s great to get the coverage. And part of me was just irritated that this was, like, “Ooh, libraries are doing this all of a sudden.” Well, no they’re not. We’ve been doing this forever. How do you think we get up to speed on this stuff? We didn’t just start in 2008 when the recession hit, in terms of helping people find jobs and making differences in people’s lives, whether they were big or small. Helping them improve their technology skills. Helping really facilitate literacy in our community — literacy of all types in our communities. Really having a huge impact on student achievement, if you’re in school libraries or college and university libraries. And public libraries as well. So, I think that there needs to be — and we’ve also learned from just watching political campaigns that if you’re relentless in your message, and you stick with it, you’re persistent, pretty much people will buy it after a while. [laughs] If it’s really true. If it’s true and authentic. I think people are also smart, and they know if you’re not. So, I absolutely think that the goal should be to develop some sort of national awareness that simply doesn’t go away, so that those old stereotypes about libraries — you know, the librarian with the bun, I don’t care about that. We know that’s not true, and it’s just kind of a cute little joke. But here’s what I do care about.
Those people have the Nancy Pearl action figure.
Yes, yes, yes. And, you know, she’s awesome. She is a goddess. We know that. We have our stars here. But what I do care about is when there’s this ongoing image perpetuated of libraries that somehow we’re becoming irrelevant. And you stand in the rotunda, the front, of my library, and if you stand there all day, you’ll see 3,000 people walk in the door. We ain’t irrelevant. We are incredibly relevant to our communities, and we’re focused on remaining so. By making sure that we know what’s going on in our communities, know what’s important to people who use libraries, we’re beginning to figure out what is important to people who don’t use libraries, and beginning to kind of match up with those needs as well, ‘cuz we know we have to do that. They pay taxes, too. So, I think that that should be the goal, to make those kinds of, “Whooo, look what libraries are doing” go away, and replacing it with stories that say, “Look at the difference libraries make.”
That’s what made me sort of think of the campaign thing, is that we know we’re doing that, but obviously for some reason, that’s not getting out to the general public. The general public is getting that whole, “Oh, well, who needs a library? I’ve got Google on my iPhone.” [laughs]
It’s obviously not true; I don’t think they’re thinking through the process correctly. But maybe we can do something to facilitate that besides. I think we’ve been doing that in modeling the behavior; I mean, we’re doing what we need to be doing, but for some reason, the message is not getting out there.
But I do think that that is something that ALA can actually facilitate. Because that is one thing that would need to be done on a national level. And I don’t think we have to worry so much about library types in this particular situation. We just really focus on the value of libraries, and the difference they make in people’s lives. ‘Cuz really, what we’re offering is transformation. We use information and stories and connections to do that, but it’s really transformation. It could be small — it could be small like, “I found the perfect book to read to my child today.” Or, it could be really big: “Oh my God. You helped me get a job.” Or, “You helped my child pass math.” And so, I think that that’s what we really need to focus on. I think one of the challenges we have is actually backing that up with real evidence and data. And that’s what we have to get better at. For instance, right now, we’re headed into the third year of a project that we’ve got going with — we actually have six school districts in one county. That’s a lot. And they’re all very good school districts, but it increases the challenge in terms of getting a uniform project going. So, we’ve invited them all to participate, but I think about three or four of them are participating right now. And what we’re doing is this: we have a big summer reading program, like a lot of libraries do. And we work with the schools to promote that well before summer starts. And we also focus on parents as well. But what we do is, then, because we do online registration and people can track what they’re doing, we also are able to generate a lot of good statistical data. Well, in the last two years, and going into year three, we’ve been sharing the names of the children who participate — not what they read, but just that they were participants — with the schools that are willing to work with us. And they take that — the names of those students — and they look at their reading scores for the fall, that preliminary reading skill test that they do in the fall. And then, they report that back out to us in the aggregate. And then, they also have a control group. And so, we now know, based on two years going on three years of data, that children who participate in our summer reading program either retain or improve their reading skills at a much higher rate than children who don’t. And that’s the kind of evidence-based or data-based information that we need to back up our assertions with.
Right. Easier to point to that and say, “See, this is what we are doing.” [laughs]
Yeah. “We make a difference, and I’ll tell you exactly how we make a difference.” And I can tell you, when I talk to groups about this and I tell them this, there’s kind of like this, “Ooh, really?” That resonates with people. So, it’s not just that summer reading is fun — which is important, don’t get me wrong, it’s very important that children associate libraries and reading and learning with fun — but that it genuinely makes a difference. It’s worth every penny we’re putting into it. And more.
And another group that’s under fire, that is school librarians right now. They almost have it the worst right now, of getting cuts and everything like that. And Molly Raphael has launched that ALA School Library Task Force.
And how would you continue to support the importance of school librarians?
Well, you know, we talked about that a little bit, and I think it’s working on models at the local levels that are gonna make — ‘cuz most of the decisions about this are made at the local level. They’re made by school boards. They’re made at the school level by Principals, depending on the bureaucracy and hierarchy of the school and the school district. But the reality is, that’s where that happens. And so, how do we, first of all, support our colleagues so that they feel that they have the support of their professional association? And that’s also offering them opportunities to continue to learn and train for advocacy? I mean, school librarians are great advocates when they have those opportunities. But it can’t just — I said — it can’t just be at the librarian-to-librarian level. It has to be at the administrator level. And it has to be at the board level. And I think that’s where ALA can really help, is helping develop some models that then can be replicated across the country, on, “This is how you make this work,” to really spread awareness and understanding of the difference a certified school librarian and a good school library program makes in a school. Which is why you absolutely have to have it; you don’t run libraries with volunteers, and you have to be willing to invest in collections and technology for school libraries.
Right. We love our volunteers, but yeah. There’s a place for paid staff and there’s a place for volunteers. [laughs]
Well, I used to run into this early in my career, even in public libraries as a new library director — facing off, say, with a city manager. We worked well together and everything, but it was like, “Well, can’t you do more with volunteers?” I said, “I’m doing plenty with volunteers, but I am not running the ladies’ aid society.
This is a profession.
Yeah. That’s right. So, I wanted to ask, also, about — well, e-books. So, I have to ask about e-books, ‘cuz that’s dominating the conversation in the profession.
Absolutely. It kinda dominates my conversation around here. [laughs]
And I know, recently, ALA did have those talks with publishers, and we talked about that a little bit — that they’ve come to a better understanding. What do you think — in general terms, if you just want to talk about it — e-books’ future in libraries and how you think ALA can continue to help guide the discussion in the future, with publishers and with Amazon and with whoever else are stakeholders?
Well, I think — and this is purely my personal opinion — I think that publishers and libraries need to get together, learn to trust each other because we know more about each other, and start figuring some things out. Because, I mean, realistically, if we don’t, Apple, Google, and Amazon are kinda gonna eat our lunch.
I mean, I guess my question, in terms of a financial model at this point, is, is what incentives do any of those big, aggregated media sources have for working with libraries? Or publishers? If they can come up with alternatives? And so, I think that we have to — if we want to control our futures, then we have to start taking action, and that we form the alliances that we need to; we need to understand the environment that we’re working in, and we have to be willing to make changes of our own business and operational models. So, I think it begins there. So, how do you develop — it starts with exactly what Molly and ALA leadership has done, which is, you start talking to each other. You start meeting. And then you start identifying common goals. Well, what is it that publishers want and authors want? Well, they want to prosper. They want to be able to do what they do. And they need to make money. We want that for them.
And libraries need to be able to build collections for their local communities and serve the needs of our readers, right? In whatever form they need. We want reading to grow and increase. Look at all the data over the last 15 years — the research that’s been done that’s showed reading was on the decline. I think the National Endowment for the Arts did a study on reading a number of years ago. The National Education Association has done it as well. Well, I haven’t seen any solid data on this yet, but I’m guessing that over time, the easier we make reading, the more people will read. ‘Cuz a lot of this is about convenience. And so, I mean, for myself, I think I’m maybe pretty common these days. I have books on my iPhone, I have books on my Kindle; I use those all the time. I still have an audio book in my car. I mean, that audio book could be on my Kindle or my iPhone, but it could still be on CD. And I still read print, all the time. And I choose those based on the situation, and what I’m feeling like.
Right. I know my wife has taken a trip to Brazil recently, and she was like, “Well, I’m gonna take my iPad with some e-books, but I’m also gonna bring some paperbacks, because you never know what’s gonna happen.”
That’s right. What if your battery just dies on you? [laughs] That’s my great fear. What if I can’t find an outlet? [laughs]
Right. Exactly. We also have to — this will be part of the discussion, of combatting DRM and the fact that we’re just licensing these books. This has been a long-term issue, of licensing electronic content instead of purchasing it, ‘cuz that’s sort of breaking first-sale doctrine, which has been a core of what we’ve been doing for a long time. Again, I guess this is what you were saying, that we need to be part of the discussion, and we need to be at the table as the —
Well, and when you start to talk about actually opening up copyright law, that has to be looked at. I think the thing that makes, certainly, me nervous and a lot of people nervous is that discussions that begin to look at established law and then the impact of technology — those things tend not to go well in Congress.
Right. As we’ve seen recently, with SOPA.
Yes. And without dissing anybody, the thing is, I think it’s not unreasonable to expect our elected officials to be up to speed on these things, because how can they make good decisions on our behalf if they’re not? Well, they’re gonna listen to whoever has their ear, and typically, that’s not us. It’s groups with a lot more money than us.
And so, that’s really the question. So, I think that we have to be involved — we have to be at the tables where standards are being discussed, where groups that in the aggregate have influence, will be listened to, and make sure that — I don’t think that we can really wait for invitations to some of these tables. The Digital Public Library of America, you know, the Harvard Project. Initially, there was no public library representation there, although the word “public” was actually in the name — they didn’t mean in the same sense that we mean it, I think, but in some respects, it was, in terms of creating this national public library. And to their credit, I think we had library leaders from some of the big libraries, public libraries, who said, “Hey, we want to be involved.” But we need to be involved on all those fronts at the same time. And I think the really challenging thing about e-books and e-content right now is, it’s just very dynamic and there’s so many people working on aspects of this. And actually, that’s a good thing, because hopefully, the more people you have working on it, the more and better ideas you’re gonna get.
But it also makes it really hard to keep track of what’s going on, whose ideas have ascendancy in any given week or month, who’s getting traction, and who might even be able to attract resources to actually do a project.
Right. And we need to make sure that — as we move into e-books and everything, that we remember that not everybody can use e-books, because not everybody can afford [laughs] e-readers and things like that. And that was my biggest problem with the recent Apple education event, was that those are all great and everything, but you have to have an iPad.
Yeah. And I think — well, it’s been always interesting to — the assumptions that Steve Jobs made about the rest of the world having what he had. You know. [laughs] You know, in terms of access like networks. But I think that — yeah — that’s why I think that the archival component of libraries, in terms of print, I actually think over time will become more important. Because, again, people want choices. But also, there are gonna be certain things that — right now, people assume that everything, say, that a library owns, right now, no matter how old, is also somehow available in some sort of digital version. And it not.
Right. Exactly. Right.
There are some fairly big expenses associated with digitization on that scale.
And I’ve heard people shocked at the fact that the Harry Potter series was not available on e-books yet. [laughs]
It’s the biggest thing ever in publishing, basically, and it’s not available in e-book form. [laughs]
Well, and there are reasons for that.
Not by her choice, of course.
Yes. Yeah. I mean, and so, when you begin to explain how complicated this is, that it’s not just about the technology — actually, the technology’s in place to do whatever — it’s really the legal, the business, and probably the social issues that are gonna be the really hard things to work our way through.
All the publishers seem so concerned about pirating and stuff like that, that they’re just — that’s why they want to keep this DRM locked down, because they’re just afraid people are gonna steal their books and run away with it. And I just — it feels like those people are gonna steal books anyway. The people who are pirating are gonna do it anyway. And if you make it easy, people will pay. I think that’s the lesson I think people should learn — that publishers, I wish, would learn from the music industry. Not that Apple destroyed them, but that Apple actually provided a way for them to make money [laughs] in a digital way. Because before, pirating was easier for music. It was easier to just download a thing instead of going through their complicated process, but now it’s just — well, if you can make it a one-click process, then people are willing to pay for it.
And I think we have learned from the tortuous route the music industry took. Unfortunately, they had to go first, and it was a very painful process, and it still is, actually. But their concerns about actually retaining their intellectual property rights and the intellectual property rights of authors is absolutely relevant. It is their stuff. So, how do you balance that, ensure that they continue to prosper and maintain the level of control they need to, so that it’s not just out there for the world to have with no remuneration at all — versus the needs that we have to really collect and disseminate for our communities? The thing is, I still think that libraries are the publishers’ best friends. We’re the authors’ best friends. Because we have relationships with readers. We have relationships with millions of readers and learners.
And I keep saying — that’s our value proposition, to use a business term. And I’d love to see somebody try to do some estimate of the dollar value of that, what that really means. We promote browsing. We make recommendations. And we do it every day in our libraries: through personal interaction, through the way we promote things, through visual merchandising in our libraries, and online. By blogging and podcasting and videos, and all that kind of thing, too. So, if we actually try to come up with, “So, what is the dollar value of that in advertising dollars?”
Right, ‘cuz I mean, I know just personally, there’s a lot of authors that I read for the first time at the library and then later bought their books. Or, even if I didn’t buy them for myself, if I enjoyed them enough, I might buy them for a Christmas present for somebody else.
Right. Well, you make a good point, too. In addition to being part of the marketing and promotion, we’re also part of the supply chain. You know, it’s kinda that “try before you buy” thing.
We’re doing that right now with e-readers. We have a big display right in the middle of one of our reference areas, where people — we have tables all around where people are working on their laptops and doing all of that — it sits right there. We have every e-reader currently available. We can support them to a certain extent, but basically, we can let people get their hands on them, and we can talk about — ‘cuz they’ll say, “Well, which one should I buy?” Well, we’re not gonna tell them that, but we’re gonna say, “Well, here are some things you need to think about, in terms of what you want to do versus what equipment’s gonna be best for you, the best match for you.” And then, we send them on their way, and they go to Best Buy, or they go to one of the local stores in town, and they buy it. And then, of course, for everything they can check out from OverDrive, there’s a ton of things that they can’t. So, where are they gonna head? Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Apple. And so, we’re creating markets.
Yeah, and I think — especially Barnes & Noble understands that, because they have the feature with the Nook where, if you’re inside a Barnes & Noble store, you can browse books. If you’re on their Wi-Fi network, you have that capability. So, they understand the value of browsing, and that’s why they’ve got those cushy chairs everywhere. [laughs]
Yes, well, and actually, our local Barnes & Noble here, we actually work with them quite a lot. And they basically advertise right in the store that people can download from OverDrive to their Nooks.
Yeah, they do with the ones here, too. Yeah, that’s a big selling point, I think.
Of course it is; it’s added value. I mean, that’s what you’re always looking for. That’s gold. Not only can you buy books, you can get them free with your library card. Who wouldn’t like that?
Right, because obviously, it’s available on Kindle now, but I’ve never seen Amazon really — beside the initial press release — they don’t advertise that as a feature of the Kindle, that you can check out library books.
No. No. But I think I would love to have a sit-down with — what is his name? Is it — it’s Jeffrey something, right? The founder of Amazon?
Yeah, Jeff Bezos.
Yes. Yeah. Yeah. Because their business model — if you look at what they’re doing, they’ve created a division, a publishing division now. OK. Well, first it was self-publishing, right?
It was like, “OK. Well, we don’t really need publishers anymore.” But if you look at self-publishing, what’s really missing from that equation? You know what a really good editor can do for a writer who’s not that good? Or even a really good writer — they can make them a great writer. And so, I just don’t think that role of publishers needs to go away. It shouldn’t go away. We need them. They’re a very important part of the process. But now — aren’t they opening a store? In Seattle? Isn’t Amazon actually opening a bookstore?
Yeah, I heard about that. Yeah.
Yeah. So, they’re gonna try every single model they can. And the reality is, they have the money to try and fail.
Exactly right. [laughs] The last thing I wanted to ask you about was sort of a general, nice little feel-good question to finish up.
On the candidates’ forum you did at Midwinter, you guys talked a lot about 21st century libraries, librarians. What do you think makes a good 21st century librarian and/or library? And how do we ensure that the current and future librarians get the training they need to become that ideal?
Well, I actually have 11 things. I mean, I’ve thought about this a lot. I actually present about it. So, if you’ll bear with me, I’ll tell you.
That’s fine. [laughs]
I mean, I have very strong opinions about this. I’m a former reference librarian myself. I was a children’s and young adult librarian, and I was a reference librarian. And I loved that. I still consider myself to be a working librarian in addition to being an administrator. But here’s the difference between how I was a librarian and what I expect of our librarians here at my library. OK. First, everything begins with the customer. These are all Cs, by the way. It’s alliterative, to make it a little more easy. So, we’re using data now to really understand their wants, their needs, their habits, and their interests — well beyond the circulation outputs that we have. Kind of moving from transaction-based interactions to interactions. We want to develop those relationships. And we have to be the customer. If librarians are not using the version of the online catalog, for instance, that customers use — that’s a problem, because they don’t really understand the experience. If they’re not using self-checks, if they’re not asking questions of reference staff — of other reference, even if they are reference staff. If they’re not trying out the library services from a customer perspective, they’re not gonna get it. We have to be consultants now, too. Being a reference librarian — I thought I was a damn fine reference librarian and I loved reference, but I basically waited for the questions, right? And in those days, they either came in in person or by phone. Those were the two things. But that was kind of more of an information-mediator type of thing. And I think we have to move beyond being generalists to becoming experts. We’re really asking our librarians to be proactive, in effect. We’re calling them neighborhood librarians now. We associate them with collections — neighborhoods, we’re calling them. For instance, consumer health. If you’re in that role, you are expected to develop programming, to work with the team in the library that really develops that collection, to be a community liaison to health agencies and health professionals, and to really work on individual and community health issues. Putting the library at the table there. We have to be totally focused on convenience. It’s gotta be about the customer and when, where, and how they need things. And so, we have to be willing to change our service models over time. Communication. It has to be in all the channels that work for people. So, it used to be in person and on the phone — if you’re not IM-ing, if you’re not using social media, we expect ours also to blog. And they’re creators. They’re creating content. They’re adding value to the stuff that we buy and put on the shelves, or the stuff that we put in a database. Right? And creating content that is really local. It’s not any place else. We have to anticipate and manage change. We have to look for the next cool thing, so that means we’re doing a lot of environmental scanning — all the talk that we had today. How many industries did we talk about that have an impact on libraries? Lots of them. We do that connection with our customers. We share a bit of ourselves. This notion that we don’t have to give our name — “I’m the anonymous librarian; I’m not gonna tell you anything or reveal anything about myself” — I don’t buy that. Because if we want real relationships with our customers, we have to be willing. We actually — think about a reference interview. You know? We try to be very tactful and discreet, but if they’re asking us for help on, like, a health issue, there’s a certain amount we need to know about them, isn’t there? To really get them what they need? And so, we need to be willing to reciprocate that. We have to stay current. Nobody gets to opt out anymore. “Well, I don’t really know about those newfangled e-readers or whatever.” Well, you damn well better. Because that’s important to our customers. We have to be collaborative. It’s not Lone Ranger time anymore. If we’re gonna do something, let’s look for a community partner or a partner somewhere to do that with us, ‘cuz it’s gonna be better if we do. ‘Cuz we are not the experts in everything. We have to really be focused on continuous improvement. It’s a cycle of review, revise, refocus. Is there a better way to do this with our spaces, and our systems, and ourselves? Everything that we do. And we have to take charge, which means that I think if you ask me about the single biggest survival skill for a librarian now — especially one who’s looking to go into formal leadership — it’s the art of facilitation, which is not taught in library school. It’s really not taught anywhere, unless you seek it out. And that is the skill of helping really smart, educated groups of people work together — whether that’s in your library or outside your library. Because managing libraries, leading libraries — and you lead from wherever you are — is not about telling people what to do. It’s about helping them figure out what to do. So, that starts by asking really great questions.
So, there you go. There’s my list.
[laughs] Nice, long list.
[laughs] Well, I mean, we have a lot of colleagues out there that are doing these things, and that doesn’t get talked about a lot. I mean, sometimes I think the profession gets dissed for not changing quickly enough, for digging their heels in, for being resistant to change. And I think there’s definitely an element of that. There absolutely is. But we have a lot of wonderful librarians out there, at all levels in their libraries, that are doing great things and doing exactly what I’m talking about here.
Yeah. And that’s one of the main reasons I wanted to start this podcast in the first place, ‘cuz I wanted to let people know what these individual librarians are doing.
And I think that’s wonderful. As I said, I’ve listened to your other ones, and I’ve really enjoyed them.
Gina, thank you so much again for talking to me. I hope the people that have listened have learned more about you and Barbara and can now make a more informed decision when they vote.
Well, and Steve, I really appreciate the opportunity. This has been a lot of fun.
Yes, it was a pleasure to talk to you.