This is Circulating Ideas. I’m Steve Thomas. My guests today are the candidates for American Library Association President in 2016. We’ll start with Christine Hage, go to Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe and then finish up with Jim Neal. Hope you enjoy and learn about the candidates.
Christine, welcome to the show.
Thank you, I’m glad to be here.
So, you are running for ALA President, as a petition candidate.
Why do you want to be ALA President? What made you want to do that, throw your hat in the ring?
Well, throughout my entire career I’ve been so proud to be a librarian and I’ve been a member of ALA since I joined the profession in 1971. I want to be President of ALA because I believe in the work that we do because we do such amazing work that touches the lives of people from birth to death.
What about you becoming a librarian in the first place, what drew you to the profession in the first place?
I suppose my mother taking me to the library as a child. If you had met me when I was in the second grade and asked me what I wanted to be, I would have said a librarian. I’m not sure that as a second grader I knew what a librarian did, but that’s what I wanted to be and I’ve never worked anywhere but in a library. I’ve never worked at a food station or a cash register or anything like that. It’s always been a page in a library, a circulation clerk in a library, a reference assistant in the college library. When I was in graduate school I worked for a professor in the library school and I’ve worked in special, academic and public libraries, but my full-time jobs have always been in public libraries since 1971.
Yes, I was going to say you’ve gotten though, you’ve got a wide breadth there of different kinds of libraries.
Yeah, yeah. But it’s primarily been in public libraries. But I’ve been a member of ALA and Michigan Library Association as well from day one. I’ve held, you know, just about every position in a library and so I’ve got a diverse experience in the field and in the Association as well.
Right. Getting into sort of more ALA kind of stuff, how do you sort of get involved in the organization as a new member or if you’re kind of coming back into it and wanting to get involved, how should, how can you get involved?
Probably the most traditional way is through the New Members Round Table. People that are active in that can form a network/coalitions/cohorts, that really can stay with them throughout their careers. I think that it is important that you take advantage of those opportunities. Not everyone is able to come to conference and so the Association has offered several virtual conferences. PLA has sponsored virtual conference in conjunction with the Public Library Association’s National Conference, so, if you can’t come, you can still attend some of the sessions or view them online. I believe that is important. I think asking to be a virtual member, and that’s not a term that a lot of people use, is worthwhile. When I was President at PLA and President of United For Libraries, I appointed virtual members to our committees so these are people who could not come to conference, but could participate in the work of the committee by doing the work that needs to be done, whether it’s contacting potential speakers or writing an article for a newsletter or a magazine, there are ways that people can participate without coming to conference. ALA has had virtual membership meetings, another way that people can be aware of what’s going on in the Association.
How can ALA work with, like, library schools to help increase the diversity of MLS candidates in the first place? To make sure we can make that a little better.
Libraries struggle with the diversity issue as well as library schools. We try to hire the people who live in our community and work in our library so theoretically there should be the diversity. I think ALA and the library schools can work with library administrators to identify current employees from minority or ethnic groups who might be interested in pursuing an advanced degree. The Association has the Spectrum Scholars a scholarship program targeted specifically to increase diversity. But, there are things that we can do at the local level. Employers can put staff openings on the various affiliate group listservs, so the Black Caucus, the Chinese American Libraries, the Asian Pacific Library Association, all have listservs that go out to their members, so by posting jobs on those listservs, the jobs are in the face of people who have self-identified as a minority. I think that’s an important step, that we post the jobs. Library schools can approach library administrators, asking is there somebody on staff and can be helped either with local scholarships or flex time if they are going to actually go to a library school. There’s so many online programs now that really distance isn’t as much of a factor.
So, in addition to increasing the diversity in sort of racial ways, there’s also members with disabilities that sometimes have issues. Can you talk about how the ALA could be more accessible to members with disabilities? Either at conferences, or just in general?
Well, I know that there was a situation, I guess, at a recent conference where a person in a wheelchair was not able to get up on the stage to speak.
And it seems to be that the program planner should have been aware that the person was in a wheelchair and asked for the ramp. It’s probably not realistic to have ramps up to every single podium that we have. We do certainly at the opening and closing sessions, in the auditorium series, and things like that. Everyone needs to be aware that the person that has the disability has to make us aware also that they need accommodation. On the conference registration form there is a box that you can check that says you need special accommodation, and I know that the association has provided sign language interpreters. We have the facility and the interest in doing it, we just need to be aware that someone needs that accommodation. ALA Conference Committee is looking at accessibility at conferences. I’ve been on that committee and I know that the convention centers that we’re going to are major convention centers, they’re not in some small library. The convention centers are handicapped accessible and I just think we just need to be more aware if someone needs accommodation, that it’s in the right place at the right time, and the right kind of accommodation.
Right. What do you think that the ALA can do to continue to support MLS students as they are kind of getting into their professional future, because it is kind of hard sometimes when they’re in school, they’re not sure what they want to do and. How can, what can ALA do as an organization to help guide them?
ALA can promote more mentoring programs.
The International Relations Round Table is currently promoting mentorships for international members. They’re asking their members to apply for a mentorship and then they will connect ALA members with international ALA members. There are other programs like that within ALA. ALA also currently offers reduced membership fees for library science students and some of those memberships are also connected with the state chapters so that when a student joins ALA, they also get a membership in their state chapter. Also, making students aware of opportunities. IFLA, the International Federation of Library Associations, is going to meet in Columbus next summer and right now anyone that applies to be a volunteer gets free registration. So a student could apply and be able to attend IFLA and experience that. They’d obviously have to get themselves to Columbus and cover housing and food and things like that, but the registration fee is waived.
Okay, that’s great. So, we’ve talked about sort of the diverse candidates and diverse members and members with disabilities and MLS students, but what do see as the greatest value of ALA just to all of its members and to society?
I think ALA is at its very best when it takes the lead on a library-wide issue. We collaborate and build coalitions within our association across library types, types of libraries and types of services. We’re able to speak for the profession in a way that an individual person, or a library, or a regional system, or even a state association could not do. The group that I’ve been most impressed with is the Digital Content Working Group. ALA got representatives from the various types of libraries and said what do we need to get e-books used more in libraries and more accessible to our users? The Digital Content Working Group got their act together and they approached the publishing industry and they made great strides in that arena. Initially some publishers didn’t even want to sell ebooks to libraries and now ebooks are much more accessible to libraries. In my library because more vendors are able offer more e-books, we were able to drop a platform. Instead of supporting two platforms at $3,000 a year each, we’re down to one and so we can get all the publishers we need through that platform. And that’s $3,000 right back into my materials budget thanks to ALA’s efforts. The other kinds of collaborations that we’ve seen within the association, are between the Public Library Association and the Association for Library Service to Children. They got together years ago and created Every Child Ready To Read and they funded brain research and developed library models, programs and materials based on that research so that libraries, public libraries in particular, can really be the early childhood expert in their community. If a family has a child born with special needs, school districts, counties, state health departments and so forth, offer services for children with special needs. But, the average healthy child has their parent for the first three years in their life before they get involved in nursery schools and so forth, and the public library is a natural partner with parents to help get that child ready to read and that comes directly from the collaboration between the Public Library Association and the Association for Library Service to Children. Maureen Sullivan, one of our former ALA Presidents, created that type of collaboration with the Harwood Institute and we’ve been offering programs for librarians to learn how to be facilitators in their community and to be innovators within their community. So, ALA can really take the lead when we look at issues that are cross library type and work together and bring in partners from outside the library to improve the situations.
In your everyday job as a director, how do you encourage your staff to succeed? And how would you use those skills to improve the ALA?
I’ve worked in four different public libraries and I’m known for being open, inclusive, and collaborative and working in that manner with my staff. I believe that I hire smart people and my job is to get them the resources they need to do their job well. As ALA President I would follow that same mode in that I believe that ALA staff is talented and experts in their fields, they have certainly more experience in individual fields than I do and so my job as President would be to make sure they have the resources and the environment to excel at their jobs. Continuing education has been important in my own career, and I believe that it’s important in all of our careers and so at my library, staff are encouraged to attend workshops or conferences or webinars and actually be involved in the planning of those types of events because that’s a good experience, a learning experience for them as well.
I empower staff to make things work and to find solutions and to be creative and to know they can do that in an atmosphere that they’re not going to be punished because they made a mistake. We’re a learning organization and we learn by our mistakes. So, people need to be empowered to do more than the standard. And I’ve mentored staff at my own libraries, several of my staff members have gone onto to become library directors, two have become presidents of our state association and one has become a president of an ALA division. I like to introduce people to each other so that they can find their own niche within ALA or within the profession. One of the things we do when we go to conference together is we have, what we call a family dinner. My staff is allowed to invite somebody in the field that they’ve never met and would like to meet. So, we’ve had authors, we’ve had librarians from all over the country, we’ve had library educators, we’ve had past presidents of ALA, just people that they’ve read about or, who write columns and people we would like to meet. That mentoring and introducing them to others is really important and I think the same needs to be done at the association level.
I’ve been doing these interviews with candidates for the past few years and one thing that’s always kind of in common is that this is like not like the political arena where you guys are saying, oh you know, “Jim and Lisa will destroy the ALA if they win!” so it’s never anything like that.
So from your point of view what do you feel like are the biggest challenges that libraries will face in the coming years and how would you specifically as ALA President lead the profession, to help address them? Because obviously all three of you are great, you could all lead the ALA in different ways, but you would do it in different ways. So how would you lead the profession?
Well, we’re an aging profession, an aging association and we need to ensure that we have new leaders in the pipeline. ALA has made some good strides in that with the Emerging Leaders program, that’s a step in the right direction. I think approaching and encouraging the Library Journal’s Movers and Shakers, I guess they call them winners, should be approached to take leadership roles in ALA. Funding can be a challenge for people new to the profession, funding to attend conferences, or even join and so we need to make opportunities, scholarships for conferences available to new people in the profession. Years ago we had a name, I think it was ALSC actually, “Each one, reach one,” and we need to do that within our profession. Each member should find their successor and, and bring new people into the profession. What ALA does is great, it’s important, it’s improved libraries around the world, it’s improved librarians and as I said when we started, I’m very proud to be a librarian and a member of ALA and I want to share that with the next generation.
Finally, the last question, why are libraries still important in the 21st century?
Libraries have changed a lot in some ways and not in others. We still provide content, regardless of what format that content is, and people have never been able to afford all to purchase all the information they need to succeed both in their careers and their lives. Libraries have been a source of that, whether the book is in print or whether it’s an e-book or an audiobook, we still provide the content that people want. We’ve also become a third place in people lives to many people. They work in the library or they’re home, they see us as a resource for socialization in addition to information. We really own, I believe, the niche, early childhood literacy for parents with children who are getting ready to read. I think that’s a really important thing that no other institution in our country does. And certainly parents who have children with special needs get support, but the average parent is really on their own for those first three years of life, and libraries have stepped into that arena. We’re really are making great strides with our early childhood development programs and activities. So, I think that those are all important things to our communities. Our circulation, and circulation is only one way of measuring library success, but our circulation is increasing, and we are vital to our community. Our community loves us and it respects us because we care about them and we’re providing the materials they need, want and deserve.
All right, Christine, thank you so much for talking to me. Do you have any last words before we sign off here?
No, I appreciate you taking the time to talk to all three of the candidates and I look forward to meeting you in person. I ask for your viewers’ support in this election. Thank you very much.
Lisa, welcome to the show.
Obviously, you are on the show because you are running for ALA President. Why do you want to be ALA President?
Well, thank you for having me and really it’s a great honor to have been nominated to stand for election for the position at ALA President. When one accepts this kind of invitation you spend a lot of time thinking about why do I want to do this and really am I the right person for the position at this point in time. So, the first part of my answer is I believe that I’m the right person for what ALA needs in a president at this time, which is a president who is thinking about the future of the association and where the profession will be in say 20 years, which is, I think, as we can see all the trends obviously we’re moving to a more digital future, we’re moving to a more distributed future, and a future that really, absolutely needs to engage our newer and younger members so that the association has long-term vitality. So that’s the first part of my answer of why I want to be president. Secondly, I believe I have the capacity to do this. I have a track record of helping associations, both my own organization through strategic planning as well as my time as president of the Association of College and Research Libraries, of helping an association move towards a future that is really vibrant and reflects an exciting vision for where things could be in the future, building on the successes of the past. Finally, it’s a good time in my own career as I’ve had a lot of things that have wrapped up recently and it’s a good time to be able to devote really a very intensive three years to the kind of effort that this position requires and I’m very pleased to say that I have the support of my library and my library administration to devote this kind of effort to our profession.
I’ve done these kinds of interviews with the candidates the past few years and I’ve mentioned this kind of every time, that it’s obviously different from regular politics in that none of you, none of the candidates are saying that, you know, that ALA will be destroyed if the other candidates win or anything like that. But, you have your own strengths and you feel like your strengths are the ones that are going to help the association the most, so can you talk a little bit about how, what you personally will do to lead the profession because you talked a little bit about, some of the challenges that are coming up for libraries. Like what skills you bring to the table to, that would address those challenges.
Sure, I mean I think one of the things that’s great about a professional association is that we’re all on the same side of the aisle as the phrase goes, so the “why me” is a great question. For the, the members to be considering as they cast their votes. So, the first thing I’ll say is that I’m really passionate and energetic about anything that I commit to. I’m sort of an energizer bunny when it comes to those things that I decide to take on and see through and I do see them through. But, I think the other thing that sets me apart, at least as I read the other candidates statements is that I’ve really put out to the voters very specific projects that they can expect me to champion .Those are in my candidate statement, obviously, at lisaforALA.org, but also in the statement that will come out in American Libraries. So, I have very specifically said that here is how you can expect me to do my appointments process. I have committed that there will be at least one member of every committee that I appoint that has never before served on an ALA committee because I believe we need to create space for new people to join in our association work. Secondly, I’ve said that I will champion and disseminate best practices in digital inclusion. I’m very concerned that we have a very conference focused approach to doing our business as an association. Midwinter and Annual are wonderful, but they are really a very expensive thing for many people and many people do not attend have funding in their workplace to be able to go to those, or they have personal life, or financial reasons that they can’t travel, or health reasons, or they’re a solo librarian and so the workplace doesn’t really let them leave twice a year for a week. So, I want all of those voices at the table so I think it’s time for us to really champion the way digital inclusion works for a professional association. Thirdly, speaking specifically to that, I’ve said that I will bring a proposal to the executive board for a task force to really examine the future of our conference eco-system. Two conferences a year was a fabulous invention for the analog age, we need to ask ourselves if that’s still the right way to do our business and we also need to look at the impact and relationship of those conferences to our state chapters as well as our division conferences and ensure that we have the right conference eco-system going forward. And then the final thing that I very specifically said is that I intend to re-engage the vision of ALA-APA which is the Allied Professional Association, which is our advocacy group for library workers.
Just like libraries can’t live on love alone, neither can library employees and so we really need to look to the issues of what our salaries are, our benefits, the workplace environment, so that libraries are truly a workplace of choice for those who work in libraries and they are a place that really enables people to have the kinds of impact that we want them to be able to have because they’re being paid at the levels that are correct, that they have benefits, that they’re truly able to have a really healthy workplace and there’s a lot of advocacy work that we could be doing there. We have the capacity to do it in ALA-APA. There was a lot of vision when that was set up. I think it’s time to really capitalize and make that vision a reality.
You talked about the cost that it takes to attend a conference and that we often hear, especially when dues go up that people complain, complain, complain that the dues are going up. How do you justify that to staff, to members and how do you express what the greatest value is of, to ALA, to its members.
Sure. So, I think that one of the things that we really need to think about is what do members need from ALA and what does ALA do best. I think ALA is best when it is a platform for participation and engagement. When together in ALA we do things that we cannot do by ourselves. I don’t really feel that the right mindset in some ways for the ALA President is to so to speak justify the dues increase so much as to show and to lead an association that is creating value for its members so the value is perceived and seen as commensurate with the cost. And, in fact, what I’d really like us to be is at a place where people will say “I get more value here than I even have to pay for.” That is the best kind of vision we want to have for the kinds of things because it should, it should matter that we can do things together, that we can’t do by ourselves.
Yeah exactly and that’s, that’s really what ALA is all about and I do like the, like what you’re talking about of the ALA-APA working together more cause that’s another thing that I hear about a lot too is why doesn’t ALA do more for individual librarians, like well that’s not really the mission of ALA, that’s the mission of ALA-APA, so.
Well, and I think the other thing that is interesting is many people do not even realize that ALA-APA exists, or what it’s mission is. In part because it doesn’t have individual membership, it’s set up as a different kind of association and in fact during my time as standing for election, when I have said “oh you’re also elected if I’m elected I’ll also be elected ALA-APA President,” people have said “what’s that?” and so I’m really hopeful that my even making this a priority has already raised people’s awareness, but people’s awareness of ALA-APA will be ultimately raised by the value it creates for the profession and for library workers. And I want to be very clear here that when I talk about library, I keep using the phrase library workers because it’s the most inclusive term I can come up with to mean all of us who work in libraries.
I’m also very concerned about staff salaries, the, there’s, there’s issues across the board with both salary levels as well as job insecurity as we see the way schools or public libraries or academic libraries or everyone is really struggling in this economy, that we need to make sure that people have the kind of, that they’re not in a precarious situation and that goes for all of our library workers, librarians, library staff, student workers if we’re in an academic situation, like I am working in an academic library, the graduate students who work for us. I’m really concerned across the board about all of our employees and workers.
So we’ve talked a little bit about ALA-APA and let’s take another step back and just assume maybe there are some listeners out there that don’t know what it is, can you tell listeners what it is?
Sure, absolutely. So, ALA-APA is the American Library Association-Allied Professional Association, which is essentially a second association that was established that can do the kind of advocacy for library workers that ALA, given its tax status, is not able to. So, we don’t need to go into the details of IRS regulations, but just know that there are certain kinds of things that certain kinds of associations are allowed to do under their tax status and then other associations, other kinds of things. So, ALA-APA is the kind of association that can do worker advocacy and so it was set up as a result of,, or stemming from the work of Mitch Freedman when he was ALA President and really took on the issue of library workers as his, one of his primary emphases and so from that we have this additional association. The ALA President is president of ALA-APA. ALA Council is also the ALA-APA Council, so the governance structure of the two is paired, though careful effort is made to be very clear when they are acting each of those. So.
Okay, so ALA has all these great things but sometimes it can be like so many great things, that it seems really overwhelming when somebody joins, that they don’t really know where to get started. How do you think new members can help orient themselves and get more involved, if they want to get more involved in the organization, cause I know, especially when I went over to my first ALA conference, you know you just walk in and there’s just 20,000 people in this room and it’s like oh my gosh, I don’t even know what to, or even where to get started.
Absolutely. First I want to give a real shout out here to the New Members Round Table which really takes this as one of their primary missions, to engage with and help new members find their place in the association, but I don’t think we can leave it to the New Members Round Table to take responsibility for this, it’s really all of our responsibility to bring in our new members, to create pathways of participation and engagement. I think also new members, people who are new to the association, and I should be clear, sometimes new members are new to being members and sometimes they’re new to coming to conference, or new to volunteering, or engaging in a different way, we’re all new time and time again.
So, I think that looking for those opportunities for orientations and the like is, of course, helpful, but I tend to think, especially as I’m thinking of myself as ALA President, to thinking about more what structures and systems do we need to set up to ensure that people are welcomed into the association and then are able to navigate to the place where they feel they can best meet their goals for engaging and do the kind of work that they’re hoping to do. For the past few years I’ve actually be on the board of my local food co-op and that has really helped me think about this in a new way because members of a food co-op also have different levels of engagement and engage on different aspects over the course of their membership and so bringing forward that notion that helping people find their place at the right time for them in the right work that they want to do is really a key component if ALA is going to be a platform for member engagement and, and act and collective action. So, I think this involves working really closely as well with the membership office of the association. We have some great staff there who are thinking very carefully about these issues as well and so it’s really a partnership between the ALA staff and then ALA leaders as well as, I’m going to, do also one other thing here which is mention that I think peer mentoring or peer sharing within ALA is a unrecognized asset that we have, which is its probably often not going to be the president of X, Y or Z division who really makes that connection with a new members. It’s probably a member who’s doing the kind of work that person’s interested in, who’s maybe 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 years into that role and so we really need to also think about empowering our sort of frontline people who are newer, but not brand new, to also have that role in bringing people in. So, that kind of peer mentoring idea is really key and I think we have a, we have an opportunity to think about this more robustly if we bring in that peer relationship and not just always a “who’s the top leaders?” kind of perspective on this.
Right. So, as we, as we all are keenly aware of, the profession is over and I think it’s sort of going in the wrong direction, that we’re, the profession is overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly straight, and to a lesser extent overwhelmingly female. What can we do as a profession to not only help libraries beef up their staffing with being more diverse, but also getting into MLS schools. Cause I know that, I mean the professional staff or people with the masters degrees, are even smaller I think percentage wise, of that kind of thing, so what can ALA do and what can we do kind of as a profession to kind of increase the diversity?
Sure. So the first thing I think is really key is even embedded in your question which is we must acknowledge that we have a problem. This has not been a success story in spite of our best efforts to date. So, people have done many things, Spectrum scholars, mentorship programs, recruitment programs. It has not had the effect that we intended it to have and we need to think seriously about why is that. You mentioned recruitment into MLS programs. Obviously cost of going to school is one of the greatest issues that is going to be faced but it is not just the cost of going to school. It is also whether people find an environment in those programs that fosters their growth and development and welcomes them into the profession.
So, even when people get an MLS, do they choose libraries as their workplace of choice? If they choose libraries as their workplace of choice, what environment do they find within those libraries? Do they find an environment that is supportive of their growth and development? And that is also supportive of the centrality of diversity to mission, or not.
So, I am equally concerned with recruitment of the profession as well as retention and I think we have some, some work to do in both of these areas. You also mentioned the dynamic that I think we need to really ask ourselves how this has happened and how we want to change it, which is while the profession in many cases is not as diverse as we would like in the sense profession here meaning those people who have an MLS were employed in the categories in our situations that we recognize structurally as librarians. Many times the staff is much more diverse and so we need to ask ourselves some questions about the pathways from staff positions to professional positions and whether we have structured a system that disincentives a staff-to-librarian pathway.
I don’t have the answers here, I have a lot of questions and I think that we have a lot of work to do, that is going to mean much more inclusive conversations than we’ve had to date and I’m happy to see that I feel those conversations are happening. Jennifer Vinopal just wrote a great essay in “In The Library With The Lead Pipe” that really called out a number of these challenges. But, also issued a very clear call to engagement around these issues.
So, I would welcome the opportunity as ALA President to support and foster those conversations. There is not an easy solution here I don’t think, but it is crucial and vital that we take action and figuring out the right action to take when so many fields have tried things that have not worked is really going to mean some very honest reflection and some very deep engagement with some very big structural problems within our society as well as within our profession.
Right, and sort of related, related to that diversity issue, not something that we didn’t, I didn’t mention, I didn’t call out specially, but how can ALA be more accessible to members with disabilities?
Sure. I think that’s another key question that comes down to this word that I’ve sort of been reflecting on throughout my presidential run, if you will, which is the word is “inclusion.” So, there’s inclusion around diversity, there’s inclusion around people with disabilities. Some of the things that I mentioned around digital inclusion will certainly help people with disabilities engage in the associations work. Not having to travel in order to be fully engaged through digital inclusion mechanisms and the like. However, we have to realize that every technology that we use always has a way in which it excludes because a particular technology that is, say audio only, such as this podcast, we need to be able to do the transcription in order to make it accessible with hearing disabilities for example. So, we need to be attentive to these issues.
There are people within ALA, ASCLA in particular that are very good at thinking about these issues and attending to these issues. So this is another case where I want to sort of say that we have expertise in one area of ALA, that if we could bring that to bear across the entire association would really benefit us all. So, you know, ALA can be as siloed as any organization, and so any time that the ALA president, by having this remit across the entire association can sort of highlight and bring forward the expertise of one group for the benefit of the entire association, I think that’s one of the roles of the President, which is really that sort of, in my mind it’s, it’s an appreciative inquiry sort of approach to “where do we have strength, how can we bring that strength to bear?”
So, technology is one area that people with disabilities, there’s also things that I’m happy to see being done around our conferences and ensuring that our physical facilities where we hold our conferences are accessible. There’s more that we could do with that as well and again I’m happy to see some member groups stepping up and saying here’s how we can improve this and make it better.
And in your job at University of Illinois, how do, how do you work with your staff and with your students you work with and how do you, how do you sort of encourage them to succeed and how would you use those skills to improve the ALA if you were elected president?
Sure. So, I’ll use two examples here. One thing, I think it’s important to sort of say is that I work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a very large library, multiple libraries on campus, hundreds of employees. My own office is myself, one other person, an e-learning specialist, and a third of a time graduate assistant so I actually have relatively few people who work directly for me under my supervision. However, I am responsible for the information literacy program, which is across all of our library units, and so what I’ve really developed over my career has been the ability to work through, to help an association or an organization to work through strategies of collaboration in order to achieve collective action even without supervisory power and I’ve done that with my information literacy leadership here at the university, but also at the, for the last year in 2015, the dean of our library asked me to coordinate our strategic planning process and the only person who was required to participate in that strategic planning process was me, in the sense that I had been tasked to oversee it. Everyone else was engaged really by my invitation, to asking them to serve on groups, to come to discussion forums, to attend a retreat. And I’m really pleased to say that more than 250 people in our association chose to engage because they saw opportunities and space to have an impact.
Same approach I took with ACRL. Again as a division president, no one has to do things. You invite them to, you respond when they indicate they’re willing to volunteer, so that’s actually my skill set which is working across associations that are very complex, where people want to engage, and helping navigate, helping them navigate, but also creating structures that means that people aren’t just doing activities, but those activities lead to accomplishments that, again, people couldn’t get to if they were working on their own.
This is maybe another venue for me to mention one other thing that I’m really pleased that I get to do in my job which is we have a library school here at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and in my career I’ve had the opportunity to engage with hundreds and hundreds of library school students in any number of venues and different approaches. So, there I’ve really been in more of a mentoring role and helping people find their paths. So, it’s really been an important component of my own career to be helping those library school students who become our new professionals find their own place within the profession and in many cases within ALA.
So, I want to finish up with, this might be a two or three part question, so we’ll see how this goes. I want to know number one, when you were younger, what did you like about libraries? Number two, sort of why did you become a librarian and is that, is that tied to your earlier members of a, memories of being a, of being in libraries and being part of that? And why are libraries still important in the 21st century? So, those are sort of combined together.
Okay, yes. Let’s, let’s go for multi-part question here. First of all my, my earliest memories of libraries are indeed the public library where my mother took us very regularly and we were allowed to get “five books, just five books.” Now, you have to know that I have five siblings, so across five of us, or across all six of us that’s 30 books every time, so I understand why my Mom put that limit on. So, we went very regularly and it was definitely a place that my parents could find a way to, to meet the demands of their children who were voracious readers. I read so much as a child I think that’s like a stereotype, right, of librarians but it is indeed true that I loved to read as a child. Likewise, in, in elementary and, and secondary schools same sorts of things. I think in my, my middle school I had read through almost the entire collection of fiction, so it’s, it’s a long time for me in my childhood of being a place that, you know, gave me access to books. I guess is the way you would say. This, in many ways, is, there’s kind of a break if you will in my life.
At, at high school I was a debater and so we did policy debate and I spent a lot of time doing research in libraries, so less focused if you will on libraries as a place of leisure reading, and more as a place of research which, when I got to college I had never whatever reason actually considered librarianship as a career, but I worked in the library as a student worker and the librarians there kept encouraging me to consider librarianship as a career and I thought I was going to be a lawyer and after a year of working in a law firm, I discovered I wasn’t really wanting to be a lawyer after all and so started to explore librarianship and that’s really been the story since then.
So, it’s my story is a story of the, you know, the voracious leisure reader through the high school researcher and then library employee in college, so it’s probably a thread of how I became a librarian.
So, why are libraries important today? You know, I think libraries are important for many of the reasons that they were important to me as a child and as a, as a student. But I also think they’re important in a lot of other ways and one of the things that I really kind of like to keep in mind always is that my experience is not everyone’s experience. So, for some the library is important because of place, it creates, it’s a space and it has programming and it has caring adults. For other people it’s the collections, myself I think it was more of a collections focused sort of experience of the library. For others, it’s the, it’s because it, it is a self-reflection, it creates an, it’s sort of a collections but it’s because the collections create a world that they don’t have access to, for either, for any number of reasons. I mean I think we hear a lot about teens who are able to sort of explore who they are and their identity through materials that are in the library. So, I think there is the aspect of access to collections, access to space, access to staff and, and caring adults, all of those things that are so key.
So it’s sometimes hard to come up with a single reason why libraries are important, so I’m going to put forward the single reason libraries are important is because of all the reasons that libraries are important. It’s the multiplicity of roles that they serve within all of our different kinds of communities that is really what’s most important about them and that they are not narrow in their focus, but rather that they adapt and become the information organization that their communities need them to be in relation to the needs and priorities of that community at that point in time. Really libraries are the story of incredibly adaptable institutions and they are lead by very innovative and adaptable leaders and they have employees who are very attuned to the needs of the community. So, that is really maybe, maybe I’ve come to my single reason and the single reason libraries are important is because they serve the needs of their communities.
And we contain multitudes.
All right, well I hope everybody has learned a lot about your campaign and what you want to bring to ALA and most importantly I hope everybody goes out and votes.
Absolutely, could not agree more with that last comment which is one key component of member engagement is, is having your voice be part of our democratic process. So, Steve, I thank you very much for the opportunity to be part of your show and the opportunity to share my thoughts with all of your listeners.
Jim, welcome to the show.
The first question I wanted to ask you, which is, I think is pretty basic for somebody running for ALA President is, why do you want to be ALA President?
I think ALA is at a very critical point in its development. I have been around ALA for over 40 years as a member, being involved in all aspects of the work of the association, executive board, its council, its committees, its divisions, its roundtables. I’ve worked very, very hard on its finances and fundraising and have had leadership roles in many other national and international library organizations. I have aspired to be president of ALA for a long time, but I felt my day-to-day responsibilities as a director of a large research library did not make it possible for me to provide the level of leadership and to make the commitment that was necessary. Now that I’ve moved to emeritus status at Columbia, I feel that I can activate my passion and my interest in the profession, in the work of libraries, and in the success of this association. I think I have a lot to contribute and I think this is a very important time in the history and future of the association, where I think I can really make a difference.
And have you been an ALA member for a long time?
I’ve been an ALA member for 42 years. I attended my first ALA conference, Midwinter 1976 and I have now been to 80 – 80! – consecutive conferences and Midwinters. Some would call that a sickness; I call it a healthy commitment to the association.
I was going to say that might even be a record there. So, what, way back when, why did you decide you wanted to become a librarian in the first place? I mean, what made you think that as a career path?
Well, you know, many of us, many of my colleagues don’t pursue librarianship as a first career choice. I was actually studying for a doctorate in Russian History at Columbia and after three years of coursework and many tests and orals and all that stuff that’s bundled up in a candidacy, and facing two years of research in Leningrad in 1973/74, I backed up and said wow, this doesn’t seem to make sense.
As a graduate student, one spends a lot of time in the library and at Columbia, I worked in the Butler Library and on the top floors there was this thing called the School of Library Service, of which I knew nothing about and, and naively did not understand that one pursued a graduate degree in order to qualify to be a professional in the library field. In two months, I had dropped out of the history program, had been accepted into the library school and after two semesters had gotten my masters degree and was working at City University in New York. It was the best decision I ever made and it’s really lead to a very exciting career and one that’s allowed me to be of service, not only to the institutions in which I’ve worked, but also to colleagues in organizations all over the country and all over the world.
Well, you talked about where you went, you’ve been to 80-some ALA’s back-to-back, the conferences. What do you think is the greatest value that ALA offers its members?
I think ALA is my source, the source of my professional voice. Yes, I have a wonderful day-to-day responsibilities working in libraries and that’s very exciting and very important, but ALA gives me the opportunity to look at larger suites of issues, to look at major new directions and innovations in the field, to contribute to new thinking about our work through programs, through writing, but most importantly through networking with colleagues. I think that’s been the most valuable aspect of my years of involvement and service to ALA, is meeting and working with really, really interesting people.
One of the strategic priorities that ALA has outlined in its new plan is professional and leadership development, and I think that’s one of the most important things that ALA does. It gives us the opportunity to interact with others, with experts, with vendors, with leaders in the field, with colleagues who are doing interesting and innovative work, and it provides us with the opportunity to grow in our understanding, to advance our careers and to contribute to the profession in new and important ways. For me, that’s what ALA is all about. A professional voice, professional service, and professional colleagues.
And again all those conferences that you were able to attend, I’m not able to go to every one but I try to go every so often. So, how do you see the librarians in a profession obviously that doesn’t, isn’t the highest in the pay grade necessarily. People who can’t afford to attend every conference or attend very often, how can they engage with ALA at a national level?
I think we’re learning as an association how to involve individuals in a much more virtual way, not expecting or requiring individuals to participate in the work of the association by showing up at every Midwinter and every Annual meeting. I think the divisions have taken the lead on that. We’re seeing lots of innovations in the use of between-meeting technology and interactions that really have enabled more and more people to really work in the association. We try to move the location of the conferences around the country, that’s a very strategic decision on the part of ALA so that it moves East Coast, West Coast, central part of the country, thus giving members more of an opportunity, perhaps at less cost to get to these meetings. We’ve also seen more use of institutes, and of workshops, and of national conferences by some of the divisions, as another way to get ALA out into areas of the country where perhaps Midwinters and Annuals can’t take place.
Having said that, I think it’s absolutely fundamental that ALA work to reduce the costs wherever possible, not to burden members with unnecessary and extraordinary expenses to participate in the work of the association. I think we’re learning from new members that they want to be part of this association, but they want to interact and participate in new and innovative and exciting ways. And ALA needs to listen to those young new professionals and respond in kind to the types of expectations and infrastructure and participation needs that they have.
And in what kind of ways do you see that ALA can be more welcoming to those new members, like, what can new members do to get involved? Cause sometimes I think somebody joins when they’re in library school because they want to be a part of a professional organization, but then they get into it and there are these tens of thousands of librarians and they just don’t know where to get started. So how can a new member get started?
Well, I think it’s very important that you explore as a new member the entire ALA to understand what your interests are, where you see opportunities for involvement and participation. In my experience, I entered the work of association service through roundtables and divisions and discussion groups. That’s where I was able to safely become involved in the association, to participate, to raise my hand when projects or programs were being developed. And I think over time, one develops a network of colleagues, a sense of accomplishment, and confidence that allows one to really expand out, if they’re interested, to play a larger role in the work of the association through round table and division leadership, through participation in the governance organizations, Council and Executive Board and just becoming much more involved across the work of the association. ALA has a responsibility, and its New Members Round Table is an excellent example of how we are reaching out to members and giving them opportunities and also insights on how the organization works and providing individuals with the tools and skills necessary, not only to be professionally active, but things that can be taken back and used in effective ways in their own work environments. Building more online and virtual capacities, I think, is essential for ALA at this time. And I think new members want and need that type of involvement and participation.
Okay. And how do you think that, so the profession as we all know is overwhelmingly white, straight, female. How can the profession, number one, be just become more diverse in general, but how can we work with library schools to increase the diversity of MLS candidates?
Yeah, this is a very strong commitment of mine. I’ve worked worked over many, many, many years of working within ALA to expand the availability of funds back in the investment in library school students from underrepresented communities, ethnic minorities. I was involved in the creation and the advancement of the Spectrum Scholarship and did a lot of work on the fundraising that has allowed that to be successful. In many programs, over many decades, I have served as a mentor to individuals from underrepresented communities who I have learned so much from, but have been able also to work with them to advance their careers.
I think we have to move beyond the scholarship commitment, which I think is very important and essential and we need to also invest in professional and leadership development. We need to develop the capacity, to get people into the work of the association, perhaps through grants that allow individuals from diverse communities to attend and participate in the work of the association. We also need to get the library community in ALA at the table where these tough social and economic and political policy issues are being worked on, we need to be not only focused on librarianship if you will, but demonstrating that we have something to contribute to the larger conversations about economic inequality, immigration, gun control, racism, and we need to decide what is the proper role we play at those tables.
The task force that was set up several years ago by the executive board to look at issues of equity, diversity and inclusion, has done some extraordinary work and I’m taking a position that we need not to sustain the task force per se, but to take its work and embrace it across the association because we need to be focused not just on issues of diversity, that is the, getting individuals into the profession, but we need to take a close look at how we build strategies for inclusion. Individuals participating, individuals contributing, individuals in important leadership roles in the profession.
I think library schools need to work with ALA, we need to get into high schools and into colleges in order to demonstrate that librarianship is a viable and interesting and important career for young people to consider. We need to facilitate their larger participation after they get their degree into, in the work of the field, and I think we need to improve the economic conditions and the work-life conditions of those who work in librarianship because we’re competing with many other professions and fields that offer higher salaries and perhaps better working conditions and it’s one thing to get individuals from underrepresented groups into the profession, we also have responsibility to retain them in the profession. I think that’s one of the new challenges that we need to commit to and understand.
I was very disappointed several years ago, given all the investment and involvement we’ve had in improving the diversity within the profession, that we actually saw a number of librarians from underrepresented groups, ethnic minorities, actually decrease over a ten-year period. To me, it just demonstrated that we need to work harder and smarter and build a wider network of commitment to really turn this situation around. This is necessary because the communities that we’re working with, the communities that we serve are very diverse, and therefore we need to be sure that the individuals who are leading our public libraries, or academic libraries, or school libraries, reflect that diversity.
And this may overlap somewhat with the answer you just gave, but how can the ALA also be more accessible and inclusive of people, of members with disabilities?
Oh, we need to be very committed to, in a variety of ways. One is when individuals attend our conferences, attend our meetings, we need to be sure that we are doing everything we can to remove barriers for participation and involvement. ALA, I think, has made some improvements, I think the conference staff has worked very hard with the local conference organizers and the building managers in order to improve that situation, but we recognize that we have a lot more to work on and a lot more to do and so the ALA is involved in setting up a new task force to sort of evaluate how far we’ve come, what improvements we’ve made, how we can sustain them, but more importantly what are the remaining barriers that we need to address.
But access at conferences, at Midwinter is only one piece of the challenge. I think we also need to be very attentive to virtual participation and to the technologies that allow individuals who are visually impaired, hearing impaired, or who have other physical disabilities, to be able to participate, not just on site, but also virtually, in the work of the organization. That means we need to make an investment in those technologies, it means we need to support those technologies and we need to educate our members about the use of those technologies as we remove barriers to participation for those who are disabled.
Well, as you said, you’ve moved into emeritus status now, but more when you were more active at Columbia, how did you encourage your staff to succeed and how would you use those skills to improve the ALA?
I have a theory of leadership that says a administrator at any level of the organization needs to involve colleagues on the staff in helping to set the direction for the organization, setting those priorities. Then, working with the staff to invest our resources, funds, in those priorities. I’ve always maintained if you want to really look at the priorities of an organization, look at its budget. Are we investing in the things that we say are important? Third, I think it’s critical to hire, recruit, hire and retain really, really great people and having done that, having set the direction, having gotten the resources, I think getting out of the way and let the great people that you’ve hired do their work and move the priorities of the organization forward.
I think it’s also critical that administrators, leaders within an organization promote and support the development of that professional voice. Giving individuals on the staff the opportunities to participate in the larger profession in whatever way they feel is most appropriate to take advantage of their skills and interests. That means time away, that means interesting projects, that means funding for professional development and professional travel, that means a continuing improvement, commitment on the part of the individuals and on the part of the organization. I want to translate that philosophy of leadership into, as I’ve always done, into the work of the association. Where I think we’ve made a very strong commitment to a set of strategic initiatives, of professional leadership development advocacy and information policy, investing in those and then creating the environments in which members of the association, units of the association, can really cash in on their expertise and experience to advance those goals and getting the really great people who are members of this association involved and committed to those priorities.
And what do you see as the biggest challenges that libraries are going to face in the coming years, and how would you as ALA president lead the association to address them?
Well, one of the biggest challenges we face is competition for attention and competition for resources. And one of the things we need to do and I think the, Sari Feldman and her work on “Libraries Matter [Transform]”, that whole advocacy effort is a recognition of the necessity for us to have heightened visibility in the communities in which we work, to be able to demonstrate value and impact, to show that we are innovative and part of the positive change in communities, that we are at the tables where community issues are being discussed and debated, and that we make a difference in those conversations.
So I think that ALA can do a lot in terms of peer sharing of experience and expertise and demonstration of best practices, of building advocacy at the local and national level around library programs and library funding, giving members the understanding and skills they need to be effective in their communities on these priority and policy issues. I think ALA has always had that role and responsibility, but I think the competition that we are now facing means that we have to heighten and improve our investment and work in those areas.
And, the final question would be, and I think most librarians would know the answer to this, but as the ALA President you’ll have to obviously tell this to the rest of the world, but why are libraries still important in the 21st Century?
Information is still powerful and important. Our libraries have, do and will continue to play a central role in providing access to information, most importantly in advancing equitable access to information. We have large swaths of our communities that do not have the resources, do not have the capacity to take advantage of the extraordinary resources that exist, both physical resources, electronic web-based resources, and I think if we look at what’s happening in libraries around the country in terms of the participation, attendance and use of library programs and capabilities, I think the value is very obvious. We also, I think, need to be very involved in local, national and global policy issues. Our ability to support and serve our communities will be increasingly influenced by the decisions that are made in our state capitals on funding, in Washington, in international capitals on issues of information policy and if we don’t participate in those legislative debates, in those policy initiatives, we’re going to find that our ability to support our communities will be reduced and undermined in ways that certainly are in conflict with our core values and roles that we play in society.
We have a major public relations challenge to demonstrate that what we do and the innovation that we are providing in our communities in terms of providing new types of resources, is new types of services, new types of spaces, support for the type of creative and innovative work that is taking place in our communities, I think that advocacy and PR challenge is one that we need to recommit to. What we do is so important and so valuable and I think ALA has a very important role to demonstrate that, to help us be very articulate and effective in our communities speaking to that current and future relevance and centrality of libraries to the work of their communities.
Jim, thank you so much for talking to me and for letting the listeners know more about how you feel you’ll do as President of ALA and I hope everybody goes out to vote because we need to get those numbers up. So, good luck in the election.
Thanks, Steve, it was good to talk with you.
All right, bye bye.
Thanks again to Christine, Lisa and Jim for speaking with me and I hope everyone goes out to vote. Please check the show notes to find links to the candidates’ websites.