This is Circulating Ideas. I’m Steve Thomas. My guests today are the 2019 candidates for American Library Association President, Julius Jefferson and Lance Werner. Ballots go out on the week of March 11th, so if you’re an ALA member, get out there and vote. Circulating Ideas is brought to you with support from Mometrix, and from listeners just like you. Find out how you can help support the show by going to circulatingideas.com/support, or patreon.com/circideas.
Julius Jefferson, welcome to Circulating Ideas.
Thank you for having me, Steve.
So, of course, you are on this episode because you are running for President of the American Library Association, and I wanted to get started by wondering how you got into libraries in the first place, and then what keeps you excited being a librarian today?
Okay. So, I began working in libraries at the age of 16 as a work study student at the Library of Congress, and the Congressional Research Service in the government division. I worked in that job through my senior year of high school. I graduated high school and I worked over the summer, and I believed that I would never, ever set foot working in a library again. However, I actually returned to work at the Library of Congress as a deck attendant during my college days.
I kind of found out I became addicted to reading and I loved being around all the books. I was also inspired by the work of historian and writer, and bibliophile, Arthur Schomburg who spent much of his life collecting literature and art and other material relating to African history. The New York Public Library purchased his vast collection of work and named the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library after him. It’s called the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture. So, I wanted to be a bibliophile, and I became a librarian.
And so the second part of your question is what am I most … What keeps me excited about the profession today? So, I am most excited about the possibilities and the impact librarians and library workers can have on our communities, and my role in shaping, leading, and mentoring the next generation. I mean, the possibilities are endless, and I feel like I want to be a part of the next generation of librarians and library workers.
And you’ve already done a lot of that as part of … You’ve been on the ALA Council, the Executive Council, lots of other committees and divisions of ALA. So, why do you now want to be ALA President to help assist with that, with what you were just talking about of moving people forward?
So, first I believe in the power of ALA to make an impact on libraries, librarians and library workers in the community we serve. But more importantly, I’ve prepared myself through active participation – as you kind of mentioned a couple of things, I’ll go in depth – to lead the members of ALA, and I’ve devoted 15 years working and getting to know dedicated and passionate ALA members, and the role they have in improving library service to our communities. So, I’ve collaborated with our members in all areas of our strategic planning by serving in elected and appointed roles. I’ve served on, as you mentioned, ALA committees such as the ALA Diversity Committee, the Budget Analysis Review Committee, the Intellectual Freedom Committee, and currently I’m chairing the Chapter Relations Committee. I was elected and continue to serve on the Council, which is our governing body, for the past eight years, and I was elected by the Council to serve on the ALA Executive Board for three years.
So, my active participation also includes working with affiliates, like serving on the Freedom To Read Foundation board, where I was elected to serve for four years, and three as President. I’ve also been involved and value the work of our ethnic caucuses. So, I served on the Black caucus of the American Library Association E. board for two years, and continue to be a champion for the JCLC. I’ve also developed relationships at local level serving as Chapter President for the District of Columbia Library Association.
So, through these experiences, I clearly understand the values and strategic directions and organizational culture of the American Library Association, and for these reasons I want to serve now as ALA President.
In your regular job, your everyday job, how do you encourage the people you work with and the people you manage, how do you encourage them to succeed? And, how do you think those skills could transfer over to helping to improve the ALA, its staff, and its members?
That’s a very good question, and I want to first say that when you say ALA, I think of the members. So, ALA consists of our members, our organizational members, but more specifically our individual members. I want to say that I have the privilege of serving the American people at the Library of Congress Congressional Research Service where my role is to lead research librarians who provide information and information analysis to members of Congress, their committees and their staff. So, I’m passionate about developing the careers of my staff, and strongly believe in the value of coaching, active participation in library associations like the American Library Association, and continuous learning.
So, when I was an Executive Board member, I was an advocate for ALA staff, and firmly believe that our members receive the best member experience when we have a healthy organizational culture for ALA staff. I’ll just note that I’m very familiar with the American Library Association ‘s staff because my mother worked for the American Library Association’s Washington office for 25 years. So, I would continue the conversation about the need to focus on ALA staff development and training. It’s vital to the health of our association and our member’s experience. But, more importantly, our members succeed when they actively participate in ALA. So, my vision is to make ALA a more inclusive association where all members feel welcome to take advantage of the leadership and professional development opportunities ALA has to offer.
So, I feel that if we work together, our members will have a greater experience and the way I feel working with my own staff of where I work, that they have a better work experience by me working with them, coaching them, mentoring them, and providing access so that they can continue to develop and grow.
One of the ALA staff that you’ll end up working with … ALA has not had a permanent Executive Director for a couple of years as they do a search and Mary Ghikas has stepped in to fill that role for a few years while the role, the search continues. But, assuming the search goes well, and assuming you’re elected, that new person would be in place during your tenure, so what characteristics would you be looking for in an executive director that you think would make a successful candidate? And what challenges do you see the executive director facing as they guide the direction into the future? Because obviously the president and executive director work together, but they cover different things.
That’s a very good question. So, I was a member of the ALA Executive Board that asked Mary Ghikas to continue to serve as the executive director until the new executive director would be selected, which should be in the fall of 2019, and then introduced to the membership at Midwinter 2020. So, as board members, I can say I was personally thankful that she agreed to serve through this time of transition. I was also on the first executive director search committee where a candidate was not identified, so I know how imperative it is to choose the right person to lead the day-to-day operations. That’s what the executive director does of our association.
So, I believe that the next executive director should have the experience, or knowledge, or abilities to be familiar with all types of libraries; the ability to lead through change because we are in a time of the streams of change within our association; a commitment to equity diversity, and inclusion. I believe that this individual should have some type of proven leadership and experience of leading a volunteer, non-profit organization with the focus on serving the members, and I think that’s vital. I believe that this person should have the ability to use innovative methods to generate streams of revenue, and I believe most importantly, because I am standing as a candidate to go back on the board, that this person should have the ability to effectively work with a board.
So, the major challenge I believe this person will have to deal with in guiding the association will be leading our association through these streams of change, which will not be an easy task at all. I believe that’s going to be the major challenge.
Okay, and you talked a little bit earlier about you’ve been on some diversity committees, you talked about inclusion in the profession, and that’s what ALA definitely considers equity, diversity, inclusion to be really core values of the association, and I think almost every librarian will consider that part of the profession. But, we won’t talk about any specific instances, but there have been some instances at Midwinter and previous conferences where people have have not always, people of color in particular have not always found the Association or the field itself to be a welcoming environment. The executive board and President Garcia-Febo have come out with some plans, like racial equity training, to come out over the next few years. But other than things like that, what other actions would you take to address this issue? And how can we make conferences and just the profession as a whole, I guess, safe for all attendees?
Okay, those are very good questions, and very timely. So, first, the lack of inclusion and there’s a major issue that’s plagued our country and our institutions for centuries. So, librarianship and ALA certainly is not excluded. Librarians, library workers, library administrators and ALA leaders must aggressively address these issues of exclusion, and structural bias in our workplaces and our association. So, we must shift the organizational culture to one where inclusion’s the norm, and exclusion is not tolerated.
So, each ALA member, each member of our association must be an advocate and a champion for staff of color, and ALA leaders – that would be the president, the executive board, the council, the leaders on our divisions and our round tables and our chapters, and our library administrators – must hold staff accountable who do not demonstrate the values of inclusion. So, as President, I plan to build on a workshop I organized at the JCLC 2018. It was called Walking The Tightrope, Retaining Librarians of Color. In this workshop, we had participants divide themselves into groups, and we discussed various challenges of being a librarian of color in our workplaces. So, the stories and strategies that came out of this workshop, and the conversations were enlightening, and I think very helpful.
So, I would like to make this type of workshop available at every conference as a professional development session. I don’t think we have enough specific professional development to build this type of inclusiveness at conference. So, I want to make this something that happens at every conference. Non-people of color who participate will be able to hear the adverse effects of exclusion on people of color, and our institutions in the communities we serve. So, I certainly have that vision and want to move forward in that direction.
So, in terms of our conference, so currently we have a Statement of Appropriate Conduct, and I believe that this is certainly not enough. So, we have a statement that’s not enough because we have incidences… I’ve been affected by harassment at conferences, and many of my colleagues have as well. So, we need, again, to have a standing workshop at conference to discuss what is appropriate conduct, and how appropriate conduct affects not just the targets of such conduct, but those who witness the conduct as well, because I think we’re all affected, even if it’s not something that you are a target of.
So, I believe that we need to hold those who do not follow this appropriate conduct accountable for their actions. So, I think that we need to take a stronger stance on how we treat each other at our conferences.
It reminds me of … I did some internet safety training for children at my branch just as a program, but in that training, part of it is in a bullying kind of situation, which is not the same thing we’re talking about here necessarily. There’s the bully, there’s the victim, and then there’s the bystanders. So, like you said, people who just stand by and watch and don’t help, that’s an issue that needs to be addressed as well, and I’m glad you brought that up too, of bystanders need to understand what’s going on as well and not just get frozen with fear of how to proceed.
Absolutely. I mean, we’re all affected here. We’re all affected, and we all need to be in a room to see how we can move forward. If it does happen, how we should react. Yes, you’re exactly correct, and I would say that it is similar because a lot of this behavior is bullying behavior. When you’re the victim, you feel bullied. You feel like someone believes that they have the right to invade your personal space, or someone believes they have the right to say something that it could be perceived as offensive. So, it is a form of bullying overall, I think.
Related to that question, and some of what you’re talking about would address this, but how would you specifically address the issue of retention, especially with people new in the field who might experience workplaces that are equitable and exclusive. A lot of what you talked about will help with the profession, but how do we push that out to workplaces and institutions, and just recruiting and retaining people of color and other marginalized groups as well?
Yeah, a very good question. So, two of our four strategic directions are equity, diverse, inclusion, and leadership and professional development. So, it’s vital that ALA provide leadership and discourse that will shift the paradigm for equity and inclusiveness in our workplaces. Personally, I’ve shared the equity, diversity, and inclusion discussions, and best practices that I have participated in at ALA as a member of committees on diversity, and as a member of ethnic caucuses and council and the board with my workplace. And I have participated on diversity committees at my workplace, thereby advancing the conversation. I think we must move the discourse beyond annual and Midwinter conferences to our respective organizations to include the best thinking about EDI, about inclusiveness of our ALA members.
So, overall what I’m saying is that if we are going to begin to move the paradigm of equity, diversity and inclusion in our workplaces, we must take this conversation from ALA, these values that we say we hold dear to us as a part of our core values and strategic directions, and move that conversation. Push that conversation in our respective places of work.
One more follow up question around inclusion as well is talking about virtual access to conferences because a lot of times people either having disabilities that preclude them from participating or just can’t afford the travel costs of going to conferences. How can we move forward with the profession to make virtual participation in meetings and committees, and even the content of conference sessions, how can we make that more available to members?
So, that’s a good question and I think this question really revolves around investing in our association, which really is speaking to the heart of your question.
So, much of our investment involves increasing our streams of revenue and certainly revolves around the sale of ALA Headquarters. So, if we’re going to be a modern association, and that’s one of my themes, making ALA a modern association, we must provide greater access for participation including virtual access. We must invest in our IT infrastructure. This is critical. So, this is for people that have disabilities, for people who can’t attend conferences, for people who serve on committees but have a responsibility to meet with committees but they can’t face-to-face. Virtual participation before and during conference can happen with the robust IT platform and this includes areas of participation at ALA.
So, I think that we think about increasing virtual access, we have to think about developing and building a robust IT infrastructure.
Also, about conferences, a lot of times people have talked about Midwinter, about whether it’s necessary, things like that. I know there are some working groups, I think, working on that within ALA, but what do you see as the future of Midwinter? Especially because there certainly are things that need to get done there. There’s meetings that need to get done. Of course, some of that could be addressed with virtual meetings like you talked about. But there are things like the Youth Media Awards that are really valuable, people like that in-person sort of “Oscars for kids’ books” feeling. Being in the room at the same time and getting them to cheer and you get excited. How do we balance those things out and make it worth continuing to do the conference? Or, just generally, I guess, what are your feelings about the Midwinter conference in the future?
So, there’s been much discussion about the sustainability of Midwinter as it is, as it exists now. I believe we will have a Midwinter meeting, but with the format that will reflect the current needs of association and members. We need to continue to have robust discussion as where all voices and perspectives are heard. I certainly don’t have the answer to how Midwinter will look in 2021, but I will say that I believe it’s going to have to be a mix of a lot of things, and we just have to take the best of what we do at Midwinter and then tailor that to the specific needs of our members. So, I’m looking forward to being a part of that conversation, and being on the board as we move to this transition as well.
So, we’ve talked about the challenges of the organization, and how it’s going to move forward, but what do you see as stepping back and seeing for the bigger picture of what are the big challenges that libraries just in general face in the coming years? And, that’s broad scope of libraries, public, academic, school, and how would you as ALA President lead the profession to help address those issues?
So, I think the biggest challenge for libraries will be maintaining adequate funding, and providing services for the communities that we serve. Making sure that we have a diverse workforce that reflects the communities that we serve.
So, as President, I want to focus on advocacy programs that utilize the expertise of our ALA chapters to communicate and collaborate on building a network of key stakeholders on the local level, and connect us and help us champion library issues. So, I also want to build, as I stated earlier, I want to focus on trying to build this culture of inclusion in ALA that will have an impact on our library workforce by, again, having these series of workshops that addresses these issues. So, the two challenges for me are adequate funding and certainly building this diverse workforce.
Okay, and last question, and you can take it however broadly you want. Why are libraries still important in the 21st Century? I think we can stipulate you running for ALA President, you believe they are important. So, why is that? Why are they still important, and maybe even if you can go into how do we convince other people of that? ‘Cause we already know that. So, why are they still important? What’s the pitch to the general public?
So, libraries have and will continue to be important in 21st Century and beyond. Libraries are the physical spaces Steve that represent the cornerstones of our democracy and the repositories of our culture. But, the library would just be a building with print and digital information without librarians and library workers who are the keys to providing access to information, and satisfies our intellectual curiosity. So, for me, it’s not just about the physical spaces, but it’s about the individuals that provide service in that physical spaces. So, the librarians help us organize, navigate, make available information that impacts our communities, and our individual lives. So, where would any of us be without school librarians? And without librarians who provide services to children. Or public and academic libraries. Librarians who serve the underrepresented populations like tribal librarians and people with disabilities.
So, libraries, librarians, library workers are essential in any century as far as I’m concerned and they always will be. So, that’s my short pitch.
All right, well before we wrap up do you have any last words you want to have for the listeners? And hopefully a lot of the listeners are ALA members and can vote, and then we will, of course, encourage them to vote. But, do you have any last words you’d like to impart on people?
Yeah, I want to say that this is a … We’re at a very critical period in the history of our association, and even more our country. I think that it is important that we take an active role in carefully selecting whose going to lead our association during this period of transition and change. I certainly believe that I prepared myself to lead our members, to be familiar with our organizational culture and where we say as an association we want to be in the future. I can tell you that I want to make ALA the type of organization that I wanted it to be when I joined. One that is inclusive. One that all members have an opportunity to succeed. One where we can take advantage of the vast knowledge of our colleagues in the profession. That’s what I’m going to work towards if I’m elected as ALA President.
And if people want to follow up and find out more about you or your campaign, where can they go to do that? Or, how can they get in touch with you or your campaign?
They can go to JeffersonforALApresident. That’s Jefferson F-O-R ALA president. That’s my website. I have a blog there, and certainly I have a way they can email me from the website as well. I certainly want to hear the thoughts of all of our ALA members. Thoughts and ideas, and feedback on my platform and how I think we should move forward in the future.
Okay, well thank you so much for talking to me today, and helping to inform the members about your work and what you want to work towards if you become elected. So, good luck in the election.
Thanks Steve, and I really appreciate you inviting me in, and again, thank you and vote!
Lance, welcome to the Circulating Ideas podcast.
Ah, well thanks for having me. I’m really excited to spend this time of the year today, and I look forward to our conversation.
So, what got you into libraries in the first place? You’re running for ALA President now, but what was it that got you excited about libraries way back when? And what makes you stay excited about the profession today?
Well, I mean I gotta tell you, honestly I didn’t come to libraries through the standard channels. It wasn’t something I even considered as a profession when I was really young, and I should have because my mom’s a school librarian– or was a school librarian– and actually ended up being taken out of the school library late in her career and put into the classroom because Michigan, unfortunately, made some bad decisions about doing that. We can talk more about that in a while.
So, I started my whole library career when I was going to law school. I had sometimes up to four part-time jobs. So, one of the constant jobs that I had was working in the library. I went there because I could do my homework while I went to work. Something profound and deep. I tell you what, I actually went to law school because I wanted to work for the FBI when I was younger, and I don’t know where that came from, and that’s probably a whole separate conversation.
But anyway, so half-way through law school, I met my wife, and my wife had a young daughter and so I ended getting married when I was in law school, and I decided that working for the FBI maybe wasn’t such a great career for a guy with a new family, and I decided to switch gears and so by this time I started working in a law library as a circulation desk attendant, I did almost every job that there was to do. I worked my way up. I ended up working there a grand total of 11 years. So, I decided, you know, talking with my mom and talking with the people that I was working with at the MSU Law Library, it’s called the Schaefer Law Library now. I decided to enroll in library school while I was in law school.
So, I shed some of my other part-time jobs and kept my job in the library. I went to law school at Michigan State University and went to library school at Wayne, and I worked in the library. And I also had one other job in addition to that as I, for the better part of my life, worked at least two jobs, and sometimes more. Anyway, my whole plan at that time was to graduate law school, pass the Bar, and get my library degree and then become an academic librarian. Because I had worked my way up into a managerial role and it was kind of fun being in law school having my own office in the library because I was a manager in a library. The Circ Manager at the law library, and anyway so I graduated law school, passed the
Bar. I took a semester off of library school to study it, for the Bar, and got it through one go, thank God. And then, a year later about, I graduated library school, and when I graduated library school these were reference librarian at Schaefer Law there on the MSU campus, and I decided I really enjoyed what I was doing, but I started feeling like I wanted to have new challenges. I liked doing research a lot, I always have, but I wanted to try something else.
So, at that time after I graduated, at that time there was a vacancy at the Library of Michigan for a library law specialist, and a library law specialist, the job was to essentially talk to all of Michigan’s public libraries about legal issues that they were having, to do training, to serve in a variety of capacities. So, I applied for that job and I got that job, and I kept my job as reference librarian at the Schaefer Law Library. I worked on the weekends, and I worked for the state during the week, and I was doing both, and I was going around the State of Michigan helping public libraries through legal issues. At that time I worked with the Attorney General on Amicus Brief around library related activity. He did a lot of contractual work, memorandums of understanding. I became Deputy Chief Appeals Officer for the State Historic Preservation Review Board, and was an administrative law judge. I worked in a law library at the Library of Michigan answering legal questions, doing legal reference there. I used to wear a lot of different hats. I managed to draft two different bills that later became law, and spent a lot of time working the legislature around library related legal activities and things that were going on there.
So, it was during that time, during that five year window, that I worked with all these public libraries, that I really got a really deep understanding of the mission of public libraries, and really profoundly understood the impact they were having on the public, and I’ve always been an altruistic person. I’ve lived my life in a way that I figure we only get one shot, and I want to spend my shot making the world a better place than what it was when I found it.
So, a job position became available at the Capital Area District Library for a director, and I’ve always been in leadership roles. I’ve worked my way up into leadership roles my entire life in almost every different type of job that I’ve had, and so I was interested in that. So, I applied for the directorship of the Capital Area District Library and became Director there, and then from there I came here to the Kent District Library, and I plan on staying at the Kent District Library for the rest of my career.
I love it here. I’m a sixth generation Michigander. My kids are the seventh. I love Michigan, and just feel completely blessed to be here and work in a capacity where I’m spending my life helping people. I really feel like a life spent helping others is a life well spent. There’s nothing I’d rather spend my time on. I think it’s more valuable than money or anything to have this opportunity to really make a profound impact on the world, and so that drive everything that I do, and I’m very passionate about it.
Well, speaking of making an impact, obviously being ALA President would help make an impact. Why do you want to be ALA President? What do you see that you could bring to the position?
Well, I mean, a lot actually. I was the President of the Michigan Library Association, and I was Chair of a legislative committee, but at my first meeting as President of the Michigan Library Association the executive director told me she was leaving, and then about two weeks after that she called me and told me that the venue where we were having our annual conference was going out of business. So, in the first three months of my tenure as President, we hired a new director, Gail Madziar, who’s the current director of the Michigan Library Association. She is retiring and I’m sad to see her go, and we rescheduled the conference to the Cobo Hall in Detroit, which hosts we’re all about. I had the loud librarians conference?, and I love it that it was in Detroit because I’m from that area originally.
But, I spent a long time with Gail in a variety of ways, and she really helped me be better at my job, and I helped her to be better at hers, and I provided emotional support and I had a really thick legal background. I was able to leverage that. I spent a lot of time advocating for things. I’ve been an administrative law judge, I’ve written laws, I’ve written administrative rules. I’m a former registered lobbyist. I was able to leverage all of that to help her become arguably the most successful director in MLA’s history, and she accomplished more legislatively than any of her peers did. In fact, I think if we were to take her peers, the people before her, her predecessors, take their legislative accomplishments and put them in a pile versus her pile, her pile would be much higher.
Now, I’m not taking credit for all that, but I did help her get there. I was an important part of a lot of those conversations. I testified in the House and I testified in the Senate. I’ve done the hard work. But, I was able to leverage that, and so with ALA it’s not lost on me that ALA is higher in the process of trying to get itself together to hire a new director, and I have first-hand experience of this. It’s not abstract to me. It’s not an academic exercise. It’s something that I’ve done, and I know what it takes after you hire a new director to help that person be successful.
I’m a servant leader so I know the most important job of a new president would be to help ensure the new director is wildly successful and that the new director has the tools that she or he needs to be successful. That barriers are knocked down and that a path is made for that person to be successful. At the same time, it’s not lost on me either part of the ALA Policy Corp that advocacy’s extremely important and I actually have a lot of experience with that and so much so that I actually travel around the country and train libraries on how to be effective advocates, and I think I could bring that to bear as well.
I really strongly believe that first of all, everybody in the whole world that’s self-aware is an expert advocate. You’ve been advocating your entire life since you became self-aware. Your pets are advocates. Everybody you know an advocate. We all have that skill set. So, really the trick is to talk to people, and you get them aware of that, but also make them aware that really effective advocacy’s nothing more than having relationships with people. And, helping people go through that process and there’s a very formulaic approach to establishing relationships, and a large part of that’s taking your own partisan bias out of it, and remembering you represent an organization that doesn’t really have a brand, and we don’t favor anybody over anybody.
And so, when you’re talking in that role, that you’re talking on behalf of the library, and you’re not talking on behalf of yourself. So, anyway I’ve done a lot of training around that. I could bring that to bear, and I think that’s hugely important. Plus, I’ve been doing some keynotes around the country, talked about kindness, love and empathy. I truly believe that that’s the way forward. I think a lot of the issues that we deal with as a society now are due to a complete lack of empathy, and I really feel like it’s important to highlight the fact that these things are important, and help people become more aware of their importance, and really to get around to understanding that the mushy stuff matters and matters more than you think.
Finally, I strongly feel that all of us need to get around to understanding that comfort is our enemy. That we do not have the luxury of being comfortable because comfort is a kissing cousin of complacency, and if you get comfortable, the goals that you set for yourself, the goals that you set for this profession are getting further and further away because frankly you become complacent. So, I really want to push people to become comfortable with being uncomfortable and strive to be uncomfortable, and to push themselves every day for their own good. But for the good of this profession because it’s my intent that this profession is around for another 3,000 years at least. I think that if we all get comfortable, sit on our hands, then we shouldn’t expect much because the lowest level of behavior that we accept is the highest level of behavior that we can expect. Both of ourselves, and of this entire profession, and of the world, and so it’s important for us all to drive hard every day.
And so, it’s my intent, as President of the American Library Association, that I would be a servant leader. That rather than standing on the top of the pyramid, I would stand on the bottom and push everybody up to ensure that everybody’s wildly successful, to ensure that people are getting return on investment for their membership, that members are being heard and reacted to, that the director is wildly successful. That the organization is operating efficiently in a way that is nimble and timely, and that we are doing everything we can do to push equity, diversity and inclusion. That we are doing everything we can do to make everybody a champion of advocacy, and comfortable doing it.
And not just people that work in the libraries. I’m talking about trustees. I’m talking about friends. I’m talking about people that care about libraries, who care about the concept of libraries. We need everybody to raise their voice. Frankly, my friend, I tell you this: there are more people in this country that care about libraries than care about guns. The NRA’s got a huge powerful lobby. There’s no reason… Libraries represent almost 7 billion people on this planet. There’s no reason we can’t get ourselves together, raise our voice, and make profound change in this world. And so, that is why I’m interested in being the President of the American Library Association.
You talked about the idea of needing to feel discomfort sometimes. You have to push through, and you have to do these things, and one of the things that I think, not just the association, but society in general has to grapple with is ideas around race. ALA does consider itself to have core values of equality, equity, diversity, inclusion, and, of course, I think most of us in the profession also feel that way. But, there have been a lot of instances, especially recently, of people of color not always finding the association or the profession as whole to be welcoming. That’s starting to get addressed, especially by President Garcia-Febo, and the current executive board. But, other than the race equity training that she’s talking about enacting, what can we do as an association to make conferences feel more safe for all attendees, and to make the profession maybe as a whole more welcoming to people of color and even other marginalized groups?
You know, frankly I think that race is a hugely important thing, but when we talk about equity, and diversity, and inclusion, I think that it’s so much deeper than that. I think a lot of the conversations that I have heard around this topic have been very superficial. I think too many times we look at each other and make an assumption based on how somebody looks. But, you don’t see who they are, and I think that we need to also incorporate empathy, and we need to recognize that we need to be more granular than just race. I mean, there’s a lot of things … Listen, there’s things that have happened to me. I mean, that are unique experiences to me that others share. But, they’re not things that you would necessarily know about me just by looking at me.
So, I think a couple of things that we need to do are to hold ourselves to even higher standards, and to really get granular with it, and really drill down on these issues. I also think that it’s extremely important to invite … I think it’s a cop out to say we can’t find applicants, we can’t find people. I mean, I think it’s a cop out to say that and not do anything about it. I hear a lot of people identifying issues but I don’t hear a lot of people trying to solve those issues in a real profound way. And not just within a library. I think that the library in that the association … We can really be change agents in this arena for people outside of our industry, so I really think that we need to make a more concerted effort to reach out in the communities, all communities, let them know there’s viable career options in the library for everybody. That the library has a fundamental duty to transform lives, to meet people where they’re at, and provide them the resources and in an individual way to help them achieve the goals that they’ve set out before them.
I think that we need to have more civil discourse in the library. That we need to train people on how to do that. I think that the association … I heard about the bullying incident, the alleged bullying incident. I wasn’t there, and I’m sorry about that. I think that’s horrible that that happened. I think that we need to… Anytime there’s some issue, I think that we need to do investigations. Listen, I’m a CEO here at the Kent District Library of over 300 people, and if that issue were to happen here, we would have launched an investigation. We wouldn’t have had a committee hearing, we wouldn’t have had all that stuff, we would have launched an investigation, and we would have gotten to the bottom of it. And once we’re at the bottom of it, we would have acted accordingly. We would have taken our steps to ensure that justice was done, and that people learned from it.
So, I think that hopping on things immediately as they arise is really important, but doing it in an objective way. Conducting a thorough investigation and making sure that we get the facts. I’m a judge, so I’m a big, big fan of let’s get the facts, let’s do our interviews, let’s do our due diligence, let’s get to the bottom of it, and then let’s take the next step after that. But, I really think the association needs to provide an even more robust tool kit. I think there needs to be more scholarships available. I think that we need to help provide tools to members on how they can address this issue in a more meaningful way, and not be content with doing something that’s superficial, and then declaring victory. This is a journey, it is not a destination, and I think it’s important that the association keeps that in mind as it goes forward.
Sort of related to that question, and pushing it outside of the association itself, what do you think the ALA can do to make places themselves feel more inclusive? Because I heard that from some people as I was prepping these interviews, and I’ve heard in keeping in touch with the profession that a lot of people of color don’t feel like … They get into the profession, and then they don’t feel welcome so then they leave. So, how do we address retention issues with issues like that?
I think what we need to do is talk to communities. I think if talking to somebody after they’re hired and saying … I do think that’s necessary in saying what can we do to make this great environment for you a safe environment? It’s important, but I also think we need to even go deeper than that and talk to people in different communities and say what can we do? What can we do? Please guide us, we’re here to help you. What can we do to ensure that the work environment feels safe and familial and everybody feels welcomed and valued. What can we do? And I think it just comes down to taking the extra step of the asking and then acting upon the information that’s received is really, really, really, really important. And I don’t think it’s something we can just ask one group. I think it’s kind of a deep dive on it, and really getting to it. It’s really design thinking. It’s kind of doing the interviews and using empathetic listening and figuring out what’s not happening that needs to happen. Then, figuring out what can be done. If extra steps need to be taken, then extra steps need to be taken. But, you don’t know to take those, you don’t know what you don’t know. You don’t know to take those steps until you find out, and the way you find out is to ask. And then when you’re done, ask again. This continual improvement process around ensuring that the workplace is what it needs to be, and I really do think …
So, for instance, at the Kent District Library we have a number of different things going on. We have special internships available. There is additional money available. Compensation available for people that are multilingual. We are convening a think group of different leaders from various diverse backgrounds to help us improve what we’re doing. Want to invite the Seattle Public Library here to the Kent District Library and invite all the state’s libraries to come here to listen to presentations on equity, diversity, and inclusion. We want to continue to reach out into the communities to get constant input. We’ve talked to community leaders, and talked to them about what can we do to modify our services to ensure that the needs of your community are being met. And we’re doing all these things, and I mean there’s more than that. That’s just stuff from rattling off at the top of my head. And it’s still enough, and it never will be enough. We gotta always be pushing and be constantly hungry around this thing, and not let ourselves get complacent, and not let ourselves slide backwards.
We need to continue to push forward. Again, as I said before, it is a journey. It is not a destination. I acknowledge I am a white male, and I have benefited from white male privilege and I’m not threatened by saying that, and I’ll tell you that I acknowledge that and I also acknowledge that it is my duty to ensure that everybody, every single person has the same opportunity to me. Until that’s it, and that’s done, my work isn’t done, and I don’t anticipate that it will ever be done. And so I want to spend my career, whether I win this thing or don’t win this thing, making sure that happens. I want it to be part of my legacy. I want that to be part of who we are, and I want to be something that goes beyond libraries. I want to be something that’s part of society, especially now with all the garbage that’s going on. The utter lack of empathy. I think that we all need to give it 110%, and not give it anything less than that.
It’s a journey. You think we have to be relentless around it.
Right. Another issue related to inclusion is talking about virtual access to conferences because a lot of times people may be … It may be travel costs, it may be a disability that prevents them from participating, but what do you think ALA can do to increase virtual access not only to just the content of the conferences themselves, but how people can virtually participate in meetings and committees? Because I hear a lot of people that want to get more involved, but they just can’t commit to attending two conferences a year.
I am 100% behind that. I think it’s ridiculous we don’t have more capacity to do that. It’s not that hard. Listen, I mean, we have a conference room that seats 150 people. I have Webex, Zoom, Skype, whatever. People don’t even have to be part of TVL KDL?, you can come here and use our stuff. ALA needs to make sure that it’s identifying places where that occur and working with providers such as the Kent District Library to help make that happen. There needs to be way more virtual interaction going on. This is another thing that kind of drives you wild, is my perception of the association that the glaciers will melt before anything big is done. Their decision making process takes so long, but it’s ridiculous to me that it takes as long as it takes in an age where we have virtual communications. You could communicate with anybody in the world at any time, and do it in your private life, but why aren’t we doing it in an organization and association? They should be, and they should be doing it yesterday
even. I mean it just needs to have already happened, and they need to jump on top of it. I don’t see it as being a big deal. I think it would be rather easy to make that happen. There just needs to be effort put into it.
Okay. Related to that is talking about the future of the Midwinter conference itself. I know there’s some working groups talking about whether it should continue into the future, and if it does, how it needs to change. I know the people who want to get rid of it, the problem with that is that there are things like the Youth Media Awards that people like having that. I’ve heard it described as the Oscars for kids books. That people want to be there in person and they want to see the people win the awards. They don’t want to just watch a webinar announcing the Caldecott and the Newberry. But then there are other things like meetings that are helpful sometimes to have face-to-face. So, what are your thoughts about the future of the Midwinter conference?
Well, I’m intensely pragmatic, and I also think that we also need to think about the vendors who subsidize a lot of the Midwinter conference as well, works them in there are our partners. They’re not something to be taken for granted. So, I really do believe that the format needs to be examined. I think that it could be tightened up some. I think that maybe on certain years where you’re talking about having multiple conferences are certainly good for an award and having a PLA conference, is it worth having Midwinter and PLA and an annual conference? I don’t know. I think that award ceremonies could be rolled into an annual conference format. I don’t think that there’s anything magical about having it Midwinter. Maybe I’m missing something. I don’t profess to be any sort of expert on the timing of things at ALA, but I would like to hear the rationale behind it can only occur when it occurs during mid-winter. I think that face-to-face meetings are important, but listen, you could meet these … The committee could meet 11 times a year virtually and face-to-face on the 12th time at an annual. That could happen. It doesn’t have to be the way that it is.
Again, I’m intensely pragmatic. I care about what works, and I think that especially with an eye to maintaining, being able to be nimble and staying ahead of the curve, and maintaining leadership in a time when there’s such rapid change that the association needs to position itself to be more nimble, and getting away from face-to-face and going more virtual is going to enable the association to be more nimble, and to get business done at a faster pace so that it’s relevant. We’re able to decide on what’s relevant today rather than deciding on what’s relevant today six months from now when it’s not relevant any more.
So, in your job at Kent, how do you encourage your staff to succeed? And how would you use those skills to improve the association, its staff and its members?
Okay. I think to really enable people to succeed, like I said before, I’m a servant leader. So, my goal in my opinion as a leader is to A) hire the very best people that I can and B) give them exactly what they need to be successful including, and this is something that’s often overlooked, okay? Emotional support is hugely, hugely, hugely important. I want everybody who works at KDL to feel like part of a family, and I know if they’re happy to feel like part of the family, then the people that are coming to the library will also feel like part of the family because they’re happy. Because they’re exercising kindness, empathy and love, and that’s where I come from with my leadership style.
So, simply providing tools and resources to be successful. And then C) is removing barriers. Bureaucracy can kill creativity in a second. I mean it’s important to remove barriers, so I think that barriers like communication barriers, decision making barriers, cutting through a lot of the baloney is going to make everybody feel more supportive. People get aggravated when they feel like they don’t have a voice, and when I went to Midwinter I talked to … Especially a lot of new members, they had no idea even how to access what the association had to offer and they felt there were barriers. I talked to people that felt there were communication barriers, not from the top down, but from the bottom up. The people at the top weren’t hearing what they had to say, and they were getting frustrated about that. Removing barriers is really, really important.
I also think that we need to recognize that the people that work at ALA, the association itself, I think there’s 500 employees, those people are subject matter experts too, and I think that they need to be taken into consideration. The Michigan Library Association, is successful and has been successful in part because they have an incredible director. She has what she needs to be successful, and we removed barriers. She steers the organization, we weigh in, but she steers the organization, and we trust her because we hired the right person and we give her what she needs. I think that that’s important too. I think it’s important to hire the right person to be director at ALA, to give them what they need, to remove barriers, and to be supportive of the director and the staff that help us, and then supportive of our colleagues on the various committees, the round tables, and boards. That’s what it’s all about, and the president’s duty is to listen with an empathetic ear, to identify and to take action. I really do feel
strongly about that, and I’ll tell you what, I’ve been in that role before and I’ll tell you what, that’s a hard role, and it takes a lot of time, but I think that it’s worthwhile because I feel like ALA can be so much stronger than it is. It’s strong, but there’s so much that we could do. Just think of who we represent. I think the sky’s the limit.
We’ll take the positive side of this after this one, but what do you think the biggest challenges are that libraries are facing in the coming years? And, how would you, as ALA President, help lead the profession to help address those challenges?
Well, I still think libraries still deal a lot of financial issues, and I think a lot of the financial issues that libraries deal with are due to the fact that I don’t think we’ve done a great job of explaining what libraries are all about these days. Frankly, and I’m going to get a little political here although I maintain that I am apolitical, I feel like librarianship, nursing, and teaching are three professions that have been traditionally women’s professions, and because they’ve been woman’s professions, they’re underpaid, okay? And they always seem to have the smallest spoon at the soup pot, and so I think that that’s ridiculous, and I think by not saying that I’m complicit in the problem, and I think that it’s important to make sure that everybody knows that the library isn’t just important. The library’s the beating heart of the community, it’s worth supporting, and is worth getting behind, and that it’s an exciting, exciting place where you can transform your whole life. Who else can say that? Do you know that public libraries are the most dynamic form of government that’s ever existed? We can do anything and be anything, we’re only bound by our own imagination.
We let ourselves get here because we, the lowest level of behavior you accept is the highest level of behavior you can expect. And so, if we let ourselves have the smallest spoon, and continue to be undervalued, we will be, and can expect no more than that. So, my thought is enough. We need to change the story. We need to let people know who we are, and so funding’s a big thing. I mean, obviously advocacy’s an extremely, extremely important and having good advocacy skills around maintaining intellectual freedom, and around funding issues, and tackling big issues like rural broadband.
There’s a million of them, extremely, extremely important, and libraries need to be well positioned to deal with that, and I also think finding the right people. I think that honestly, if I had my druthers, to work in public service I think that kindness is a must, and I really feel like a really good public service employee is more like a bartender than anything else. A really good bartender, right? You know who your clients are, have a real relationship with them, you engage them, they feel welcome, and everybody feels like part of something. I think that’s really good. So, we want to make sure we’re hiring the right people, and I think it’s extremely important, I do. I think having the right people and the right appearance is extremely, extremely important.
To expand on a couple of things you touched on there, and they’re mostly wrap up questions, why are libraries still important in the 21st Century? I don’t think you have to necessarily convince the listeners of this podcast, who probably are either librarians or love libraries, but what’s the pitch to the people who don’t understand why libraries are still important?
Well, it kind of goes back to what I said before. I talk to a lot of people in the community. Thought leaders, billionaires, people like that who think they know what we’re all about, okay? They think they know what we do, but when I start telling them that listen, we’re not just a repository for books, that we’re on point for this third grade reading initiative. That we are feeding hungry kids in our communities that have a high percentage of free and reduced lunch and helping deal with summer food insecurity, that we are helping people up-skill and re-skill to get into better careers. That we’re helping adults get high school diplomas, and the list goes on and on and on and on and on. They’re shocked. They always say to me, it’s like, “I had no idea.”
And, that’s right because you know who else in the government, in society that does what libraries do? Nobody. Nobody does what we do, and nobody could do it better. Google will never, ever, ever replace libraries. And you know what else libraries do? Libraries bring kindness, empathy, and love into the world. Libraries make people feel like part of a community. Libraries are a place where people connect with other people. Libraries are about people end of story, and that will never, ever not be extremely important. We don’t just give information out. We give out kindness, empathy and love and hopefully by doing that, we can start a fire. If we can have kindness, empathy and love be something that’s everywhere in society, and we don’t have to deal with all this garbage that’s going on right now because there isn’t enough empathy and kindness and love in the world, nobody, nobody else does that.
Well, I think that’s probably a great thing to wrap up on, but I’ll give you one more shot here. Do you have any final words that you’d like to give to the listeners, or potential voters in the ALA just about who you are and how you want to help libraries?
I’m interested in being the president because I believe in doing what’s right and not what’s easy, and I want everybody to know that if I think that something’s not working, we should change it. And if it is, we can leave it be for now. But, I think that we always need to be willing to be uncomfortable, to ask ourselves tough questions and to do the hard work, and I think challenge everybody to set high goals for yourself, for the profession, and not to have any regrets around that, and to pursue them relentlessly, and I think that while ALA is good, I think ALA can be better, and I think it’s going to be better because we’re going to make it better because we’re not going to accept anything but that. And I want to say that my presidency is going to be about change, and that’s it. I love this profession, and I love everybody in it, and I don’t even feel like I have work. I have a calling.
All right, if people want to hear more about you or your candidacy, where can they go to find out more about that?
Nice and simple.
Right, thank you so much Lance for talking to me today, and for giving all the listeners and potential voters, and all the ALA members and people who are librarians who aren’t ALA members just to hear more about what you’re about and just general advocacy for libraries.
You know, this profession’s going to be what we make it. And I say we make it great.
All right, thank you so much, Lance.
Thank you, take care.
Yeah, have a great day.
You too, bye, bye.