ALA Presidential Candidates (2022)

Steve Thomas: Emily, welcome to Circulating Ideas.

Emily Drabinski: Thank you so much for having me, Steve, I’m excited. I’ve been a fan of your podcast and really thrilled to be taking my turn to chat with you today.

Steve Thomas: So, I guess we’ll jump right into it and ask why you are running for ALA president and what would be your priorities? And as a second follow-up question, what things would you feel like you would need to deemphasize to make space for your priorities?

Emily Drabinski: Sure. So I think we’re coming out of, or are still in a crisis on many fronts. We have the COVID-19 pandemic. We have worsening race relations in this country. We have a widening gap between rich and poor, and that is having an impact on all of us as library users, as library community members, and we need positions of leadership to take strong stands in defense of the things that all of us value. We need to bring together people to support and elevate the status and voice of library workers who are on the front lines: COVID, book challenges, hostile takeovers of library boards, diminished and diminishing labor protections, including the loss of tenure and academic freedom at academic libraries, white nationalist racism, attacks on critical race theory, which I’m putting in heavy scare quotes. And that I think we can understand as attacks on black indigenous and people of color.

And I think I can do that. I think I can bring people together. My background is not only in libraries, but also in labor organizing work and the kind of work that we do on labor side to build power together collectively is I think what the Association needs right now.

So my priorities are commitments to equity and the sharing of power, paying attention to and advocating for reinvestment in all parts of the public good, how we position libraries both to and with other forms of social infrastructure to borrow the term from Eric Klinenberg, environmental sustainability, and building capacity among ALA members to organize for themselves in their own workplaces.

So my priorities will be to draw on the good work that’s already being done by Patty Wong around environmental work, Lessa Pelayo- Lozada’s focus in her presidential platform on expanding the Allied Professional Association, focusing on library workers, amplifying and drawing on the models we have of our strong leaders of color and the work they’ve already done the past many, many years, putting equity and inclusion at the heart of ALA.

In terms of what I would deemphasize, I don’t know that we need to do that. Honestly, the president is one person in the Association, there’s lots of amazing work that I’m learning more about every day on the campaign trail happening across the Association in the divisions, round tables, working groups, task forces. And really, I think what ALA needs to do is get out of the way of our colleagues. So if I were to de emphasize anything, it would be the kinds of barriers and hierarchies that we seem to maintain that just get in our own way.

Steve Thomas: Thank you. You mentioned the upcoming president is going to be focused a lot on the Allied Professional Association. So what would you do to advocate for library workers, specifically those dealing with COVID burnout and especially all the right to read challenges we’re getting in school libraries, especially now, but surely to move into public libraries soon.

Emily Drabinski: Yeah. And into academic libraries. I mean, the assaults are intense and intensifying. I would say that libraries are their workers. That’s what libraries are. Otherwise, we’re just talking about supporting buildings, and I think that’s not something I got into this line of work to do, even though I really value our space, and I think COVID tells us how important our spaces to our community members.

So they matter a lot, but libraries are the people who refill the toner, who teach information literacy classes, put a book in a child’s hand, put a book in my child’s hand, the people who remind patrons to put their masks on, who negotiate with vendors, order materials, process them, catalog them, maintain the massive amount of metadata, shelve books, teach with books, read books, translate them, repair them. ALA is the people who schedule the desk shifts, approve our time sheets, cover shells with tarps when there is a leak, remember our birthdays, plan our office parties. That’s what the American Library Association is about. It’s about people, and it’s about library workers.

So advocacy through APA is a priority for the incoming president. And I would be overjoyed to work on and extent Lessa’s iniatives. And then from where I’m coming from on the labor side, it’s equipping library workers with the skills necessary for addressing the challenges they face, which are by definition, local.

As someone who’s been on strike, who’s been locked out by my employer, I know that organizing to fight back against those who would prefer a world without libraries at all. Cause I think that’s really what these people want is a world without libraries. It takes a set of skills that we can teach each other, things like organizing conversations, shaping complaints into demands, developing campaigns. Those are the skills we all need. Organizing people is my priority in this campaign, what I’m doing as I campaign for ALA President and if elected, what I would carry into the role. And so it’s slightly different from advocacy. An advocacy model is often about or on behalf of others, but what I think we need right now are the tools to build power for ourselves in our workplaces. And that would be my strategy for advocacy.

Steve Thomas: So what do you see as the biggest challenges coming to libraries in the next couple of years, and how would you as ALA president lead the profession to address them?

Emily Drabinski: So there are no shortages of challenges coming at us. At the local level, we’re seeing attacks on funding libraries across the ecosystem, challenges to our expertise and authority, ongoing and intensifying abandonment of the public sphere, not just libraries, but other forms of public infrastructure. There’s going to be a new presidential election on the horizon. And I think we need to be prepared for things to get even worse before they get better.

So as ALA President, I think we need to think about the stories we tell ourselves about our work. Our work is essential. It matters. It’s important. We need support from our Association. We need to know that ALA has our back. We need to keep our jobs and then we need the tools to do our jobs. We need to build our organizing and mobilizing skills. So I think back to Pat Schuman’s tenure as President and her focus back then on media training and advocacy skills for everybody in the field, not just a select few.

So I envision organizing training like I’ve had myself as a union activist for everyone who needs the capacity to fight back. And I think that’s all of us. So Lessa has the needs of library workers at the heart of her presidential platform, so I see myself connecting to the work she’ll undertake next year, and we’ll see what that is, and we also need to tell better public stories. We need to be loud. We need to be bold. We need to connect what we care about across the Association to our legislative agenda. I think ALA does yeoman’s work, moving the needle on things like textbook pricing, broadband for tribal libraries, funding for IMLS and other federal initiatives, and I think that agenda needs to be shaped by the membership. So finding ways for library workers to advance their concerns to the Washington office would have to be a focus of my tenure.

There’s a tendency to get internal. I’ve served a term on ALA council and found the internal focus to be challenging. So how are we going to do more, do better. How are we going to change the structure of the Association when people on the outside know libraries and they think about them as nostalgic, how can we talk about them and link libraries to the other things that people need.

And I really think COVID gives us an opening for that, right? Because everybody sees that it turns out that we need childcare. And we need it to be freely available and collectively managed in order for any of us to do anything in our lives. And so libraries are the same, the demand, the push to open libraries during COVID-19 is partly a recognition that they are the last remaining public infrastructure that all of us have equitable access to. So we need to capitalize on this moment and connect libraries to the other kinds of social struggle and political struggle that we see happening outside of us.

We need to both advocate for more public investment in structures other than us, and then advocate for the restoration of our funding so that we can do what we do. At the end of the day, I’m kind of a traditionalist. I think the library is there to like collect information and help people access it. And it’s where I go to pick up a novel to read and take my kid for story time. Libraries don’t, I don’t think need to be innovative. They just need to be funded such that they can do what they’re intended to do, and the rest of the public sphere has to be equally well-funded so that we don’t have to pick up all the slack.

Steve Thomas: What should ALA’s role be in setting guidance for not just public libraries but any libraries in disaster situations?

Emily Drabinski: I think we can all agree that library workers must be kept safe. I think we can also agree that libraries are essential to the communities they serve, and I think ALA plays a significant role in making sure that everyone in the country knows that and knows that it’s a fair demand that we be kept safe when we’re working. If we’re going to be treated like frontline workers in moments of crisis, we need to be kept safe while doing that work. We need to be fairly compensated. We need to understand why our institutions and our cities and towns and school boards are pressing us into service. Why are they doing that?

ALA shapes national conversations, and I think it’s entirely fair to demand that the Association push for workplace protections. It’s also why ALA must push for climate justice. We can’t do our job safely if our buildings are flooded or on fire, but of course, ALA also can’t dictate what all libraries do. All of us are working within and against sets of local constraints that only we really understand. What the Association can do is support the fights of library workers by developing policy statements that respond to the realities we’re facing.

Here at the City University of New York, where I work, we’re looking to push for a fine- free library system, and we put together our PowerPoint to yet make, make the case yet again. And we turn to ALA’s policy documents as a way of making our case and showing that we’re outside the norm of our national association. So I think that’s the thing that ALA can do. But we also have to understand that those policy statements don’t produce change on their own, that they’re tools that organized workers can use in local fights and struggles to get the change that they need in their library. So we have to build the organizing skills of our members, so they know how to mobilize Association work on behalf of their own concerns.

Steve Thomas: How can ALA better support libraries in addressing the issues of recruiting and retaining people of color, especially when those new to the field sometimes feel that those workplaces are not equitable and inclusive? We can do recruiting, but we can’t retain if they get into a job and then all of a sudden they’re feeling like outsiders.

Emily Drabinski: Right. I think power in our libraries and power in the Association has to be distributed more equitably. We have lots of documents, actually, quite a few in big ALA, but also in the divisions, proclaiming our commitment to racial equity, but the field remains almost 90% white. And I think that’s because documents are tools and they don’t make change by themselves. It’s like, when you’re organizing with your union, you’re putting together a petition, but the petition is meant to gather people together, to make sure you’ve got everybody’s name, phone number, and email address, so that you have one-on-one conversations with people about what you’re petitioning about and for, and then you use the power that you’ve built through that document to do the real work of making change.

They don’t make change by themselves. So for example, when I took over the book review section of College and Research Libraries, a year and change ago, almost all of the reviewers were white. So that means that white perspectives dominate the discursive space of academic libraries. So I went into the position with the intention of changing that, and it wasn’t hard to do. I selected BIPOC reviewers rather than white ones. It’s not complicated.

So I know that there are lots of examples of people doing that in their own libraries in the Association. And we need lots more examples like that. We need to share them, talk about how we made those decisions, the work that goes into that, and we need to demand more of that kind of concrete, but you can only get those changes if you organize for them, it’s not enough to be right. It’s not enough to have the good idea. It’s not enough to all agree. We can’t divest ourselves of white racial power by saying that we want to do that. We have to actually make material differences in the lives of people, and I happen to believe that can only be done through the building and wielding of collective power.

Steve Thomas: And you mentioned equitable access earlier. What does that concept mean to you? And I was reading over the code of ethics, trying to remember exactly the wording they had just added a principle to it, and it talks about an affirming, the inherent dignity and rights of every person. So how does that fit into equitable access for you?

Emily Drabinski: Yeah, I think sometimes we think equal means same, but equitable access can’t be one size fits all. Everybody needs something different. So inclusivity is about recognizing and acknowledging difference, that our lived realities are not all the same.

So thinking about the Association, I think about equitable access to the tools of power that are inside of ALA. And it means things like lowering the bar for engagement, making membership less expensive, developing ways for folks to share and setting priorities and making decisions, even if they can’t travel to ALA conferences. It means being an Association that better represents all of its members because it listens better to all of its members, and here’s the difference that people bring to the conversation. We know member numbers are in decline. Is that because we’re not communicating well enough about our value or does it mean that we’re not actively affirming the dignity and rights of all library workers by organizing them into the Association and into their own power at work? For me, that’s equity work, is the organizing of people across difference around shared goals, values, and commitments. That would be what equity would mean for me.

Steve Thomas: And can you speak on your views on the concept of neutrality in libraries?

Emily Drabinski: I have kind of a short answer: there’s no such thing. Any of us on the outside of dominant white heteronormative, capitalist, agist, abelist monolinguals, xenophobic, settler colonialist, hegemonic structures knows that. I know it. Kelvin knows it. We both advanced our positions at ALA a few years ago on a program assembled by Jim Neal. I think we need to talk less about neutrality and more about how power works and how to build our own so we can collect, describe, share, and preserve information on behalf of shared commitments and values in our local community.

So just as ALA can’t set policy in a disaster for all libraries, they can’t define what it needs to be neutral or what that value means in a particular given context, we’re all facing different contexts and constraints. The terrain of struggle is different for everybody. So the idea that we can have a single guiding vision of what would be neutral, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

Steve Thomas: I feel like just reading the code of ethics, where it’s like, you’re trying to have your cake and eat it too. It’s like we talk about, “oh we’re completely objective,” but then we added this new thing that says we’re going to treat and affirm the inherent dignity and rights of every person. It’s not realistic.

Emily Drabinski: It’s not a materialist analysis, which is also what I would bring to it. I can’t actually collect every book or let everybody use the meeting room. I have a limited book budget. I have a limited number of meeting rooms. There’s a limited time on the calendar. So where are we putting our resources, where are we investing them with the understanding that they’re limited in scope. Am I going to give them to everybody equally? It doesn’t make any sense. I can’t do that because I’ve got to prioritize. And that’s part of what it is to be a library worker. We think about that all the time, we’re thinking about our communities and our users and what they need and what’s available and how we’re going to connect people to resources. So that means that we are always making decisions.

So when people say I’m objective, I’m neutral, it means that they’re not copying to whatever the sort of set of priorities that they’re working from cause we’re all working from them. And anybody who’s on the outside and I’d argue that the vast majority of us are on the outside of this sort of fantastic idea of a neutral public that doesn’t exist in the real world, this is not something controversial.

Steve Thomas: I feel like neutrality is a cop out, a way of trying to stop yourself from having to make a decision, but then not making a decision is making a decision.

Emily Drabinski: Yeah. The only people I ever hear advancing neutrality as a value where people who get paid a lot of money to make hard decisions. You’ve got to make the hard decision here. That’s what you’re getting paid for.

Steve Thomas: Yes, exactly. So in your job that you have currently, how do you encourage your staff to succeed and how would you use those skills to improve ALA, its staff, and members?

Emily Drabinski: First I’d say they’re not my staff, that we have to get away from the kinds of paternalistic hierarchies that are embedded in our language itself, in the ways that we talk about the workplace, the language we use when we talk about our relationships to our colleagues. So I’ve been at the head of this library for just two years. And most of my life has been spent as a rank and file librarian, frontline reference desk worker, classroom teacher, and in my time here in this leadership position, we’ve worked together to flatten the organizational structure so that decision-making power is distributed across more of us.

I’m also a union man. So I have enforced our contract, now that I’m on the management side. So I put in the bureaucratic work to reclassify staff so they’re compensated fairly for their work. So I think that’s one of the advantages of having a union in place is that we all have terms of collectively bargained working conditions. And as a manager, I can enforce that, which makes everybody’s life better at work. I talk to everybody all the time, big believer in one-on-one conversations.

So a president has only a head of ALA for a year and everybody I talk to says that the year it goes really fast, like you get started and then it’s over. So I think what I would use my skills to do would be to organize more conversations between different kinds of people about what people need synthesizing those demands so we can deliver on what library workers need from an organization like ours. So those skills are listening, listening, listening, listening, and putting people into conversation who might not know that they have things in common that they need to talk about directly.

Steve Thomas: I do appreciate you correcting that language there.

Emily Drabinski: I use that language all the time. It’s so ready, like the boss would have their staff and undoing that and thinking about new ways to consider and understand our social relations: lifetime project.

Steve Thomas: Like you said, that year goes by fast. So what do you hope the lasting impact of your term will be?

Emily Drabinski: That more of us understand what collective power is and how to build it and how to wield it then did before I got here.

Steve Thomas: How would you support your opponent’s agenda if you don’t win this election?

Emily Drabinski: I am committed to building worker power and I will do that, win or lose. This is a campaign that’s about organizing and about putting that vision forward. I’ll keep doing that at my own institution. I’ll keep doing that inside of ALA. Kelvin and I want very similar things for libraries. We want equitable access. We want people to be able to have sustainable careers. We want academic freedom. We want racial exclusions to be a thing of the past. And so wherever I could fit myself into that work is where I would do it. Kelvin and I have been in conversation and I have a lot of respect for him, and I think the feeling is mutual, and we’re all here to work on a shared project of libraries across the ecosystem as community goods. So we’ll do that together. We just have different sort of approaches, and ways of thinking about how to get things done.

Steve Thomas: How can listeners find out more about you and your candidacy online if they wanted to contact you or just find out more about what you have to say?

Emily Drabinski: Sure. Twitter, I’m very active on it. My website is emilydrabinski.com and you’ll see my campaign platform and all the ways that you can join us. We hold weekly campaign calls, they’re open to everyone, and I encourage people to come join. We’re having a great time. We’re doing a lot of laughing, and we’re making a lot of really smart and good analysis collectively through that. We have a Slack. So just reach out. I’m trying to be maximally open and enthusiastic. My commitment right now is to this race. So be in touch.

Steve Thomas: Great. Thank you so much, Emily, and good luck in the election and I hope everybody out there goes and votes if you are an ALA member and if you’re not an ALA member, maybe listening to this, and if you hear Emily about the things that ALA can do, if you join, you can help make those things happen.

Emily Drabinski: Thank you so much, Steve. And thank you for all your work on behalf of all of us in sharing ideas. It’s a real value and I appreciate it so much.

Steve Thomas: Thank you so much.

Emily Drabinski: Have a great day.

Steve Thomas: Kelvin, welcome to Circulating Ideas.

Kelvin Watson: Thank you for having me, Steve.

Steve Thomas: So, we’re having this episode to talk about why you want to be ALA president. So why do you want to be ALA president and what would be your priorities?

Kelvin Watson: So I’m running for ALA President because I believe in the American Library Association and the work of our member association to serve our library ecosystem, to have positive impacts on the communities and the people that we serve.

All library workers are important from the leaders on down, working together as a team top down, bottom up, and across. We all continue to make a difference every day in our communities. And I’ve had the honor to work with others to do this, responding to current challenges and opportunities when looking at what’s the future. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to work on ALA committees, task forces, round tables. I also served as BCALA president, and my turn as a PLA director, but this will give me an opportunity to even give more back to the American Library Association of what I’ve been able to glean and get from the Association.

So. Leadership to me include organizing, collaboration, strategic vision, and execution. These will be my priorities and they would circle around membership retention and expansion, working with ALA finances, working with executive director, Tracie Hall, ALA staff, the ALA treasurer, and of course our diverse membership delivering through collaborations and partnerships across the library ecosystem, along with our advocates, our allies, and what I call our co-conspirators. Intellectual freedom and censorship issues will be key issues to me to organize around with a plan to focus both locally and nationally, and sustainability will also be a priority.

Steve Thomas: Is there anything that you feel that ALA is currently doing that you’d need to deemphasize to make room for your priorities?

Kelvin Watson: So, as I think about deemphasizing anything as ALA President or President- Elect, I don’t want to determine what I would deemphasize. I really want to hear from our members as I’m listening now and will continue to do so. And then that’s how we would develop the priorities. Not just ALA doing this alone, because we need to have many more allies and advocates on our side telling our story, what libraries really do and how we get our work done.

Steve Thomas: Where do you see the biggest challenges to libraries coming from in the coming years, and how would you as ALA President lead the profession to help address those?

Kelvin Watson: The future is about increasing engagement, taking concrete action and delivering results. This has been a blueprint for my success in my career over the years of the many libraries that I’ve had the opportunity to work in, as well as lead, with our workers. Intellectual freedom and censorship will be key issues to organize around with a plan to gain focus both locally and nationally. That’s the biggest challenge that we’re facing right now. We’re seeing lots of conversation about what’s happening in local schools, for example. But I also just read the other day where there was some challenges in Lafayette, Louisiana, Public Library, having challenges where a new board members were elected and they’re focusing on not only censoring, but actually changing the mission of a library.

And so that is a big challenge for us that we need to address and that why I talk about local activation of our allies. Not to be activists, but to really activate and support the libraries locally, and doing it at the state level and then ALA being a place that can help energize and to provide those tools and resources.

Sustainability is also going to be a big challenge. Sustainability, Steve, is not just about the environment. It’s about funding. It’s about people. It’s about social justice. It’s about advocacy. A successful ALA Presidency to me would mean a fundamental transformation again, of our engagement, inclusivity, and approach to advocacy. We must continue to share the stories in the truth about the role of libraries and library workers, what national leaders and influencers need to know about how libraries change people’s lives, what new revenue sources can we tap into to fund real change. Again, things that I’ve done at multiple libraries, all of these questions will help drive those expanding services, and of course attracting a diverse membership. I’m one of a few African-American male library directors. How do we continue to increase diversity in our library so that the leadership and the workers look more like the communities that we serve? So we have to be intentional and strategic in serving. And so those will be the challenges so that we can develop impactful resources in concert with our partners, advocates, and allies.

Steve Thomas: ALA in general supports libraries as a profession, as institutions, but ALA’s President also serves as President of the ALA Allied Professional Association, and in that role, there’s more direct advocacy for library workers. How would you advocate for them in that ALA APA President role?

Kelvin Watson: So I would do that because I’m a committed leader, and as a committed leader, I pride myself on being an active listener, a problem solver, and a relationship builder. I talked about that collaboration and organizing as a leader. And so I’ll bring these skills in leveraging my leadership abilities to ALA as the President and so, looking at and listening and understanding the members’ concerns. And this is what I’ve done in libraries, I came to Las Vegas during COVID last year, so immediately jumped in. I’ve learned, again, the power of support and new thinking around partnering and working with staff, bringing staff in. We’ve actually created a wellness program for staff and it came from them, the workers, asking for those resources. The ALA Allied Professional Association, all library workers, we’ve gone through a post-traumatic stress from COVID and having to do more with less, but also having to pivot from the services that we have been traditionally doing and offering to the community.

So I would go in and as President and acknowledge first, the toll that the pandemic has taken on library workers, but also continue to work, to educate our staff around mental health resources that are available, looking at opportunities again with ALA executive director, Tracie Hall. How do we have a national ALA EAP, employee assistance program? That is where I see myself bringing some practical, pragmatic, here’s what we’ve already done. My track record has shown everybody that I know how to get things done in a year. And that’s again, through the partnerships collaboration. And so, increasing funding to ALA APA, right? How do we do that?

You’ve probably heard about one of my initiatives, Steve, where I’ve already in the campaigning season received over $50,000 in pledges towards a worker relocation program. That’s for workers who need assistance to pay the first and last month’s rent, for example, or pay for food, right? That’s again, how do you move that, and since this fund would be a part of ALA, this is a partnership certainly that we can have with ALA-APA.

Steve Thomas: You know, we mentioned PTSD. It’s almost like we’re in the middle of TSD. It’s like, we’re still being traumatized.

Kelvin Watson: Yes. But you have to show leadership, and what I’ll point out to you, Steve, is that when you look at Las Vegas Clark County Library District in the past year, how many things that we’ve been able to accomplish in COVID. And I say we, because it’s the library staff, the workers that I work with to set a vision. We’ve implemented a strategic plan. We call it Strategic Playbook 2026. It’s an active strategy where everybody is included. It’s inclusive from top down, bottom up. And as I say, across the organization, but it’s focused on delivering results.

Steve Thomas: What kind of role do you feel that ALA has in setting guidance for public libraries in disaster situations like COVID-19?

Kelvin Watson: I have direct experience here from Queens and Broward where public libraries supported and support the communities like during hurricane Sandy in New York and during hurricane Irma, where I was the library director during both. And we had to establish disaster plans and continuing operations plans. We were actually already prepared. It wasn’t just on how to continue delivering services when services were quote unquote coming back online. But the disaster plan also were about the collections as well. So this real world direct experience is what I would bring the ALA.

Even during shootings, any incident that occurred in Broward, we had an emergency plan that was established that the staff knew about. We called it a COOP, the continuing operations plan, but how do you put it in an emergency? How do you move quickly to actually implement that? And so in times of troubles, libraries, we’re community centers were the anchor, right? And so being proactive in creating these crisis plans and communication plans for library spaces, this is what I’ve done before.

Active shooter training, I rolled that out as Broward County Library’s director. After Parkland, we did active shooter training, myself included, right? You know, run, hide, fight, right? Literally the only agency to do that training, which set a model then for other county agencies to follow.

So, again, I’ve got practical experience to put actions into place, to bring as ALA president to get people around not only talking again and talking about why they are important, but actually giving examples of why they’re important as well.

Steve Thomas: Can you speak on your views on the concept of neutrality in libraries?

Kelvin Watson: Yeah. This one is definitely a hot button topic with differing views, and I think people’s views in the profession sometimes come from where they are or their roles so I’m going to speak specifically about public library. And so if we’re talking about the concept of neutrality when it comes to materials and services in collection development, in public libraries, we provide for the needs of the entire community we serve, 2 million people here I serve. That’s a whole lot of different views, whole lot of different needs, right? So we rely on their collection development policy that we have in place to guide us where materials are evaluated by our professional librarians for their objectivity when it comes to nonfiction material, they are evaluated for accuracy, for example, validity, relevancy, currency.

So we cover in a public library every walk of life. So I believe in the right of intellectual freedom and that there should never be a suppression of the free exchange of ideas. With accurate information and the opportunity to discover differing views, exposing a wide audience to information and resources on the importance of diversity and equity, for example, have actually helped to increase the awareness about the urgency of these issues. Practical experience after the killing of George fluid, where I did that in Broward, where we expose the community to different resources that they hadn’t been previously exposed to.

But I will say, Steve, that I do have one concern about the concept of neutrality and it worries me that libraries could have an ability to take a non-stance on important issues and avoid accountability by abdicating any ethical responsibility that we have, claiming neutrality can endangerous us an institution by resulting in an unconscious adoption of values of the dominant political model and framework. And simply put, what I like to say is that we can’t be neutral on social and political issues that impact our patrons, our customers, the people that we serve, because we, for example, those social and political issues impact us. And so that’s where I stand.

I mean, it’s a hard one to say that I’m open to intellectual freedom, as library director, I don’t bring my personal views like some of these individuals who are making decisions, it’s about censorship in schools and other public libraries. As the librarian, I’d be doing the same thing to me that they’re doing if I brought my personal views or how I felt about things into the discussion. So that’s why I rely on the collection development policy. My own personal views, I have to try to balance it, and it is a balancing act. It’s a tough, it’s a tough balancing act actually for libraries. There’s no easy answer to it again from public libraries. You’re gonna have definitely have some differing views and opinions and what people want to see.

 And so I appreciate the question. I know it’s difficult, and folks probably fall on different sides of it.

Steve Thomas: Well, and there’s a big difference between “you’re not representing my point of view in your library” as opposed to “I don’t like your side. You need to take it out of the library”. It’s not like they’re feeling excluded. They just went the other side out. That’s not the same thing.

Kelvin Watson: Yeah. So I’m going to always focus on the side of inclusivity and have the conversations. Like I had this week with a reporter from the Las Vegas Sun. And I pointed out in schools, for example, when I was going to school, how my life was influenced by the titles like Native Son, right. To Kill a Mockingbird. Books that schools are working to ban right now. I learned from them as an African-American man, boy at that time. Right. And so there’s value in having those resources available to share those differing views, not just because they’re differing views, but we can certainly learn from those views as well.

Steve Thomas: Right, and on the non-fiction side of that, that doesn’t mean that we just carry science books that say flat earth is correct. Or germ theory is not how diseases are spread. I always bring up now that we raced to get rid of all those “Pluto is a planet” books, librarians were running to do that, and everybody loves Pluto, but we all ran to get rid of those books because that was what was accurate. So we’re not going to carry Holocaust denial because…

Kelvin Watson: Of course, because it’s not accurate! Again, that nonfiction evaluation of accuracy, validity, relevancy and currency. That’s why you use those as a way to evaluate those resources, because to your point, what people are even doing around critical race theory. People are trying to erase history. They’re trying to erase history, and it’s becoming more politicized. And that is the problem. That is the problem. So if libraries, we have a balancing act again because we serve, especially public libraries, we serve broad communities, school libraries same, academics, that’s there as well. I’m for freedom of speech, differing views. I wouldn’t be where I am without having and learning from those differing views.

Steve Thomas: How can ALA better support libraries and related institutions in addressing issues of recruitment and retaining people of color, especially when the people new to the field, sometimes experience workplaces that are not equitable or inclusive?

Kelvin Watson: ALA can address that issue, and I’ll say again some ways that I’ve addressed that issue. I recently spoke about this on a diversity panel. Recruiting is one, but retaining is really the harder part. And so we have to focus on the retention part. ALA, just like we need to retain our members. We have to have ways for individuals to find a place, but also support them. So I actively support equity for all and have been involved in numerous initiatives that support equity, diversity, inclusion, accessibility, and access. So if I were elected to ALA president, but I’m going to continue to do this regardless, I would assist libraries in implementing programs that I’ve found to be successful.

So currently, when you talk about what happens as a library director here in Las Vegas, I am the executive director, but I also am the Chief Diversity Officer. And that’s what I immediately said as the leader. I’m the Chief Diversity Officer, and that’s in my role as executive director. So I’ve provided solutions to eliminate biases in job descriptions in the interviewing process, for example, establishing retention plans, and now I’m working on introducing ways for us to intentionally expand our candidate pool. I participate in the branch manager interviews. We had the largest diverse pool of candidates that we’ve ever had, as I understand it.

While at Broward County Libraries, I served as the 2020 Florida Library Association co-chair for their diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility task force, which was established to bring BIPOC and LGBTQ+ individuals together to make our membership ideals more pervasive within FLA. Within a short period of time, this was in 2020- I came here in 2021- within a short time, we not only developed the plan, but we actually implemented the plan, in a year. Also at Broward County Libraries, I led the charge in making sure that all of our staff, nearly 700 library workers, we all attended the LGBTQIA+ 101 proficiency training. I made it mandatory as a requirement for all employees. We also completed EDI collection work, programming and marketing audits around diversity, as well. And so, again, these are things that can scale up by making it available. I’m not a hundred percent sure if ALA is offering that training, but I know where to get the training because we outsourced it. This was not internal staff training. We actually paid an organization, SunServe, to actually deliver this training to all of our staff. This is how you educate others because diversity, equity, inclusion, it’s not a buzzword, or it’s not a buzz term. We have to be intentional about it. And so that’s the place where having tough conversations, challenging library directors, like myself, library directors that don’t look like me, to look at their staff.

We talked about statements earlier. After George Floyd was murdered, there were lots of organizations, libraries included, companies, who made statements. I’ll tell you this story, true story. I didn’t make a statement. We didn’t write a statement down, and I was asked why I didn’t make a statement? And my response was, we didn’t need to make a statement. I didn’t need to make a statement because we were already making a statement with our diversity programming. We were already making a statement because we were leading the way and saying the statement was the work. And so when you’re doing this work around institutions addressing retention, like Nike said, just do it.

Steve Thomas: Yeah. I mean, you got to walk the walks.

Kelvin Watson: Yeah. And that’s why I’m giving you examples of how I’ve walked the walk. I’m walking the walk every day as a leader in this profession.

How would I support my opponent’s agenda, I know that was something that somebody wanted us to answer. So Emily and I’ve had some discussions about this already, both on the phone, we talked about it in forums, and we recognize how our platforms differ. My platform is more holistic. Hers is really focused on more directly around organizing and using her union experience and around ALA workers, which is not something that I’m excluding.

So in the big picture, we’re both working to have a positive impact on the ALA membership and that ultimately would result in positive impacts on the communities that we serve. I’m focused on uniting, not dividing, and I want to create more tools that remove barriers of access, inclusivity, retention, and so I know that we’ll support each other in the long-term into the future. I’ve offered my support to her, and my initiatives again are not excluding library workers. It’s actually more inclusive because I’ve actually added that I’m a library worker too.

I’ve got an MLS, I just hold the role of the director. We’re one team and we all work together to get this done. So we actually are in this together, all library staff, all workers. So that’s where I plan on helping support her if she wins. I’m here to do that.

Steve Thomas: ALA presidential elections are not national presidential elections. It’s basically, we have a different lens that we’re looking through the same issues at, and we all have the same end goal of wanting to help the community and just a different way of doing it, so voters decided which way would you prefer it gets done, but everybody gets along.

Kelvin Watson: We have our differing. I like how you said it. differing lenses. My lens is from, I’ve had more opportunities to be in leadership roles, really recognizing that leadership is, how do you bring people together? All people, and that’s the approach, that’s the lens that I have, and so that’s what I would bring to ALA presidency.

Steve Thomas: How can listeners learn more about you and your candidacy online?

Kelvin Watson: So I’ve created a website. It’s kelvinwatsonforlibraries.com Kelvin, K E L V I N watson, W A T S O N for F O R libraries, L I B R A R I E S.com. It describes my record of leadership, dedication to serving the underserved, and examples of projects that I’ve initiated throughout my career that certainly my goals for ALA.

Steve Thomas: You can keep that URL around after the election too. That’s a good URL.

Kelvin Watson: That is exactly what my plan is.

Steve Thomas: We do, of course, encourage everyone to go vote, and I hope that these interviews in this episode have helped people make their decisions. Thank you so much for coming on, Kelvin.

Kelvin Watson: Thank you so much, Steve. It’s been a pleasure.