Sari Feldman

This is Circulating Ideas. I’m Steve Thomas. My guest today is Sari Feldman. She is the Executive Director of theCuyahoga County Public Library in Ohio and the 2015–2016 President of the American Library Association.

Sari, welcome to the show.

Thank you so much for having me on.

So, you are very newly the ALA President for this year, just a couple of weeks ago made that transition and I’ve been curious before, and I think I’ve heard other people talk about it before, what’s the period of being President-elect like? How are they, how does the ALA organization sort of prep you to become president?

Well, I was so fortunate because Courtney Young, now the past-president, was extremely generous with her support and knowledge sharing to enable me to be ready to go as president. Barbara Stripling was also helpful as I prepared for the presidential year. The staff at ALA are incredible, and they just really make sure that you know what you have to do, they kind of track you step-by-step. A big part of the president-elect year is the appointment process as well as becoming more knowledgeable in the parliamentary procedure that’s used at Council. I have been getting up to speed about some of the issues around advocacy, information policy and professional development, it is just an incredible learning curve. I feel very expanded in terms of my understanding and knowledge of libraries and our library association and I am really very proud to be leading the association.

And they just changed the parliamentary procedure, didn’t they, toRobert’s Rules of Order?

Correct, and the changes are really minor. I didn’t come up to the presidency perhaps through the most traditional path, so I have never served on Council, which I believe is quite unusual for an ALA president. The idea of presiding over council has been a little intimidating to me, but I’ve been fortunate to have Eli Mina, the parliamentarian for ALA. He has done a number of sessions with me and will sit next to me as I preside at Midwinter in Boston. I know that ALA Council will be generous to me and forgive me any minor faults I will have when I’m standing in front of them.

Well, you’ve obviously already done this a little bit with your regular work as Executive Director at Cuyahoga County, but do you get also some like media training, or something like that since you’re going to be like the big national spokesperson for libraries?

I did have training and I’ve done a lot of media, but boy, they were harsh. It was very humbling for me. They actually snatched a speech I had given off the internet and told me all the things I did wrong, so the media training is not for the thin-skinned. I think you come out a better speaker on the other side, at least I hope so.

Yeah, that’s what, it was kind of like when we, we sold our house recently and the realtor was very somewhat harsh about what we needed to change at our old house, and she was like “I’m not here to be your friend, I’m here to help you sell your house, and so I’m just, I’m giving you the facts here, so we need to just get to a better place.”

Great comparison, yes, that’s true. It’s about the association, about being the best representative I can possibly be for our association, which is so important as a voice for America’s libraries, librarians and library workers.

Yeah, and I’ll get into that a little bit more when we talk about your Libraries Transform campaign, but before I get to that I wanted to ask, how big of a challenge is it to balance your work as, obviously you’re just getting started, but as ALA President with your work as the executive director at Cuyahoga County, is that, do you see that as being a complementary kind of role of the two things? I mean, learning from each one, informing the other?

Well, I’ll tell you a kind of humorous story. When I made the decision to throw my hat in the ring, I went to my board. I have an outstanding board of trustees and I said, “You know, I’m going to put my name in to be nominated for ALA President, but I’ll never be picked.” Then I was picked. So I went to my board and I said “Well, looks like I’m going to run for ALA President, but I’ll never win.” And then of course I came to them and I said “I’ve won as ALA President and this is what it means.” But, fortunately as I said, I have an outstanding board and I also have, I think, the nation’s best team working with me at Cuyahoga County Public Library. My Board and team were with me at my inauguration except my board president who was having a baby any minute. Everybody else was able to attend and the kind of support that I have on a daily basis in, from my local team and my local constituency will really make it possible for me to do this massive job and massive responsibility as ALA President. I think that people who know me, also know I’m a workhorse, I am very defined by my work, and I work constantly. I can take my computer, I have a meeting tool on my computer, so I can be connected to work. Sometimes my colleagues wish I was a better vacationer than I am because I often want to work on my vacations.

Yeah, no, that’s probably the best thing is that you have to have a team that you can depend on back home.

Yes, they’re just outstanding, they’re great.

And, of course, the ALA team is, is very helpful for that role as well, so…

Yes, they are. In this new role you do have a different perspective. When you see the capacity that the ALA team has, as well as the demands of working with a different president every year, you can recognize how effective and really how flexible and nimble they need to be. It’s a true asset for our organization.

Yeah, and it’s so great how all the, they work together and the presidents work together to really make the transitions work, and it’s just, it’s great to see that at the national level.

Right, and I was so fortunate also that Courtney and I had a lot of communication, so we’ve tried to make the transition more seamless, continuing the efforts and the messaging that came before us.

Right. As ALA President, a lot of times I think people, when they come into the organization, when they first join, it’s sort of overwhelming cause it’s this huge, tens of thousands of librarians, and they don’t really know how to get started, so do you have any tips for how people can get started in the organization, like how they can get involved?

Well, I think that there are different gateways for people. The New Members Round Table of course is the perfect place for entry for anybody who’s just joined. I think that people who are active in divisions, who want to take a larger role in the overall organization should reach out to the president. We have so many appointments, and I know people will be surprised to hear this, but we really use the self-recommendation of people signing up and requesting to be appointed to various committees. That tool is essential and so people should let us know, and actually I want to tell your listeners that although I’ve made my appointments, I know that I will have other appointments during the course of the year. People should reach out to me and let me know if they’re interested in an ALA appointment. I think that again, just to go back to the beginning, people come in through the New Members Round Table and through their divisions. There are so many more ways to be active in divisions as well, through the various ALA Connect tools, listservs, and discussion groups. It enables you to find a cohort group of people who are interested in similar things, and from there you can develop that interest into a program, maybe a task force for a division, or more active participation, eventually running for office. And anyone who’s interested in participating in ALA, and I know we’ll get to the Libraries Transform discussion, I need a very large group of people, a massive group of people who are willing to be out there communicating on behalf of our association and our profession.

Right. And that was my next question, was to get into Libraries Transform, so we can go ahead and jump into that and can you kind of describe, give me kind of the elevator pitch for, like, what is the main kind of goal of the Libraries Transform campaign?

So, when we think about Libraries Transform, we’re actually thinking of it as a reflection in the way libraries have evolved to meet changing needs, and it’s everything from the technology integration to a more outcome intensive focus within the knowledge economy, but what we really is to elevate and increase awareness of and support for the transforming library. And we want to shift the perception of libraries from obsolete or “nice to have” to essential, and we want to engage and energize librarians and library workers and build external advocates to influence local state and national decision-makers. So as advocacy is one of the three pillars in ALA’s strategic plan, this campaign is going to support advocacy efforts by communicating one clear message, that libraries today are less about what they have for people, and more about what they do for and with people. And it’s about all kinds of libraries.

Yeah, I feel like a lot of times that libraries, people keep saying, “Oh, libraries are dying, libraries are this, that and the other,” and of course we know that they’re not, but it seems like this is a good campaign because the biggest problem, it seems to be, is that we’re not doing the best job maybe of getting the word out about it, and that seems to be like what this would do.

And I think what’s important is that this campaign, although I have the privilege and the pleasure of launching it, and being an early spokesperson, it is going to be ALA’s public awareness campaign for the next 3–5 years, tying directly to the ALA advocacy effort.

Do you think libraries need to do more to transform to survive and thrive in the 21st century? Do you think we’re doing a good job of keeping up with what needs to get done?

I think libraries are on a very active trajectory moving forward. I think, there’s no template, there’s no one size fits all, libraries are a reflection of the communities they serve and I think that’s one of the most transformational pieces of the library today, whether your community is a school, a university, a community college campus, a public community, a business. Libraries are much more engaged with the people they serve and they’re creating individual opportunity and then they’re advancing that community through the services that are provided. So, we certainly hear about some great and creative efforts, makerspaces in public, school, and university libraries. We hear about libraries having different collections, more sharing economy from the library. We hear about education, entrepreneurship, employment, engagement, empowerment activities. It’s not about specific space, specific digital content, it’s really about ensuring opportunity for individuals and communities.

And why do you think this particular campaign is needed? Do you think it’s what I was talking about before, that it’s just we’re not getting the word out? Do you think it’s just…?

Well, I need the campaign because as you would, expressed before, I’m tired of trying to say “No, libraries are not obsolete or ‘nice to have,’ they are essential!”

Right, right.

You know, we need to have a message that reflects the truly effective and impactful work that goes on in libraries across the nation. And the nation is, the fabric of our nation is pieced together by the work of libraries and in particular, in the new knowledge economy. We have become increasingly important and impactful to individuals at all stages in their lives, and we just need a bigger message that amplifies that story.

Yeah, ’cause I know I always get frustrated, and I know a lot of other librarians get frustrated when we read those stories about people saying that libraries are no longer needed and things like that, and so I, it feels like this campaign can also give us tools to use as sort of responses to those kind of things.

That’s absolutely true, yes, absolutely.

So can you talk about some of the tools that are being provided as part of the campaign? Like marketing, things like that…?

Sure, so we’re just launching the campaign right now and there is a website, librariestransform, all one word, dot org, and it houses high impact posters, a video and information about the trends influencing library transformation and the posters are these provocative “Because” statements that are going to help to communicate the ways in which libraries are transforming. And they can be posters, or banners, or Instagram, Twitter, however people feel will be the most impactful. And there will also be physical posters available that will be distributed in the near future. There’s places on the website where we hope, at this time, librarians and library workers will suggest other “Because” statements that can be used and can be shared and also begin to tell stories about library transformation and how they are impacting individuals in their communities. We want to hear from our members and key partners in brainstorming some national, state, and local implementation strategies and we’d love to have some, maybe some unique ideas that we can bring forward and there’s a place on the website for sharing that information.

We’re also going to build in how Libraries Transform can be brought to life through some regular ALA touchpoints, like National Library Week, events from the Policy Revolution! that comes out of the Washington office, Library Card Signup Month and others. And there will be a strong social media component to this campaign. We’re hoping that in October we’ll be ready to launch the full-scale public campaign, but we really need to hear from our members and have an understanding of how we can best support our members at the local, state, and then national level.

That’s great, because then we can all sort of work together as a profession to get this message out there.


You talked about it a little bit, but do you have any other specific ways that ALA members can get involved to help out with the campaign?

Well, right now I wish that people would go to the website and give us feedback and also ideas, that’s really important. We’re hoping that ALA members and member organizations will start to pull down some of the content and use it as a banner on their own website, to start to illustrate the story of Libraries Transform, and we’ve done that at Cuyahoga County. There are also opportunities to create some tools and start placing some of the “Because” statements in public, more public areas in their libraries, or in their community. And as we begin to develop the social media campaign, it will be critical for members to really connect and to be re-tweeting and sharing on Facebook, and using Instagram, and Periscoping stories of transformation, whatever it will take to start to spread the message.

Right, and one of the bullet points on the site talks about updating the image of libraries and library professionals. Do you see that as sort of getting away from those stereotypes of the old lady with the bun and the little glasses and all that kind of stuff? Or, is there something more to that that you would like to…?

It’s so interesting that you say that, so I went to an event at ALA, a New Members Round Table event and I sat with a group of newly-minted librarians and they said “I hope your campaign is not going to be about how we look.” And quite frankly, we achieve success through diversity of thought, diversity of knowledge and diversity of appearance. We want our customers to see themselves and so all kinds of people use libraries, all kinds of people work in libraries, but I think the image is about how creative our work is today. Somebody suggested that an ad for a librarian could actually read “Like people? Want to solve problems? This is the job for you!” And I think that hasn’t been our image in the past. We haven’t been associated as a “people profession” connecting, developing relationships, working collaboratively with people who use libraries, not only around locating content, but helping people to create content and using new digital tools. We are a profession that is often on the cutting edge, the early adopters of so many interesting tools and content and then we go on to help people create their own content that can be shared. I think of libraries as the originators of the sharing economy, ideas around products that people want in a trusted environment. That’s really the value of Uber and Airbnb. We invented that, and we should come forward and say that. So, I think that it, we are a surprising profession and as people enter the profession, they can begin to discover how exciting the work is and how connected we are to people. We want to make sure that, again, we are advancing that theme, that image to the public.

Yeah, and what I like about the idea of the shared economy, like you said, is that not only is it, we’re sharing our collections with the community, but the community is sharing with us too, and I think that’s part of what has been out of the picture for the general stereotype of libraries before, is not so much the creation aspect of it, but I think makerspaces are helping move us in that direction as well, that the community can also contribute to the library. We’re not just giving to you.

Absolutely, at Cuyahoga County Public Library, we use the SELF-e platform for people to upload their ebooks and share them with a broader community of readers. We have recording studios in two of our branches, soon three branches and people are creating music. People meet each other and then they go on to create new music through collaboration within a community and then they’re uploading it to places like YouTube and some people are selling on iTunes. So, again they’re broadening their audience and we’re enabling and fostering that through the library.

That’s great, I mean that’s really what we’re all about, is bringing communities together, so.


One of the other sort of bullet points of the campaign came to mind when you were talking about meeting up with the New Members Round Table with some new members, is attracting the best and brightest from all walks of life to grow and expand the profession. How do you see the organization contributing to that? Like, how do we reach out to more diverse members to join the organization and make the whole profession better?

Well, this is very core and very much on the minds of the American Library Association. Diversity is quite critical and ALA Knowledge Alliance is an initiative that already exists, so I’m going to work with them and not reinvent a recruitment model. We will begin to imbed the stories, the images, the social media of the Libraries Transform campaign into this Knowledge Alliance initiative.

Okay. And sort of a broader question than just about you becoming a librarian, before you became a librarian in the first place, how did you, did you feel that libraries had transformed your life?

I grew up in a very small town, I grew up without a library. I was fortunate enough to have a bookmobile come to my hometown once a month, but I think that when I became an adult, and I began to have access to libraries, and libraries of all types, I really understood the impact of information. It was that trusted relationship with an information provider and how it could support these different transitions or passages in a person’s life. Some people refer to that as disruptive moments in your life, and I became quite enamored with the profession. I was living in Madison, Wisconsin and I was working, I always joke and say I was working the kind of job that made you realize it was time to go back to school. I was doing a lot of volunteer work and I came to see the opportunity to work with people and to solve problems through the program that was being offered at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, then called “library school,” and made the decision to go. It was one of the great decisions of my life. I worked with a woman, I’ve talked about this before, a woman named Margaret Monroe. She changed my life because her understanding of a model called Readers Services, which was about connecting with people, and supporting them in their information learning and really life decision needs, is a model that has seen me through much of my career. Margaret was so important to me that I named my oldest daughter for her.

And do you have any other, any other librarians that you sort of, there’s probably a lot, but that, in particular that you look up to, or you look for examples of great librarianship?

Well, I’m a reader and I truly believe that the value and the legacy of reading and advancing that as we are also advancing a digitally-inclusive society is critical. And I am proud to call Nancy Pearl my friend, a woman that I admire and respect tremendously. She is my reader’s adviser when I need something to read. Nancy’s work is about really connecting our readers back to libraries through the programming, through the recognition of how incredibly qualified our staff is to do reader’s advisory work. It’s not about algorithms, it’s about understanding a reader’s needs. I just admire the work that she’s done and the impact that she’s made.

Yes, she’s great.

And there are many other people, I could go on and on.

Yes, especially I think once you get to, when you were President of PLAand now President of ALA, you meet most of the great librarians up there, I think.

I’ve been very, very fortunate and I’ve had just an incredible career of, and a career of service. I’m reminded of that all the time, that it’s the opportunity that I’ve had to really be in service to communities, but I hope also to my profession. Now I get to give something back.

Yeah, and as you said, that applies to, I mean you’re in public libraries, I’m in public libraries, but that, and it applies to all types of libraries. I mean it’s school libraries, academic libraries, we’re all serving our communities and that’s really what’s the important thing.


Well, Sari, can you tell the listeners again how they can get in touch with you, or with the campaign to get more involved, or to learn more information?

Well, there is a place on to communicate back to ALA leadership and talk about your ideas for the campaign, but I would be happy to hear from anyone and I’m And feel free to email me, drop me a line, tell me what you’re thinking and how I can ensure that you have the same great career that I’ve had.

Sari, thank you so much for being on the show, and I hope all the listeners will go and check that out and learn more about the campaign, because what I’ve read about it so far has been fantastic, so I hope everybody else feels the same way and wants to get involved.

Thank you so much, it’s been great to talk with you. I look forward to seeing you soon and to meeting your listeners in the future.