November 16, 2017

Barbara Stripling on Seeing the Big Picture

Barbara Stripling PortraitBarbara Stripling has served as assistant professor of practice at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies since 2012, and was recently promoted to senior associate dean. Stripling also served as president of the American Library Association (ALA) from 2013–14, where she initiated a number of programs that reflected her commitment to library advocacy. These included the ALA Task Force on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion and the proactive public awareness initiative Libraries Change Lives, which culminated in the “Declaration for the Right to Libraries”—a statement testifying to the power and value of libraries that was signed by advocates nationwide.

Library Journal took the opportunity to congratulate Stripling on her new position and to ask about her work both at Syracuse and at ALA. We received some good advice for ALA presidential candidates—and for everyone else.

LJ: How will your academic duties change with the new position?

BS: I’m going to be teaching less—I’ll only teach one course a semester. A lot of my strengths are in looking at the whole and taking a perspective where I see how all the parts fit together, which is what I’m going to be able to do as associate dean. I’ll be able to participate in iSchool conversations and work with everyone on the faculty and the staff on various initiatives. It’s really exciting.

We have a curriculum roadmap committee where we’re doing intensive work, so I am actually getting to do quite a bit of overall structuring, some planning and curriculum development. We’re figuring out where we need to focus and what concentrations we want to offer. I always maintain a student perspective when I think about curriculum: How will a student experience this? What’s the pathway the student will be taking through the school? It’s enjoyable to engage in that conversation with my colleagues.

It seems as though LIS programs are going through almost as many changes as libraries these days.

Absolutely. Certainly libraries are undergoing a huge transformation right now, which means that LIS programs need to be undergoing that transformation. It’s actually even more important for LIS programs because we can’t prepare people for what is, but rather what we think will be. That’s strategic and long-term thinking, to enable [students] to leave prepared for the job as it is now, but also prepared to create the future. And that’s why an iSchool is particularly strong, I think, as a piece of the LIS. The integration of technology, systems, data, data visualization, and networking—all of those pieces that an iSchool brings are very important for librarians.

What can you bring from your work with ALA to the new position?

I got so much from my experience at ALA, but part of it was a vision of librarianship that incorporated all different types of libraries and situations, in every state and internationally. That perspective helps me think about the future of libraries. When I talk about transformation I’ve actually seen examples of it all over the country, and talked with people who are thinking in that way. So the broadening of my personal perspective is very important to what I’m doing now.

A big thing that you learn as president of ALA is how to listen well and honor different perspectives—to facilitate conversations among people who are passionate, and may have differing opinions, but who have the same vision. And then being able to bring people together and actually take actions that move [everyone] forward, instead of just talking about problems.

Also, I learned a lot of patience. It’s such a huge organization that you can’t get from A to Z immediately. But if you envision the way to get from A to Z and take actions, you will have done what you needed to do.

Have you run into any conflict between school bureaucracy and the ideals that you embodied as ALA president—for instance, the need for academic assessment measures vs. students’ right to privacy?

No, I really haven’t. My intellectual freedom and privacy and equity of access values are so strong that I wouldn’t let a conflict get in my way.

Now, one area where I’ve had to be very careful is accreditation. I’m chair of a subcommittee for the ALA Executive Board that is working with a subcommittee from ALISE to look thoughtfully at the process of accreditation, to figure out how to improve the process and improve communication. Syracuse is also undergoing reaccreditation right now—our visit is next fall—so I have to separate the personal accreditation business from this larger vision. And really, they don’t have anything to do with each other, but I’m cognizant of always making sure that I keep those separate, and that that process is not making an impact locally. That’s the only area where I’ve really been very careful not to have any conflict of interest.

What would you want to tell the new president of ALA?

I would say several things. The first is to develop a whole-ALA perspective. In other words, if you come in as a school librarian…or as a public or academic librarian, it’s really, really important to make extraordinary efforts to broaden your perspective, to be very inclusive, and to make sure that everything that happens has that balanced perspective. Not everything is separated into types of libraries or different niches. You can build a community that is more inclusive by what you say and how you oversee what happens.

The second thing is that you need to listen well. [The presidency] is not about telling people what to do—there’s no power associated with it. It is being the human face of an organization where we all are committed and passionate, but not everyone feels like he or she has a voice. And you can be the person who listens and then speaks for various groups or individuals.

Another piece of advice is to maintain a focus on the vision of ALA, what the mission is. Don’t get distracted by all the bureaucracy. If you always keep that vision in mind, your decisions will be better, and you’ll be better able to represent ALA in other situations.

One of my passions, and one of my initiatives during my presidency that I really hope continues to be emphasized, is the effort toward making ALA and the library profession more equitable, inclusive, and diverse. We’re working on it, but it needs to be an all-ALA effort. Everybody in ALA needs to step up and speak out for the importance of having a profession [where] everyone is treated equitably. I guess maybe that’s another piece of advice for the next president—that that is a continuing issue and we need to get after it, we need to nail it.

I guess the final thing is: give it all you have. [The presidency] is extremely draining—it is energizing, but definitely all-consuming. Thank goodness the terms are only a year, because it takes more energy than you would think. I guess the main thing is that it’s not all about you. It’s not at all about you. It is about libraries, about the people we serve, our communities, and the organization. It’s really important to keep that focus.

Is there anyone in ALA that you think we should have our eye on?

Oh my gosh, there are so many. I ran into the most exciting people. And you know what’s interesting to me—they’re invisible, almost. I would hear these stories because of my Declaration for the Right to Libraries. People would come back with what happened during their signing ceremonies, the things [librarians] are trying to do. In these little towns, we have people who maybe don’t even have an accredited degree, but they’re running a small library and they are so focused on their communities, and they’re helping every person in that community live a richer life. Those are the real heroes we don’t even hear about.

There are movers and shakers and big names, but I came away understanding something: I always have these big goals about changing the world, and what I realize—and remind myself of often—is that changing the world means changing one life at a time. And our librarians are doing that every single day, in the little things that aren’t heralded and yet are pivotal in other people’s lives. So when I talk about movers and shakers I actually think about the everyday passion and dedication that individual librarians bring to their communities.

Because we don’t always hear about it—we don’t often know about those moments that happen all over, everywhere.

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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