November 17, 2017

ALA President-Elect Jim Neal: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

JimNeal20162Voting for the American Library Association (ALA) 2017–18 presidential election closed on April 22, and when the votes were tallied on April 29 James G. (Jim) Neal had won the role of president-elect in a close race. A total of 10,230 ballots were cast—marginally up from last year’s 10,119. Neal edged out opponents Christine Lind Hage and Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe with 34.6 percent of the vote.

Neal served most recently as vice president for information services and university librarian at Columbia University, New York, from 2001–14. A member of ALA since 1976, he has held many leadership positions throughout the organization, including 2010–13 ALA treasurer, member-at-large of the ALA council from 1994–2001, executive board member of the Budget Analysis and Review Committee, and others. He is currently completing a second term as an at-large member of the ALA executive board.

Neal was president of the Library Leadership and Management Association (LLAMA) from 1992–93; has been a board member and president of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL); has chaired the National Information Standards Organization (NISO); and has served on multiple committees of the Association for College and Research Libraries (ACRL). He is the current treasurer of the Freedom to Read Foundation and the Metropolitan New York Library Council (METRO); sits on the OCLC board of trustees; and will chair ACRL’s 2017 national conference in Baltimore.

Neal was named ACRL’s 1997 Academic Librarian of the Year, also receiving ALA’s 2007 Hugh Atkinson Memorial Award and its 2009 Melvil Dewey Medal Award, as well as its 2015 Joseph W. Lippincott Award for “distinguished service to the profession of librarianship.” He speaks, consults, and writes frequently on issues of scholarly communication, intellectual property, digital libraries, and library cooperation.

Library Journal caught up with Neal after the election to talk about ALA’s evolution over the years and what he hopes to accomplish as president.

LJ: What did you learn through the campaign process?

Jim Neal: This was an extraordinary opportunity to meet and talk with members of ALA across geography, type of library, and type of work that members do. What I found most energizing was the ability to really see our profession in a new way based on those contacts and those conversations—hearing from members, exchanging ideas with members, meeting with members at conferences from Midwinter through the Public Library Association [Conference] through the Texas Library Association [Conference] and other stops in between. Also having friends and colleagues step forward and really offer to help, and to reach out on my behalf and to encourage individuals to vote for me—that national network of colleagues was very energizing and valuable.

What are your thoughts on ALA’s election process, now that it’s over?

The entire process needs to be rethought. I know [2016–17 ALA president-elect] Julie Todaro is organizing a working group to step back and take a look at the processes, the policies, and particularly the timetable. This year the candidates were announced immediately after annual conference [in June 2015], and the time from July 2015 to Midwinter—that’s an extraordinary period. Then…there was a big gap between the presentations that the candidates gave [at ALA Midwinter in January] and the actual beginning of the voting in March. And then there’s five weeks of voting. I think we created this schedule in a period of manual balloting, and we’re now dealing with almost—if not all—100 percent electronic voting, so we have an opportunity to rethink how we can tighten up the calendar.

How do you feel your previous ALA experience will inform your presidency?

I’ve been involved with ALA for many years, back to my early mid-1970s experiences working in the round tables and divisions. I’ve always seen my professional voice, if you will, as one of the most important parts of my life, and have made a commitment over the years to be active and involved. It’s given me great opportunities to grow professionally, to meet and work with thousands of individuals over the years, to be focused not only on the work of my library but on the larger professional policy issues both on the national and international level.

I will have served four terms on the executive board. I’ve done also a lot of work with council and other parts of the organization. So I feel that ALA is family. And I’ve always felt a strong commitment and responsibility to invest my experience, expertise, chutzpah, enthusiasm, and humor into the work of the association.

What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen within the organization?

The complexity of the organization—the divisions, the round tables, the relationship between ALA and its various units, the increasing role of technology in how we do our work as an association—and also as it impinges on our professional lives—and the types of issues, questions, education, and training that we seek through our involvement with the association. We’ve also been moved to be much more focused on resource development as an association, seeking grants from foundations and federal sources, and building a much more aggressive individual and planned giving capacity so that we can guarantee the long-term health of the organization—we’ve seen the economic ups and downs.

I’ve also seen the organization be much more willing, over the last several years, to focus its attention on a smaller set of priorities. Clearly we’re a comprehensive, all-encompassing organization. But we’re able to find the focus on advocacy—[such as current president Sari Feldman’s campaign] Libraries Transform—and on professional leadership development, and information policy, as the meta-priorities we’re going to pursue as an organization.

What changes do you want to see happen?

We need to step up in a big way on supporting school and public libraries on the local level, and to build the right relationship among the national and state and local organizations—United for Libraries, Urban Libraries, all those organizations are fighting so hard. We also have similar challenges in the funding of academic libraries. All we have to do is look at the situation in Illinois as an example of how challenging it has gotten.

The other thing that deeply concerns me, and one that I’m going to make a strong commitment to during my work as president, is looking at the diversity inclusion priority for the profession and the association. We know that over the last decade we’ve made strong efforts and important investments to build the diversity of our profession, but we find ourselves in a situation where we have fewer librarians of color working in our libraries, particularly African American and Hispanic American [librarians], and we’ve got to step back and rethink that overall strategy. But the numbers are [just] a piece of the puzzle. We also need to make sure that people of color see ALA as a place where they should be professionally involved and engaged, and to make sure that our culture and our practices are embracing and inclusive, and that we create opportunities for individuals to advance into critically important leadership roles in the work of the association.

We need to get the support for the Library Services and Technology Act and the Innovative Approaches to Literacy funding in place. I think that’s absolutely critical. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the reform that’s been proposed—we need to get that passed. The Marrakesh Treaty for the Print Disabled on the copyright front. So the variety and intensity of national and international policy issues, I think, will also be very demanding during this period as well.

So: diversity, inclusion, funding, and politics, and then we have really deep challenges at the federal and international levels. We need to get [Librarian of Congress (LC) nominee] Carla Hayden confirmed. And with that confirmation I would like to see us build a much stronger, much more robust collaborative relationship between ALA and LC.

You have a year as ALA president. What do you hope to accomplish?

The work that Lisa Hinchliffe did in her campaign identified some extremely important issues in terms of membership and engagement and participation in the work of the association, so I would like to see how that can be advanced successfully. I think there’s a need to address the continuing conversation around accreditation, to sustain the conversation between ALISE [Association for Library and Information Science Education] and the library schools and ALA and its office of accreditation, to really rethink what accreditation means and what are we accrediting for in this profession going forward. That will be a priority.

I already mentioned the outreach to the new Librarian of Congress. And I think the working relationship among the divisions, round tables, offices, and chapters probably warrants some new discussion. I certainly will reach out to the new division presidents. We form sort of a class who’s been elected together, and will work together over the next three years to try to effect some important changes, improvements, and priority setting.

I think it’s very important that ALA not focus internally but focus outwardly. Clearly there’s work that needs to be done in the organization, but I think what’s more important is how we work in the world, how we work in our nation, how we work in our communities, how we are being transformed in terms of what we do, how we are understood, and how we do it. That, I think, will be a very important focus over the next three years as well.

How have your goals for the organization changed or evolved since you first considered running for president? How have ALA’s goals changed?

The intensification of advocacy is…something that has evolved over time.

I was the chair of the Congress on Professional Education, which focused on continuing professional education, back in the early 2000s. So I’ve always seen that as absolutely fundamental and critical to the work of the association and [have] been pushing, through my work on the executive board, to get as much of the professional education and training work of ALA and its divisions represented through a common platform. I think we’re very close to positioning ALA as a strong and successful enabler, a provider of education online. Then in the information policy area, I’ve worked on copyright for 30 years, and have been involved in the open access movement since the mid-’90s, and was a very strong spokesperson on the importance of privacy and confidentiality after the USA PATRIOT Act. Politics and information policy have always been central to my professional life. So it’s good to see the identification of that as a third leg, if you will, of ALA’s priorities for action going forward.

I’ve also seen ALA become much more focused on resource development, as I mentioned earlier, and I think ALA has the capacity and responsibility to be innovative and to provide a programmatic leadership for the larger North American library community. I’ve seen ALA’s involvement in the world—and the world of libraries—also change and grow during that period. These are…ideas that have to be developed and teased out, and choices will have to be made in terms of what we can invest in and what we have the resources, energy, and focus to set as priorities. My goal is to work with the members and to involve as many individuals as possible in moving these and other initiatives forward.

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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Comments

  1. Nathan Pasquale says:

    Jim and I once buried a body together. It was a hitchhiker we had hit on a roadtrip back in ’72. Never saw him dart out on the road. From that day, I knew Jim was going to do great things.

    Congrats, Jim!

    • Spencer says:

      He should have had you introduce him at ever event! Best story ever. I, for one, am glad we have someone who’s proven to be resourceful, quick thinking in an emergency, and able to keep a secret!

  2. thanks good article