September 22, 2017

Not Business as Usual | ALA Midwinter 2017

ALA Midwinter attendees waiting for the show floor to open

ALA Midwinter attendees waiting for the show floor to open
Photo credit: Meredith Schwartz

In spite of intermittent rain, the mild temperatures of Atlanta, GA, made it a welcome destination for the 2017 American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter Meeting, held January 20–24. Still, attendance numbers of just under 9,000 were significantly down from recent Midwinter meetings in colder climes—11.7 thousand at Boston last year, and 11.5 at Chicago in 2015.

In addition to the regularly scheduled 1,120 meetings and events; more than 450 vendors and exhibits on the floor of the Georgia World Congress Center; keynote speakers; award presentations; and ALA council, association, and roundtable meetings; current events—notably the inauguration on Friday of Donald Trump as the 45th president—drove a series of offerings that were definitely not business as usual. These included a highly energetic and colorful contingent of librarians adding their voices to the local protests, an ALA Town Hall meeting that gave members a forum to talk about the organization’s policies going forward, and a three-day Symposium on the Future of Libraries.

TAKING IT TO THE STREETS

ALAMW17_sign

Librarian presence at the Atlanta March for Social Justice and Women
Photo credit: Meredith Schwartz

On Saturday, January 21, one day after President Trump’s inauguration, a contingent of several hundred Midwinter attendees crafted signs at the convention center and headed over in waves to join the Atlanta March for Social Justice and Women, one of the many worldwide events held in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington. So many referenced libraries on their signs that one local resident remarked, “There are a lot of librarians here!” at the rally following the march.

Overall Atlanta turnout was estimated at 60,000 people by the Atlanta police department, many times the 10,000 originally expected, even though heavy rain delayed the event by half an hour. The upbeat crowd chanted, “When they go low, we go high” as they went, along with “District Five”—a reference to Rep. John Lewis’s Atlanta Congressional district, which President Trump characterized on Twitter as “in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested)” as part of his Martin Luther King Day–weekend attack on Lewis. Lewis led the march and spoke both before and afterward. Later in the conference, Lewis’s graphic memoir of the civil rights movement, March: Book Three (Top Shelf) took four honors: the Coretta Scott King Book Award, the Printz Award, the Sibert Award, and the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults.

ALA in Dialog

In response to member concerns about ALA’s post-election advocacy messaging—in which the organization was criticized for releasing an early draft of its policy platform that spoke, many felt too passively, about working with the incoming Trump administration—the ALA Executive Board introduced ALA Town Hall: Library Advocacy and Core Values in Uncertain Times to the Sunday morning schedule. Moderated by Cheryl Gorman, senior fellow at the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, the 90-minute session was designed, she noted, to open a dialog to help ALA “advocate effectively for your values with the Trump administration.” The town hall drew several hundred participants and was livestreamed on Facebook.

ALA president Julie Todaro spoke briefly about the need to acknowledge the “environment in which we live and exist,” and said ALA needs the “leadership of the membership” to help move the organization forward. Among the many commenters that streamed to the microphones was Sarah Houghton, director of the San Rafael Public Library, CA, who emphasized that she didn’t “want a future where we sell our soul for scraps at the federal table.” Carol Brey, a past ALA president, pointed to three layers of power at issue: personal power, power as librarians, and power as an association. She urged individuals to vote and talk to legislators, and noted that, “As librarians we have the greatest power to provide information to help people know how to participate in democracy.” Brey added, “ALA needs a strongly worded statement on our commitment to democratic values.”

Violet Fox, metadata librarian at the College of Saint Benedict & Saint John’s University, St. Cloud, MN, said that “silence will be the real threat to our funding,” and urged ALA to take several concrete steps to move ahead, including replacing ALA Connect, reducing “opaqueness” in the organization, opening up the ALA council list, and encouraging members to get involved. Deb Lolli, self-described as a librarian in a rural setting in red state, said, “My local officials don’t even know ALA exists, so you don’t need to use us as an excuse” to adopt a conciliatory tone, adding that ALA is responsible to “speak the truth” and let people know libraries are a safe space.

Several speakers expressed the importance of continuing to engage in frank conversations, even in the face of divergent values or political opinions. Lisa Rice, a chapter councilor from Kentucky, said “you can disagree on many parts and still be heard on key issues,” adding,” if we continue to build relationships even though we disagree, we can make progress.”

Keynote speaker Kamau Bell Photo credit: Meredith Schwartz

Keynote speaker Kamau Bell
Photo credit: Meredith Schwartz

While the incoming administration loomed over the proceedings, coming up in everything from the opening session by comedian W. Kamau Bell to the hands-on presentation on Skokie’s Civic Lab, it wasn’t the only hot-button issue ALA addressed this conference. The ALA Council unanimously adopted Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion as a fourth strategic direction for the organization, building on the work of the taskforce-turned-working group on the same topic, which Barbara Stripling convened after the controversy over not moving the ALA’s 2016 Annual conference from Orlando, FL in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting.

But if there was unanimity on equity as a library value, there was just the opposite on whether to maintain the requirement that ALA’s executive director have an MLIS degree. The motion to remove the requirement was narrowly defeated in a 75–78 vote. The question is relevant because ALA Executive Director Keith Michael Fiels has announced his intention to resign; a 13-member search committee headed by ALA past president Courtney Young (2014–15) has been convened to find his successor. While the committee is deliberately constructed to represent a wide range of institutional interests within ALA, including Council, Roundtables, Divisions, Staff, and even Emerging Leaders, Sacramento Public Library executive director Rivkah Sass, on behalf of the Public Library Association (PLA), noted that PLA was concerned not to be represented.

Council also acted to change the number of signatures necessary to nominate ALA presidential candidates, and to make family status a protected class, so that those who cannot attend in-person committee meetings due to family obligations will not be ousted. Latino Literacy Now was granted ALA Affiliate Status, and Ann K. Symons was granted Honorary Membership. At this writing, the final Council session was still underway, so stay tuned for more news.

A LOOK AT THE FUTURE

While looking forward has been a common theme throughout ALA’s conferences, the Symposium on the Future of Libraries, organized by the ALA Center for the Future of Libraries, convened nearly 40 sessions devoted to the subject. Three plenary sessions featured local civic leaders, educators, innovators, and library leaders; breakout sessions covered subjects ranging from library labor to sustainability, building civic engagement to library ethics.

In “Building the Future: Public Library Directors and Their Trustees Making Future Policy Decisions Together!” United for Libraries (UFL) president Susan Schmidt led UFL director Sally Reed; Anne Arundel County Library System, MD, trustee Fred Stielow; and Peter Pearson, recently retired president of the Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library, MN, in a spirited discussion of strategies for fundraising, building diverse boards, and bringing the community in to help advocate. (The more powerful a civic leader, the better they will serve the library’s cause, noted Pearson:We’re not looking to form a book club,” he said. “Recruit the best.”)

The topically-titled “Collude! Resist! Collaborate! Ebook Strategies for the Modern Revolutionary,” brought together Mitchell Davis, founder and chief business officer of BiblioBoard (developers of LJ’s SELF-e platform); Paula MacKinnon, interim director of the Califa Group; Stephen Spohn Jr., resource sharing director of the Massachusetts Library System; and moderator Veronda Pitchford, director, membership development and resource sharing of Reaching Across Illinois Library System (RAILS), to talk about their partnership working toward seamless e-content access and, as Spohn said, “disrupt[ing] the marketplace in a positive way.” One of the platforms they have been working with and modeling is SimplyE, the New York Public Library’s (NYPL) single-interface e-reading app, and NYPL played a prominent part in the Symposium as well.

EQUALIZING TECH

In “Collaborating on Libraries’ Digital Futures: A Conversation with Anthony Marx,” NYPL president Marx issued a call to action, outlining in stark terms the ways in which the digital divide has not been bridged. “Libraries are the foundation of an effective civil society, an effective economy, and, god willing, an effective democracy,” he said, arguing that libraries have a duty to ensure digital equity in a world in which communication and information of all sorts increasingly require access to computers and broadband.

Marx told a story about meeting a kid on the front steps of an NYPL branch in the Bronx, doing math homework “with the oldest laptop I’ve ever seen.” He was using the stoop of the branch shortly after hours, Marx discovered, because he didn’t have Internet access at home, but could still get a free, if weak, Wi-Fi signal from outside the library. “This is New York City in the 21st century,” Marx said. “We say we want our kids to succeed and do their homework, and they have to sit on the stoop to get the crumbs of broadband?”

Technology is often discussed as an equalizer, enabling access to a wealth of information that would have been inconceivable a few decades ago. But in many ways, technology is “reproducing and exacerbating existing inequalities,” Marx said. “We have a moral obligation here to not let this inequality grow. That means broadband access. It means upgrading speeds and data [connections in libraries]. It means offering affordable or free technology. It means ongoing digital education.”

GOOGLE’S CS FIRST

Representatives from Google showcased the company’s CS First program. Originally developed for grade 4-8 classrooms by a team of teachers and programmers contracted by Google in 2013, the free, multi-part computer science (CS) education curriculum has been successfully adapted as a coding club program by public libraries such as the Queens Library, NY, which launched CS First at 26 branches last summer. Tina Ornduff, program manager, Engineering Education for Google, and Hai Hong, program manager, Google K–12 Education Outreach, encouraged attendees to consider creating CS First clubs at their libraries as well.

“The world needs more computer scientists, and there are not enough [CS] graduates in the U.S., or in much of the world,” Hong said, explaining part of Google’s motivation for researching, creating, and fully funding CS First.

The program can be led by instructors with no prior coding experience of their own, and is designed to introduce kids to computer science with a variety of fun, multi-part 10-hour modules tailored to their interests, such as music, game design, storytelling, art, social media, or fashion. Using the free Scratch programming language, each module features step-by-step video tutorials and scripts, as well as tools to guide instructors and facilitators through organizing clubs and hosting each session. Interested librarians can find out more at cs-first.com.

GOING TO THE CANDIDATES’ DEBATE

The three ALA 2018–19 presidential candidates gathered Saturday evening to present their platforms and answer questions. Each brings a very different background, outlook, and ideology to the table. Loida Garcia-Febo is an international library consultant and the president of Information New Wave in Brooklyn, NY; Terri Grief is a school librarian at McCracken County High School in Paducah, KY; and Scott Walter is university librarian, DePaul University, Chicago.

Top of mind for candidates and audience alike was the new national administration, what changes it would bring to all types of libraries, and how ALA leadership would work within its constraints. The selection of a new ALA executive director, as Keith Michael Fiels prepares to step down from his longtime leadership, was also a concern.

Garcia-Febo, with a record of advocacy throughout ALA and in government, stressed the need to advocate for change through public policy at the grassroots and national levels. She has worked to promote diversity through membership in ethnic affiliates and her leadership in REFORMA (The National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish-Speaking), and believes that this is key to strengthening the field as a whole. The new administration “is not business as usual,” she told the crowd, adding that librarians need to take a place at the table now.

Grief has worked with professional school library associations at the local, state, and national level. She offered a three-strand platform of strengthening relationships across the board, empowering communities, and uniting voices; successes like former President Obama’s signing of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and Carla Hayden’s confirmation as Librarian of Congress are signs of forward motion that need to continue, Grief said, and she hopes to break down ALA silos and encourage joint projects.

Walter, who has been active in ALA for 20 years, primarily in the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), is the single petition candidate. He hopes to empower librarianship at the member level, giving them the tools to take action and make a difference, and emphasized the need for nonpartisan thinking about partisan issues. About the new administration, he said, “Washington is not a uniform place,” he said. “The work we do will not happen in the Capitol, but in the state capitals.” Walter was also the lone dissenter on the requirement that the new ALA director have an MLS. “ALA is a large professional association,” he noted, “but it is not a library.”

All three candidates repeatedly referenced the need to steer with an eye on “core values”—of ALA, of librarians, and of librarianship as a field.

AND THE WINNERS ARE

The conference also held many opportunities to celebrate winners in the library and publishing world. The Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction were announced on Sunday, January 22, at the Reference and User Services Association’s (RUSA) Book and Media Awards Ceremony. The Notable Books List, an annual list of best adult titles published in the United States including literary fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, was announced at the same time.

At the Penguin Random House Librarian Reception, held at Atlanta’s World of Coca-Cola, the publisher announced the award of its inaugural Library Awards for Innovation to Kay Marner, project coordinator at Ames Public Library, IA.

Two Library Journal honorees received their accolades this week as well. The 2017 Association for Library and Information Science Education (ALISE) Award Winners were announced at a luncheon on Thursday, January 19, at the Sheraton Atlanta Hotel. LJ executive editor Meredith Schwartz was on hand to present the LJ/ALISE Excellence in teaching award to University of Toronto Faculty of Information associate professor Jenna Hartel, together with Charles Harmon of the award’s sponsor, Rowman and Littlefield.

And in a convivial event held at downtown Atlanta’s The Smoke Ring, San José, CA, city librarian Jill Bourne was fêted as LJ’s 2017 Librarian of the Year.

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