The American Library Association (ALA) faces the difficult job of finding new leaders at a time of great uncertainty about the nation’s politics and how this will impact the nation’s future and that of libraries.
Over the years, a fine ALA cadre maintained substantial federal support for libraries, regardless of which party was in power in Washington. People such as Germaine Krettek, Eileen Cook, Carol Henderson, Lynn Bradley, and current ALA Washington Office (ALA WO) chief Emily Sheketoff have been very effective at lobbying. They all managed to strike an acceptable balance between partisan governance and a nonpartisan focus on library support, despite pressures from both the activist wing of ALA and members who wanted the organization to remain neutral on national issues.
With Sheketoff retiring effective May 15, finding a replacement who can maintain that equilibrium and deal with the Trump administration will not be easy, particularly at a time when ALA Executive Director (ED) Keith Fiels is stepping down as well. ALA would be lucky to find a clone for Fiels, for there are few who can be as skillful at both being the public front man and keeping the internal lid on at ALA. (For more on Fiels and the importance of choosing the right successor, see “The Devalued MLIS.”)
I was as angered as many others when ALA WO promised to support and aid our 45th U.S. president. Yet such are the skills of a successful lobby, though as an unreconstructed New Dealer, I would never be able to do that work.
The Sixties taught us that well-timed activism can sometimes win the day. Those of us who are activists are always impatient with our adversaries. ALA’s new administrators will have to find ways to engage with both those activists and their opposition—not an easy undertaking.
Of course, I am already worried that the supporters of the ALA milquetoast approach to advocacy and societal politics might prevail, as they often have. Still, the other side of that coin is that misplaced excessive activism can destroy whatever avenues to real clout librarians have built. ALA management must be willing and able to expend a great deal of policymaking skill and strength to win little power in the larger arena. Fortunately, librarians are used to jobs like that.
ALA’s most recent controversies, such as the debate at the Midwinter Town Meeting in Atlanta over its response to the Trump administration and the close vote to require that the next ED hold an MLS degree, are an early warning of how difficult recruiting new leaders—and their task once chosen—can be. To make that work possible, ALA must develop more effective ways to tap membership sentiment on crucial issues.
There are excellent candidates for these positions in our own ranks who are strong and smart and know they are not allowed to take anything personally. I suppose that even means how to be nicely receptive to President Trump. Oy!
It will take great patience and wisdom for the organization to find a new ED and a head of the Washington Office who can handle those challenges.