May 28, 2017

A New Challenge for ALA: Leading Between Activism and Advocacy | Blatant Berry

John Berry IIIThe 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.

John Berry

This article was published in Library Journal's March 1, 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

John N. Berry III About John N. Berry III

John N. Berry III (jberry@mediasourceinc.com) is Editor-at-Large, LJ. Berry joined the magazine in 1964 as Assistant Editor, becoming editor-in-Chief in 1969 and serving in that role until 2006.

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  1. John Lang says:

    ALA is in this position because it has officially pushed an extreme left political position for years.at the detriment of the profession.

    • I wrote this recently vis-a-vis activism:

      Why Neutrality IS the Mission

      I would like to point out this study from PEW that might shed some light on this issue.
      http://www.people-press.org/2016/06/22/partisanship-and-political-animosity-in-2016/

      Tie these results with the bromide that recently circled the library echo chamber of “Neutrality in the face of evil (read: something we disagree with) is not actually neutrality, but supporting of said evil” and it’s easy to predict the loud library contingency that screamed bloody murder at the very thought that the ALA would offer its expertise to the incoming administration.

      Interestingly, I also find this with calling from these same (similar?) librarians that libraries need to do a better job educating people- as if they only reason there is disagreement and the election turned out the way it did was due to a big lack of education and understanding. “If only we had done a better job educating those 60+ million voters as to the truth they never would have disagreed with us.” This thinking is not only fallacious, it allows us to forego introspection because, obviously, the problem isn’t us. This is similar to the wrong thinking of Marxist theory of false consciousness. It’s adding insult to injury and reinforcing the view that half of our stakeholders might have that the library itself, as an institution, is partisan.

      Follow that up with information such as this:
      “When David Brooks did some research into political donations by profession for his September 11, 2004, column in The New York Times, he found that for librarians “the ratio of Kerry to Bush donations was a whopping 223 to 1.” By contrast, the corresponding ratio for academics was 11 to 1.” http://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Loneliness-of-a/33191

      And it’s really easy to see how we can be viewed that way. If these numbers hold true and librarians are 223 to 1 democrat to republican (pretending, as all polls do, that we are all team players) and pew shows that a vast majority of partisans have pretty scathing views of other party members- would it not follow that libraries are staffed with people hostile to republicans?

      As a profession do we work to fight this potentially innate bias by showing how we take our political bias hats off at the door? NO! We make sure people know exactly where the profession lies by getting up in arms at the very insinuation that we, maybe, as a profession, will continue to do our jobs for everyone, equally, regardless of political affiliation. It is for shame that these self-appointed “leaders” paint us with such a terrible brush.

      So, now we become protectors of truth in opinion- of trying to further quiet dissention by not allowing it a seat at the table, as if this will solve the problem. We pretend that even offering a copy of an Ann Coulter book is tantamount to raising our hands in salute to racism. Why not filter the internet to block access to Infowars.com while we’re at it? Does one really need to point out the ridiculously obvious fact that, if we had already ventured down this path, libraries would only ever make available materials that support the status quo? There would have been volumes of the benefits of eugenics in the 1910’s and no other works (since these works WERE supported by scientific experts of the time) challenging those views would have been offered space on the shelf.

      So, we make ourselves a partisan group that is viewed as such by half of the people we are tasked with serving and instead of realizing this as a horror of a reality, we have calls to double down and make sure our position is cemented by disallowing dissent we deem inappropriate? We have calls to openly divest ourselves of a responsibility to serve those members of our communities who aren’t ones we deem in need of overrepresentation and bold and brave institutional protection.

      We must fight treating everyone equally without bias because “Neutrality favors the powerful, and further marginalizes the marginalized”? That is absolutely not true. Neutrality is the opposite of favoring the powerful and marginalizing the marginalized. It is the, still, bold idea that your power or level of marginalization has no bearing on the service, treatment, and access to resources you receive at your library. Neutrality means you collect resources and materials to meet the desires and needs of your community members, regardless of their station or views. Does that mean we order a flat earth documentary? Yes. Does that mean we do actually have books proposing eugenics as a policy? Yes. Then, when they aren’t used anymore, we get rid of them. We treat them the same way we treat a celebrity biography, homeopathic remedy books, feng shui instructionals, study bibles, climate change explanatories, climate change denials, etc. We do not take a paternalistic approach that our users are too stupid to understand what is true and what is not. We do not crusade against “wrong thinking” in the name of our own bias.

      We are objective, we serve, we are neutral. That is bold. That is brave. That is right.

  2. David Tulanian says:

    When was the last time ALA invited a conservative speaker to address a conference? Isn’t it a bit ironic that those why rail against censorship in books don’t have a problem when conservstive speakers are shouted down at public events?

  3. JEDI MASTER says:

    The presumption that all activism from the ALA would be liberal and not conservative just shows the confirmation bias that exists within the field. Treating people like people is neither liberal nor conservative, but moral. Stop repeating the lies that ALA is liberal behemoth. It’s not. It’s a human one.

  4. Mary Ann says:

    I can’t understand why anyone would have trouble supporting a President of the United States. It’s the hardest job in the whole world. The name of our organization is the American Library Association. Hence we are an American organization & it would be nice if we could all be Americans & support the American President. ALA should not be as liberal as it is because it lost a lot of conservative members like me who joined other library associations because we felt like we had no voice & sadly no choice. I joined the Catholic Library Association because I was so fed up with ALA.

  5. Christian Zabriskie says:

    What an incredibly condescending article and commentary from someone who I have NEVER seen engaged in any kind of advocacy or activism for libraries here in NYC.

    Big talk for someone who doesn’t show up.

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