March 27, 2017

Meet the Candidates: ALA President 2018–19

Voting for the American Library Association (ALA) 2018–19 presidential campaign opened March 13, and ALA members can cast their ballots through April 5. Results will be announced April 12.

This year’s candidates have experience working in a range of library types. Loida Garcia-Febo, an international library consultant, is a former public librarian and president of Information New Wave in Brooklyn, NY, a nonprofit organization working to bring information access to underserved populations. Terri Grief is a school librarian at McCracken County High School in Paducah, KY. Petition candidate Scott Walter is university librarian, DePaul University, Chicago. LJ has invited the candidates to weigh in on some key issues pertaining to ALA and librarianship; more information can be found on ALA’s Election Information page.

1. What do you think is the most important characteristic for the new ALA Executive Director (ED) to have? What mistakes should they avoid?
loida_garcia_febo_small

Loida Garcia-Febo

Loida Garcia-Febo: We need someone at the helm who understands libraries, shares our values, mission, principles, and our experiences, and stands for our core values including intellectual freedom, social responsibility, diversity, access, professionalism, and democracy. We also need an Executive Director with experience in government and municipal networks, managing large organizations, and not-for-profit experience.

Terri Grief

Terri Grief

Terri Grief: We need a team builder to unite the association. An often heard complaint from members is that the association is made up of silos and we have to be united to face the issues that threaten libraries and intellectual freedom. Keith has been a great leader for ALA and school librarians became more a part of “big” ALA under his leadership. I want every division and unit to feel this same care from ALA. The person has to be a listener. The ability to look at the big picture and the ability to share leadership is vital. There is a strong staff that will support the ED and he or she will need to trust and depend on them.

scott_walterScott Walter: There are a number of professional competencies and personal dispositions that we have seen already discussed as critical for the new ALA ED, but I think the most important characteristics, especially in the current environment, are: 1) a commitment to the core values of the profession; 2) an appreciation for the professional expertise represented by ALA members; and, 3) a bias toward action.

2. Now that ALA has adopted Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion as a strategic direction, what can ALA do to move the needle on recruiting significantly more people of color into the profession, addressing the microaggressions they experience, improving retention, and improving the percentage of people of color—particularly from underrepresented cultures—in leadership and management roles?
Loida Garcia-Febo: As a librarian and as a Latina, I am deeply concerned about this situation. Our profession ought to mirror the populations we serve and our diverse communities. Recruitment and retention are among my biggest concerns. We have to consistently reach out to high schools and undergraduate programs to promote librarianship. I am committed to follow recommendations from ALA’s Task Force on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) and expand marketing to include promotion of librarians and library workers. At the same time, we must work together to understand why individuals may join our profession and why they may leave. I am certainly committed to advocate for better salaries and work conditions that would help us to retain librarians and library workers.I absolutely support the recommendations from the EDI towards encouraging all offices, divisions, and round tables of ALA to review their goals, strategies, and outcomes for diversity and inclusion periodically. Develop a strategy to ensure inclusion of more members from underrepresented groups in committees, task forces and association activities. Pursue increasing funding opportunities to support participation at ALA conferences and meetings. Explore ways to increase continuing education for ALA members in the areas of diverse groups and in building connections to address microaggressions, both racial and towards LGBT populations. Terri Grief: This strategic direction is now the responsibility of all ALA, all divisions and units. We have typically given this to the Committee on Diversity and asked them to do the impossible. Now, all of us have to take this responsibility. I have an idea for recruiting that will ask members to devote time to do local recruiting. A task force will develop an easily adaptable campaign that can be taken to college fairs and teacher preparation programs. I want to join forces with the Ethnic Caucuses, associations such as the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, the Historically Black Colleges, and the ethnic student associations at colleges and universities, and reach out to the members to recruit. This will lead naturally to leadership and management roles.
Scott Walter: ALA can help members to build partnerships with campus programs focused on recruiting students of color, and can highlight examples of innovative practice where libraries and librarians have done this. ALA can provide programs at the national level, as well as partner with chapters, to promote greater awareness of microaggressions in the workplace, and ALA can model preferred practice by guarding against, and calling out, any such microaggressions that may come about during the course of its programming. ALA can work to remove obstacles to active engagement with the Association for members of color, including the need to commit to extensive travel to multiple conferences each year in order to be considered for leadership opportunities. Finally, ALA can expand its work in studying the demographics of the profession from issues of “pipeline” and success in recruiting people of color into the field to a broader study of retention in the field, and progressive engagement with the Association, over time, to get a better sense of whether or not our efforts are “moving the needle” or circling a plateau.

3. Should ALA reform its governance practices to make for more nimble responses to public events? If so, how?
Loida Garcia-Febo: As a current member of the ALA Executive Board I have been glad to contribute to efforts to increase the responsiveness of our association. ALA is reviewing and adapting procedures to respond to situations in a swift way. ALA is actively working to examine any areas that need reforming to reflect its commitment to its members. For example, very recently the protocols for communication and coordination were updated to reflect the need of rapid and timely responses, and the staff will be trained on social media communications and crisis response. Additional opportunities for members to share needs, feedback, and comment should be provided throughout various platforms. We need a member-driven organization that responds to its members’ needs and I believe ALA is reforming practices to strengthen its responses to public events. Terri Grief: This association is [made] thoughtful in its decisions by the exact thing that makes it less nimble. I would choose to keep the thoughtfulness over nimbleness because we are a complex association that needs to have to the time to debate, question, investigate and then decide. I love the way Council debates. We hear all sides of the issues before we make a decision. Unfortunately this only happens twice a year and I feel we could use online techniques more efficiently. Discussions could happen online but I still want face-to-face voting to make decisions. The president of the association is the spokesperson for the association and his or her responses to public events are the appropriate way to make public responses.
Scott Walter: Yes, ALA should reform its governance practices, and, yes, it must be more nimble in response to public events, especially those that present a fundamental threat to the profession, its core values, or the rights of its members and their communities. I’m not sure that these are necessarily the same thing, but work must be done in both areas. Being “nimble,” for example, may be as much about a commitment to transparency in communication as it is about governance, but we are no longer in an environment where formal statements of ALA positions can wait for a semi-annual conference. ALA must make a commitment to routine, timely, and transparent communication and decision-making, and ALA leadership must find ways to do this outside traditional mechanisms such as the “Council list.” Our view of “ALA leadership” must also involve not only the President and President-Elect, but other elected members of the Executive Committee and the elected leadership of other ALA units, e.g., divisions, chapters.

4. How can ALA address the drop in attendance at its last couple of conferences, and what should the organization do to reverse the trend?
Loida Garcia-Febo: As ALA President, I will seek to work together with Divisions and all units to ensure inclusion of their meetings and programs in the new conference remodel. Additionally, I will work towards increasing funding to support conference attendance and participation of diverse professionals including new librarians. I will support increasing opportunities for members whose primary affiliation is to a “type of activity.” We need to identify those needs and strategize about how ALA’s different groups can serve them. Developing mechanisms to include newer librarians and students in the association’s work is a winning formula that has tremendously helped associations such as IFLA [See ALA’s New Members Round Table]. In 2004, two colleagues and I noticed that there wasn’t a forum for new librarians and students within IFLA. We developed the concept, secured support from the President of IFLA, and established the group, IFLA New Professionals. This group advises the association in multiple areas impacting programming and services, which has increased engagement of newer librarians and library groups within the association. Terri Grief: If you look at the last 12 or so years, you will see that this isn’t exactly a downward trend. Conference attendance has ranged from a little less than 17,000 in 2016 and 2006 and both of those conferences were in the south in the summer. High attendance was 2007 and 2005 (about 28,000) and those were both held in population-dense areas of DC and Chicago. Chicago again topped the latest high attendance at over 26,000. The rest of the data is up and down and usually has something to do with location. Looking at the data seems to say that we should always have the meetings in Chicago or Washington, DC. However, I remember being in New Orleans as the first association to return to the city after Hurricane Katrina. No meeting has ever been as powerful for ALA. I would not be willing to give up moving the annual meeting across the country for the benefit of all our members. I don’t have the data but it would be interesting to find out how many attendees only come when it is in driving distance. If we only had it in the population-dense areas, people like me who live in mid-America would be put at a disadvantage. Midwinter reflects the same data.
Scott Walter: ALA needs to better understand the factors leading to the drop in attendance, as the potential solutions may differ depending on the underlying reasons. One of those factors is economic. Another is the increasingly diverse array of professional development opportunities that may be more specialized than a general ALA conference, or may be easier for individuals to attend (either in terms of location or cost). Finally, I have heard many people say that each of those factors combines with the desire to make a difference at home to encourage them to participate in state and regional conferences, instead of Midwinter or Annual. It is likely not in ALA’s power to “reverse” any of those trends, but we can make decisions about how to craft a sustainable approach to conference programming that takes those factors openly into account. ALA is already seeking efficiencies in the Annual Conference, but the question of Midwinter must be addressed in any long-term plan that makes broader attendance at ALA national conferences into a “don’t-miss” event.

5. Beyond statements of support, what can ALA and/or librarianship as a field do to offer practical help for those directly impacted by the recent challenges to public information access, immigration, travel, and other incipient changes from the current administration?
Loida Garcia-Febo: I will seek to identify resources to develop guidelines, toolkits, and curricula to help our members understand how to provide information and offer programs and services that would help patrons with immigration, travel, and public information needs. Opposing measures threatening our core values is a matter of library advocacy. Therefore, it is important that the resources we develop are used to build capacity through educating our library and information workers, library friends, advocates, and community members. We need to use multiple platforms including podcasts, webinars, video training, and others. Terri Grief: We can institute training via webinars from the experts across our field. The Offices of Intellectual Freedom, International Relations, Diversity, Government Relations, Public Awareness, and more would be more than willing to help our members deal with these issues. Staff members in those offices know members who can assist. This is a critical need that we are certainly capable of accomplishing. We can speak with one voice about these issues.
Scott Walter: ALA has the potential, especially working in collaboration with its chapters, round tables, and affiliates, to mobilize a national network of professionals. In addition to building action-oriented partnerships with other state and national associations, and, thus putting ALA members into direct contact with activists currently working with other leaders in these areas, ALA can continue to highlight the work that its members are doing on the front lines, in terms of developing resources, mobilizing support, and making sure that our libraries remain not only an inclusive space, but a resource for individual and community empowerment. This is another area where ALA offices have already started to do important work, including the Office of Intellectual Freedom and the Office of Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services. This work must continue, but I would also like to see ALA embrace, and facilitate, the work of local groups that are helping to address these issues on the ground, and I would like to see ALA make a stronger commitment to allocating resources, delivering programs, and building partnerships that clearly place libraries and librarians in a position to resist these challenges in ways informed by the core values of the profession.

6. Are libraries neutral? Should they be? Is ALA neutral? Should it be? How would you define the role of librarians and their professional organizations in social issues, and their limits?
Loida Garcia-Febo: Our core values are not neutral. We have the responsibility to provide access to all in the communities we serve as academic, public, school, and special librarians, and to contribute to democratic societies, intellectual freedom, diversity, and social responsibility. Therefore, our core values guide librarians to support immigrants, refugees, LGBT, persons with disabilities, freedom of expression, access to information on the Internet, databases, and e-books, and to defend fair use. I am very proud of the work I did as Chair of the Intellectual Freedom Round Table (IFRT), along with my fellow IFRT members, to promote education of our colleagues and the communities we serve to understand that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. Terri Grief: We are not neutral when it comes to our core values. We all believe in equity of access, privacy, democracy, diversity, lifelong learning, intellectual freedom, preservation, public good, professionalism, service, and social responsibility. Does that mean that we think alike on every issue? Or that we vote the same way? Of course not. The hardest part of being dedicated to democracy is that we believe in freedom of speech, even when we hate what is being said. We stand for the public good and that includes more than library services for all. We stand with libraries like Ferguson and Enoch Pratt when they stand for their communities. It is a tough role for us to play, and I realize that ALA gets some criticism for speaking out about things that some may not see as a library issue. Again, that is the beauty and the power of Council when the issues are debated.
Scott Walter: Libraries are not neutral, and they never have been. Our profession is founded on a set of core values that include commitments to intellectual freedom, diversity, equity of access, social justice, and a fundamental belief in an inclusive and informed democracy and the public good. While these might have been considered “bread-and-butter” beliefs when I was young, they always represented a certain shared understanding about the nature of our society and our world. That understanding, to the degree that it was ever truly shared, has come apart. As librarians committed to these core values, we have responsibilities in the current environment that might be interpreted as “partisan,” but which I would argue simply reflect the fact that we must now fight for our values, and be willing to stand behind our statements of belief in ways that were not necessary before. ALA cannot advocate for parties or candidates, but we must lobby for policies, advocate for principles, and stand up and fight for the things we believe in. It’s not an easy line to draw, and it’s not an easy change to make, but that is the work ALA must do if it is to remain a leading voice in the global discussions of these issues, and a meaningful part of the lives of its members who came to this field precisely because of their commitment to defending those values.

7. If the threatened demise of the NEA, NEH, and especially IMLS, come to pass, where will that leave libraries and what can ALA do to mitigate the damage?
Loida Garcia-Febo: Without federal funding for grants and other programs, we will need to leverage ALA’s existing relationships with private foundations and other grant makers to maintain support for innovative projects. We will also need to support ALA chapters as they pursue additional funding at the state level to replace some of what we will lose from the federal level. I also feel that increasing coalition building with like-minded national and global organizations would strengthen our efforts. Terri Grief: I am going to believe that we have enough friends in Congress that this will not happen. I hope I am not being naive. We must make partnerships with other associations who will also be devastated if this threat becomes real and, together, we can stop the destruction.
Scott Walter: This may be an issue where ALA’s ability to “mitigate the damage” is limited. If they come to pass, the proposed reductions to these budgets represent an unprecedented attack on public support for the arts, humanities, cultural heritage organizations, and basic and applied science. And, given the relatively small percentage of the federal budget that is dedicated to programs like NEA, NEH, and IMLS, they represent a fundamental attack on those core values and shared understanding about the public good that I suggested has undergone a fundamental change in the current environment. ALA can lead efforts to engage private philanthropists, charitable foundations, and state and local governments to raise funds that will support some of the programs currently supported by NEA, NEH, and IMLS. ALA can join challenges to federal funding decisions that have a detrimental impact on access to information and services in rural areas, areas where there is wide-spread poverty, or where library communities include people of color, people with disabilities, or people whose right to the resources and services provided by a library are otherwise protected. But none of that can be, or should be accepted as, a substitute for federal support for these programs. We have seen efforts to privatize the costs of higher education in the United States for years, and we have seen the Trump Administration establish a clear priority in its first weeks to privatize K-12 education. Any attempt to eliminate budgets associated with critical federal programs that support the arts, humanities, cultural heritage, and science must be recognized as part of the broader effort to limit freedom of inquiry and to privatize elements of the public sphere, and ALA must be among the leaders in resisting those efforts and in building coalitions of like-minded supporters to resist those efforts.

8. Where do you stand on the debate over revising ALA accreditation standards for MLIS programs?
Loida Garcia-Febo: I feel that ALA accreditation standards need to reflect both the current and future needs of our profession. We need standards that will prepare librarians for changing roles in an increasingly diverse society, and I support working with our colleagues in ALISE to chart a course for LIS education that will serve our profession’s needs. Terri Grief: I recently attended the ALA Executive Board meeting in Atlanta and the Task Force on Accreditation Process and Communication addressed the board. I also heard the preliminary report from the Task Force on Context of Future Accreditation Report. Both reports acknowledge the debate and I feel confident that they are addressing the issues with care and with due diligence. I was pleased to see the there was no rush to make a decision before all the data is analyzed. It is a healthy debate and we will be a strong profession because of it.
Scott Walter: I have been involved in LIS education for almost 15 years, and I agree that accreditation standards (and practices) need to be reviewed. From the point of view of ALA-accredited professional degrees, I believe we need to look closely at the balance of tenure-system and contingent faculty involved in the design and delivery of LIS courses, at the opportunities provided to pre-service librarians to engage in field experiences that are valuable in helping them to make the connection between coursework and practice, and at the degree to which there is meaningful engagement between LIS educators and program administrators and practitioners in the field. Given the drastic decline in LIS program enrollments over the past few years, I think we are past due for some deep thinking about the way in which pre-service LIS education is provided, the ways in which it is connected to professional knowledge, commitments, and skills helpful to landing a professional position in a crowded (and complicated) market, and the ways in which LIS educators and practitioners work together to develop an approach to these programs that recognizes the fact that professional education occurs across the arc of one’s career.

9. With school librarianship in peril in so many places, what is the role of the public library in preparing kids for college readiness?
Loida Garcia-Febo: I worked at Queens Library for many years and learned that public libraries are essential for lifelong learning. Public libraries provide programs, collections, and services to enrich the lives of all the community members including tutoring, mentoring, and English as a Second Language classes. Librarians help children read, college students access resources to do their homework, borrow books, access databases, and e-resources. Librarians are instrumental to help people understand how to find, analyze, and use information to improve their finances, monitor their health, find jobs, and obtain basic services such as housing, school, and medical care. Public libraries are vital lifelines for college students and we need to continue supporting grassroots efforts for public libraries to stay open, provide services more days per week, and for local governments to restore budgets. Terri Grief: Many areas where there are no school libraries are often the same areas where there are no public library services or reduced services. After school hours and weekends are the first hours cut when a public library needs to reduce costs. Programming for college readiness in the public library is certainly a wonderful way to help students but they can’t reach the majority of the students in their areas. School libraries and librarians are vital to preparing students for college and career readiness. There is really no substitute.
Scott Walter: School libraries, public libraries, and academic libraries are all part of an interdependent learning ecosystem for K–12 students; each has a role to play in preparing students for college and for a life of informed citizenship. Too often, I have seen politicians (including those charged with the leadership of public schools) assume that a robust public library can take the place of a school library, and that leads us down a road detrimental to all. Public libraries have a critical role to play in providing services to children and young adults, and this may include providing support for teachers, coordinating homework help programs, and negotiating for access to digital content that K–12 students and teachers (and parents) can make use in support of teaching and learning. It may include the development of technology-enhanced spaces that encourage media content creation by teens, and it may include the delivery of programs and services that help tweens and teens navigate a complex digital environment as they craft the earliest versions of the digital identity. Academic libraries have a critical role to play in terms of community engagement efforts aimed at K–12 students and teachers, especially as secondary schools have moved into greater support for inquiry-based learning, extended research projects, maker spaces, use of social media, “Big Data,” etc. None of these, however, can take the place of a robust school library program with a professional school librarian to serve as an expert resource for students, an instructional collaborator with other teachers, and a building leader who can help to facilitate student access to that broader network of support that he or she should find in local public and academic libraries.

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Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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