January 15, 2018

ALA Full Membership to Vote on Executive Director Qualifications

skills required

Photo credit: vicky_81 courtesy of Thinkstock

When Keith Michael Fiels, the former executive director (ED) of the American Library Association (ALA), announced in September 2016 that he would retire the following July, ALA leadership began considering its requirements for the role. As ALA convened a search committee and engaged a search firm to find the next ED, the question arose as to whether potential candidates should be required to hold an MLIS—or the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP)/school librarian equivalent—or whether the degree should be merely preferred.

For most of ALA’s existence, its ED has been a degreed librarian, and in 2000 ALA Council voted that an MLIS must be a requirement for anyone holding the position. Fiels, who served as ED from 2002 through 2017, holds an MLS from the State University of New York, Buffalo, and has served as a public and school librarian as well as an independent library consultant and the president of the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA). In January 2017, the ALA Council again voted (78–75) to require that his successor hold the degree.

But although the organization began its search with that provision in place, it has not yet turned up candidates who the search committee felt satisfied all the role’s requirements. At the committee’s suggestion, the executive board and ALA Council have since voted to change the job description wording to “MLIS preferred”—but a recent member petition has placed a measure on the spring ballot to overturn that action, changing the language of the job announcement from “MLIS preferred” back to “MLIS required.”


Must candidates for the ED position hold an MLIS? The question has proved to be contentious. Many who voiced their opinion felt that the degree represents a crucial knowledge of and commitment to ALA’s core values. (See Blatant Berry, Feb 1, 2018, p. 10) Others stated that the role of ED calls for a strong management background that should include a familiarity with ALA’s mission, but not necessarily a library degree—and that perhaps an organization with as many diverse components as ALA could benefit from more management-based experience.

A “Pros and Cons” fact sheet issued at Midwinter laid out a number of concerns, including the possible public perception of ALA devaluing its own professional degree if it were not mandated—countered by the fact that a number of professional organizations are run by individuals with executive certifications that don’t include the degrees required by those professions, and that a larger, more diverse pool of candidates could be attracted if they were not limited to MLIS holders. However, the counterargument ran, the breadth of experience and knowledge within the profession should ensure a robust applicant pool with the degree requirement in place.

Before ALA’s 2017 Midwinter meeting in Atlanta, as the ED search was being organized, the ALA Executive Board introduced a draft resolution which would have changed the MLIS requirement clause in the job description to “a strongly preferred but not required educational qualification.” The resolution noted that none of the ALA positions advertised over the prior five years had included the requirement of an ALA accredited degree, but 56 percent had identified the degree as being preferred. It also pointed out that many of the needed management knowledge, skills, and abilities for the ED role are not part of most MLIS curriculums.

A number of ALA divisions, affiliates, etc. supported the resolution, including the Library Research Round Table, United for Libraries, Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), and the Public Library Association (PLA). In the end, Council voted 78­–75 in favor of keeping the requirement as it was originally written, and the search proceeded on that basis.

A 13-member search committee was formed, headed by ALA past president Courtney Young (2014–15). The executive recruiting firm of Isaacson, Miller, was retained in May 2017 to help with the search, and the position announcement was finalized. ALA conducted outreach to prospective candidates at the Annual conference in Chicago.

Applications were reviewed in August and September 2017, possible candidates were identified, and a small number of preliminary interviews were conducted. On the basis of those, however, the search committee recommended that no names be presented for the executive board’s consideration. The committee also recommended that the board again re-evaluate the question of the degree requirement.

The board discussed the matter and agreed to proceed with an online resolution, an online debate among council members—“with sufficient time built in for extended input and thoughtful exchange,” ALA president Jim Neal told LJ—and an online vote. In fall 2017, the question was brought to ALA’s online platform, ALA Connect. Ten divisions signed a letter stating support for the “MLIS preferred” language.

In November 2017, the resolution received 77 percent approval by council—75 percent or higher was required to pass—and the wording of the job requirement was changed. The board and search committee prepared to reactivate the search on that basis.


Now a petition is circulating to put the questions to a vote of the full membership, potentially overturning council’s decision. ALA bylaws provide that a resolution can be placed on ALA’s ballot if signatures are collected from more than one percent of voting members.

By the end of 2017, the required 479 signatures on the petition were reached, though the petition will remain open until February 13.

In order for a Council action to be overturned, at least 25 percent of ALA members who have paid dues as of January 31 must vote on it. The ballot—which will also include elections for ALA president and other leadership positions as well as other changes to the bylaws—will open on March 12 and close on April 4; both pro and con resolution statements are being prepared to accompany the ballot.

The ED search has been placed on hold pending the vote results, which ALA will announce April 11, and will resume, at the earliest, in May. The job notice has been removed from ALA’s and Isaacson, Miller’s websites. Mary Ghikas, senior associate director of Member Programs and Services, continues to serve as Interim Executive Director.

“The decision of the executive board to delay the process sought to be respectful of the governance process, which we are going through, and to be respectful to prospective candidates,” Neal told LJ. “We think it’s important that candidates who want to be considered for the executive director position have clarity around what the educational requirements will be. The vote in the spring will give us that guidance. It also gives us the time to evaluate the search process and to review and revise the job announcement.”

At ALA’s upcoming Midwinter meeting in Denver, the ALA Council/Executive Board/Membership Information Session on Saturday, February 10 has reserved time for reports on the ED search and the question of the degree requirement from Young, Ghikas, and director of human resources Dan Hoppe. Neal stressed that this will not be a formal debate, but rather an opportunity to bring members up to speed.

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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