From the opening session with political comedian W. Kamau Bell through the closing keynote by actor Neil Patrick Harris, the American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter Meeting sets an ambitious agenda, tackling timely political issues such as how to work with the new presidential administration and Congress; ongoing social concerns like equity and inclusion; and how best to drive the continuing technological transformation of libraries on the one hand and accurately assess our successes—and learn from our failures—on the other.
What can we do? This has to be one of the most commonly asked questions in America—even before the recent presidential election brought a wave of hate crimes more pervasive than the one that followed the September 11 attacks. The ongoing impact of bigotry in America is, perhaps, the quintessential “wicked problem.” A legacy of housing discrimination continues to shape neighborhoods—and how they are served by schools, police, and, yes, libraries—to this day. Studies continue to show implicit bias along lines of race and gender that impacts hiring, promotion, compensation, and retention—and explicit bias is still with us. All of these factors feed one another, eluding simple solutions to any that leave the others out of the equation.
When youth specialist Mary Shortino at the Johnson County Public Library (JCPL), a suburban system near Kansas City, KS, read Tanner Colby’s Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America (Penguin Bks.), she got excited. About a quarter of the book is about Kansas City, where racial real estate covenants first began, and the specialist, who is in her 50s, remembered when the city’s schools were first integrated. Shortino pulled in Angel Tucker, youth services manager of JCPL, and the two went to see Colby speak nearby in Kansas City, MO. Colby’s response to meeting them, says Tucker, was, “ ‘I should’ve come to your library,’ ” and with that, a collaboration was born.
Librarianship, as a field, has a major diversity problem. According to the American Library Association’s Diversity Counts, in 2009–10 (the most recent year for which we have numbers), 85.2 percent of credentialed librarians and 72 percent of library assistants were white. Two years ago, St. Paul faced a similar problem. Citywide, the workforce was 82 percent white. Yet the city population is only 60 percent white, and the school age population, 22 percent white.
Police bias against people of color, particularly black people, has been one of the most heated issues of the past few years, with killings by officers of unarmed black people in cities across the country serving as the impetus behind the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement. Some might think there’s not much role for libraries in fixing this problem, beyond helping users find reliable data and texts that address it.
At this year’s Charleston Conference, held as always in lovely Charleston, SC, in early November, attendees seemed in a mood to focus on practical, incremental progress, with sessions on assessment packed with standing room only audiences while questions of where the field is going failed to pull the crowds.
On September 14, Dr. Carla Hayden was sworn in as the new Librarian of Congress. The first African American and the first woman to hold the position in American history, she is also only the third to have worked in a library prior to her appointment. After a moving ceremony in the Library of Congress’s (LC) 1897 Jefferson Building and a reception to meet “as many staff members as they could stand,” Hayden sat down with LJ in her ceremonial office to outline her vision for the library.
This year’s Charleston Conference, with its on-the-nose subtitle of “Roll with the Times or the Times Roll Over You,” will return as always to the Francis Marion Hotel (and surrounding venues) October 31–November 5. This year’s schedule (still tentative at press time) naturally hits many of the topics of perennial interest to librarians, particularly academic ones: discovery, the Big Journal Deal and its frequently forecast demise, working with vendors, and ebook acquisition models. Newer returnees such as MOOCs, open educational resources, assessment, the role of the subject specialist and/or department liaison, and research data management also make appearances.
The story of the Columbus Metropolitan Library (CML), OH, main library renovation is a familiar one these days: indeed, it has become practically archetypal. A gorgeous old Carnegie, opened in 1907, had long since been outgrown. Over the century and with four additions, it had been married to expansions—the most recent bringing the library to more than 250,000 square feet. Done in 1991, at the height of the trend of stack-centric libraries designed to maximize collections, this latest reformation included virtually no windows, lest the books be damaged by sunlight. Now, a people-first renovation has gently polished the Carnegie and dramatically opened up the addition, thinning the (still ample) collection to focus on space for community in the form of events, meetings, coworking, and simply relaxing and reading—perhaps with a cup of coffee from the new Carnegie Café.
Often expressed informally through back channels, there’s a strong contrarian strand of thought that holds librarianship—if not all of American society—spends too much time, energy, and ink trying to predict what’s next. Too great a focus on the future, say such skeptics, shortchanges the present, preventing practitioners from being “in the moment,” and can make library leaders devalue the work that still comprises the vast majority of interactions to chase trends that appeal to, at best, a much smaller subset of users.