April 19, 2018

A Tale of Two Talks

By Steven Bell, Director of the Library, Philadelphia University

Another American Library Association (ALA) conference comes, and along with it another opening keynoter who does little more than give us the standard, ‘Gee, I really, really like you’ speech. It’s a syrupy blend of admiration for all things library, patronization of the causes ALA attendees support, and vitriol for those, mostly politicians and policies, we oppose.

Having survived the 2004 Orlando conference where Farenheit 911 and E.L. Doctorow combined for some good old administration bashing, I left Barack Obama’s opening keynote wondering when ALA will develop some backbone and seek out a keynoter who will challenge, anger, or confront us. We are always being professionally encouraged to step out of our comfort zones, yet ALA provides a steady diet of keynote speakers all too willing to keep us in a safe and warm groupthink cocoon.

March of the lemmings

As a profession, does our hunger for recognition and positive reinforcement compel us to subject ourselves repeatedly to the same ‘you’re so special and yet so underpaid’ spiel? Sitting through these politically overt keynote addresses feels eerily like listening to a Presidential State-of-the-Union address. Librarians stand, cheer, and clap wildly with every word of praise for our causes and every denouncement of conservative policies and practices. Obama barely had to work to get more standing ovations than a classic rock group giving their final reunion concert. Librarianship is supposed to be about balance, recognizing divergent viewpoints, and providing a platform for all sides of issues. But, given ALA’s reputation as a bastion of liberalism, I can’t imagine any conservative speaker (and please, let’s stop shuffling out Colin Powell as an example of our open-mindedness) daring to step into the ALA lion’s den. For what? A healthy chorus of boos, catcalls, and derision?

As I waited in a long shuttle bus line after the Obama speech, along came Steven Cohen of Library Stuff fame. I took the opportunity to rant about another cookie-cutter ALA keynote address. With his usual insight, Cohen said, ‘But ALA is giving the crowd what they want so they’ll keep coming back for more. What do you expect?’ I expect speakers who do more than toe the company line while librarians lap it up, giving as much thought to what’s being said as lemmings give to what they’re doing as they follow their leader right off a cliff. I expect a speaker to inspire me, challenge what I think, and get me to ask some tough questions. The best this audience could come up with for Obama was the old ‘What book inspired you the most?’ softball.

The Fonz refresher

But I’m an eternal optimist so I stuck around for the ALA closing keynoter, the ‘Fonz.’ Like the fresh breath of air that warm and humid Chicago could have used, Henry Winkler swept away the stale, dank cloud produced by ALA’s ‘give ’em what they want to hear’ school of speechmaking. Winkler’s an actor by trade, but his from-the-gut, inspirational talk was no act. While Obama trotted out a series of shopworn Patriot Act clichés from his notes, Winkler extemporaneously spoke about his life and his inspiration. He told us to keep working toward fulfilling our dreams, that if we will it, they can happen. Sure, he got in the standard reference to his boyhood library and the importance of reading, but he spoke about the larger issues in life that we all face. And, best of all, it was free of overt political content.

The audience rewarded Winkler with laughter and well-deserved applause. The single standing ovation he received counted for more than the dozen or so that Obama got – mostly for showing up. A brief question-and-answer period featured what had to be the most moving comments I’ve ever heard at an ALA keynote session. Several librarians spoke about the impact of Winkler’s books on their readers and their own family members, especially those with learning disabilities. My personal favorite was the librarian who confessed to sending fan mail to Fonzie many years ago. And like you expect from a talented and memorable speaker, Winkler sent us off with a great story about returning home from having 50,000 people at a baseball game chant ‘Fonzie, Henry, Fonzie, Henry’ to find his daughter had failed to clean up her room as he’d asked. It was a simple tale about being humbled by children, a lesson from which we could all learn.

I know it’s a tough and thankless job to arrange ALA keynote talks, but more attention should be paid to balance the political spectrum our speakers represent. In fact, let’s try to avoid politicians altogether and tune our radar to speakers with reputations for telling it like it is, presenting controversial viewpoints and visions, and getting audiences to rethink what they do and why they do it. Now that we have an ALA president who seems to know a thing or two about saying what’s on his mind, without fear about shaking up the establishment, perhaps a new tone and way of thinking about ALA keynoters will follow. Of course, things could always be worse: just exactly how would we react to Tom Cruise jumping up and down on a couch shouting, ‘I’m in love with librarians.’