February 17, 2018

LJ Interviews ALA’s Presidential Candidates

This year’s candidates for ALA President-elect are Gina A. Millsap, CEO of the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library in Topeka, Kansas, and Barbara K. Stripling, who recently became assistant professor of practice at Syracuse University, New York, after seven years as the director of School Library Services for the New York City Department of Education. Full biographies of both candidates are available on the ALA Election Guide.

Their responses to LJ’s questions follow:

What are the most important challenges facing libraries and librarians?
Barbara Stripling

Barbara Stripling

Stripling: Certainly one is the library role in the digital world. It is a very complex issue with a great many aspects that need our attention. The ebook question and the whole issue of digital access are huge. ALA absolutely needs to be at the table as a collaborative partner in policies and decisions, communicating as a partner rather than as a competitor. The conversation needs to go beyond publishers to intermediaries (suppliers) and authors. I don’t think there is wide understanding that when people use the library they actually purchase more books. Some of the research done by Library Journal backs that up.I think ALA has a role in looking at that research, doing more research, and gathering data and evidence to have very strong conversations with all these different entities. The start that Keith Fiels (ALA Executive Director) and Molly Raphael (current ALA President) made in conversations with publishers resulted in much more of a feeling of partnership.I see a lot more issues on the digital world side. One reason I’m focusing on transforming libraries is that I think we need to rethink how we deliver services, our relationship to our communities in a digital world, and what are our possibilities and our opportunities.We need to think about equity. Equity of access to information is a strong concern of mine, including equity of access to opportunities for education and advancement. In school libraries, for example, the ebook situation is actually increasing inequity. Many kids in New York City and elsewhere don’t have access to the devices to use these new formats.We build collections of ebooks in our libraries and we need to, but along with that we need to think about equity issues. I think we are never going to lose print books. There are times when everybody prefers print books, but I do think we are going to move the balance more toward digital sources.

One thing we are thinking about is checking out devices. In New York City that is hard to do. They are expensive. There are pilot programs to see how that works. Many kids don’t have devices at home, so getting ebooks that can be downloaded to a computer doesn’t help very much.

The growth of and dependence on digital resources has made me more concerned that people pay attention to diverse perspectives. I have seen students start searching for information on an issue, and when they find a piece of information and follow the links it often just takes them further and deeper into the one same point of view. I’m hopeful that we can provide scaffolding and education so that it becomes a natural part of our responsibility as digital citizens to seek alternative points of view. For example when we are providing pathfinders on a library website we must consciously work to provide access to all sides. That is what I mean by scaffolding.

Librarians should provide guidance that is not directional but alerts information seekers to the fact that there are other opinions on an issue. That is the educational aspect of librarianship, and in school libraries we do a great deal of it.

I think the whole idea of libraries as community centers can bring equity. I think training people to use the technology, and using library devices to help people learn how to download ebooks and do other things on it. This is already happening in places, but we need to do more to make it a national program. An ALA president can help with that.

Our biggest challenge is the whole question of public support for libraries. I think we need a new value conversation to address that. We need to be able to measure and communicate the value of libraries, and not just in economic terms. The latest twist is empowering community members to speak out for libraries and getting them to do it.

Libraries need to be centers of community conversations. They must be a virtual as well as a physical presence. I remember when the Chicago Public Library did that one book, one city program. They had public conversations on their website. That built a literate community, accessible virtually, and I think we need more of that kind of program aimed at building public support.

Gina Millsap

Gina Millsap

Millsap: There are four areas in which ALA could do something. One is ebooks and digital content. Almost weekly now, we get announcements from publishers telling us that they are not comfortable working with libraries. That has to change. If we can’t be at the table and help develop a model that allows us to continue to build our collections and serve our readers we are going to be less relevant in our communities.The second area is library visibility and awareness. As we went through the recession I was alternately annoyed and delighted when I saw a headline in a paper like the Wall Street Journal saying  “Oh my gosh! Look what libraries are doing.”  I wanted to shout, “Yeah! We’ve been doing this forever.”We contribute to student achievement and scholarly research. We facilitate literacy. We offer opportunities big and small for people to transform their lives. I think that needs to be so well known and understood that it is really not news anymore. While ALA has had some really good approaches to this, in terms of promotion and marketing, I think it has to be unrelenting and consistent at the national level. It also has to be pretty simple at that level. If the same old approach  we’ve been using isn’t working, change it.I want to look to see if our communication channels are working. You have to use the communication channels you control, but we have to get beyond our own channels and the library media. Library Journal is positioned to help do that and some of the strategies and research your company is looking at will help a lot.We have been talking about diversity as long as I’ve been in the profession. I met with most of the ethnic caucuses at ALA Midwinter. I got some good feedback. I joined some and am joining others. I want to begin to really understand, to look at their strategic plans and what they are trying to do not just nationally but internationally. There is some real potential there and some real expertise that I would like to draw on.

The last piece of this is working together within ALA. I think we offer an enormous range of choices in ALA. We also encourage people to migrate to their tribe, we’re very anthropological in ALA, just as we are in most parts of our lives.  I’m a public librarian and I migrate to PLA. One of the reasons I’ve been so involved in LAMA for many years is because it is multi library type. It got me out of my comfort zone. I learned a lot more from that experience.

These challenges are what I found when I looked at this from the perspective of what could I actually do as ALA President. I did lots of talking with people at Midwinter, and got a lot of feedback through social media. I’ve been having my own listening sessions for months with people both in and outside the profession but associated with ALA, vendors for example.

Will we be able to reach a compromise or agreement with publishers in ebooks?
Stripling: I don’t know about a compromise. I think that we need to make the role of libraries really clear so that publishers don’t regard us as competitors and don’t feel that when they allow or promote library use and sell ebooks to libraries it can fit in with their business plan. I’m optimistic about this. I think it can happen. Millsap: Molly Raphael has already begun the necessary process and I know Maureen Sullivan (ALA President-elect) will continue it. The issues here will not be resolved in a short period of time. We are talking about changing industries and changing business models. I’m working on that right now and will continue to do that.I think we need to learn a lot more about each other, about publishing, before we make propositions. We have no understanding of the publishing industry, although  I think we are beginning to learn about it. Clearly publishers don’t really understand how libraries operate. We have never had to know that, all of our interaction in terms of the acquisition and purchase from publishers was done, for the most part, through our jobbers. They did the heavy lifting for us.I don’t mean that no one in the library profession has an intimate, in-depth working knowledge of the publishing industry, but let’s face it, most of us don’t. It has been an obstacle….The latest actions by Random House to triple prices, and the decision by Penguin not to sell ebooks to libraries, were very dismaying. They were especially dismaying since they came on the heels of the first meeting of ALA and Molly Raphael with some of the big six publishers.  Maybe that shouldn’t have been a surprise, but for many librarians it was. It meant that there is still no understanding by publishers or any comfort level with the way libraries operate.What Molly has done is a good first step. She is also working with ALA’s Office of Information Technology Policy. There is a lot of expertise there.  It is about representing the interests of libraries but it is also about showing publishers that we both have a compelling interest in insuring that publishers and authors survive and thrive.  If they don’t, we won’t. So we have some mutual interests.I expect a new model on ebooks. We know how to handle books.  I think with digital content, we have to figure out what the model will be. I would like to see ALA facilitate, and find funding for pilot projects that begin to look at a model that doesn’t rely on traditional third party providers like Overdrive. There will be libraries like mine and Jamie LaRue’s in Colorado which have the capability of setting up systems to handle digital rights management to circulate those ebooks. We have to experiment before we will know what will work. ALA should step in and facilitate some of that experimentation. Sure, it is a very dynamic marketplace, and there is opportunity there.I think we need a grass roots approach with author and library users as well. We need to explain to publishers why it is important for people to get ebooks through libraries.
Can ALA develop ways for members to participate online? Will this strengthen or damage the level of participation? Will it reduce revenues from physical events?
Stripling: We have to push out to online participation. We will have to find alternative ways to make money. We have to make ALA more inclusive. I’ve started that already as a candidate. I’m having virtual town halls. I’ve had them with academic librarians and school librarians and I’m having them with several student chapters of ALA. I have several scheduled.I think at ALA we need to listen. It is not only about ALA delivering stuff, it is about ALA listening to the voices of members and letting that form what we focus on and how  we communicate with others.ALA connectis not there yet. It needs to be finalized. Interest groups don’t intersect or interact. I think it is possible to do that, but we need more work on it.We get siloized in ALA. Being made up of many groups with different interests doesn’t have to break us up into different constituencies. I discovered how many times the same initiatives, the same ideas, were popping up in different divisions and ALA units when I was going around at Midwinter. We have a lot of shared interests and concerns, but sometimes ALA constituencies don’t know others are addressing the same issues.There are larger issues around which divisions can connect. While some public librarians may not be deeply concerned about access to research information, they can and do connect with the whole idea of free access to information. In my town hall with academic librarians I asked for their views on the issue of open access to scholarly information. The librarians said that if we didn’t have open source for scholarly communication we would not be able to serve our universities. The high cost of serials means we cannot afford them. They said it is not much cheaper to provide online information, but it does open access. Millsap:  I really love, and know how to bring people together, how to have good discussion and then move to action. We need more of that kind of interaction in ALA, especially in such areas as how we tackle ebooks and digital content, how we tackle diversity. There are pockets of that going on, we need more. ALA has 60,000 members and maybe 30 or 40 percent can attend an ALA conference, even fewer at Midwinter. The question is what to do about that.ALA has ALA Connect. I don’t know the current figures, but the last time I asked there were several thousand members involved, but nowhere near even 50 percent.We’re using webinars, it is easy and inexpensive and you can reach a lot of people and they are becoming revenue streams, but are still affordable for libraries.Still there is something irreplaceable about the conference experience. It is a shame that every librarian can’t have that experience at least once. From the scale and size of an ALA conference you begin to understand how many people are involved in making libraries successful. You get to know and talk to colleagues that you would never meet otherwise. Just viewing the exhibits you begin to get a sense of all of the enterprise and markets that have to intersect to make libraries successful. That is very, very difficult to replicate virtually.
Do certification programs for paralibrarians or continuing librarian education programs in ALA’s Allied Professional Association damage the status of the MLS or LIS programs that ALA accredits?
Stripling: I was chair of the certification committee developing those programs, and I really believe ALA and APA both need to support them. This activity fills a niche that library education doesn’t. I’ve been trying to get YALSA to do a certification program on youth librarianship. After we get out of an LIS program many librarians find a specialization. The LIS programs offer many of the courses.Many of school librarians near my university want that kind of program. We’re discussing that. A certification program in a lot of areas can fill a need. Millsap: We call paralibrarians specialists in our library. They are a very important part of our profession and have always been so. I was a paralibrarian early in my career and I think very highly of them.I know there is concern that paralibrarians, especially in tough economic times, are being hired in place of librarians. I also think we librarians have got to take a damn hard look at ourselves in terms of what value we provide to our institutions. We must ask if we are evolving to provide increasing value and to demonstrate the difference we make. It isn’t that we are better, but that we are different in the level of leadership we provide, the modeling. We have to show that our value sufficient to make a clear distinction.There are more MLIS graduates than there are entry-level positions, but we’re having trouble finding managers and library administrators who are really qualified. As a library director I consider myself a customer of library schools. I think we are going to have MLS librarians moving right into management from their studies, especially as we boomers retire.How do you prepare a librarian to be a manager if that is their first job? There are library schools working on this, but part of it can only come from experience, or from a practicum. LIS programs will have to provide more opportunities for MLIS students to work with administrators and managers.
Should ALA try new approaches to communicating our core values?
Stripling:  I have a very deep commitment to our core values. I am especially passionate about intellectual freedom. I delivered expert testimony in a school district filtering case which I am happy to report that we won. The judge said the filter the school district was using was censorship against LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual) types and LGBT kids. That school district is now trying to settle and make it right. I am deeply committed to equitable access to information in all formats. That doesn’t mean equal, it means equitable. That means some need more access than others. Millsap: We should make ALA a place that is a little more welcoming. It is another kind of diversity, not our traditional focus. I think librarians like to think that we think in lockstep with our values, and our principles. That isn’t always true.  We are not always a particularly welcoming place for people who think differently. I think that needs to be a goal of ALA too.If you look at our colleagues in the profession who tend to be a little more conservative, politically, I don’t think they always get a sympathetic or empathetic hearing when they bring their concerns to the table.I’ll give you an example. My library went through a book restriction in 2009. It was one of the most challenging situations that I have ever dealt with. I came in  for some criticism….  One piece of advice I gave to the board, because of a legal situation we were in, was that we look to see how consistent our policy was. A local community activist had asked us to restrict access by age, to certain books. Sex education and sex books were the target. The premise was that we were already restricting that content in certain areas. That was true. We restrict access to  “R” rated videos at our library and to Playboy. They don’t circulate to those under 18. We ask a kid to show an ID at the desk. I recommended that we remove this restriction. I took some criticism from some of my more conservative colleagues. I said the policy was inconsistent. It was one of those dilemmas. The Board disagreed. My feeling is that the ship has sailed now. I recommended the change, but that policy remained.The point is, l think we should at least be receptive to engaging in a conversation about such policies, not just shutting people down.
What makes you the best candidate to be president of ALA?
Stripling: I have five strengths. One is my strong collaborative leadership style. I was able to go into the New York City school system where some people didn’t even like each other, and I was able to change the culture of the school libraries. I did it with collaborative leadership. When you pay attention to many diverse points of view, and through thoughtful questioning you empower others to be part of the solution, you can come together around decisions.My second strength is my great record of scholarship in this field, I’ve done research and I have an extensive publication record. I’ve made presentations all over, and developed some pivotal documents, thinking, and structures in the school library field. They range from national standards to state standards to our New York City Information Fluency Continuum which is being adopted all across the world. My inquiry model was adopted by the Library of Congress. I have that solid scholarship base and a record of translating  research and theory into practice. That is a real strength.I have very strong knowledge and experience in ALA, including my experience on the Executive Board, my continuing experience on the ALA Council, on the Intellectual Freedom Committee, and many other committees. I was a Division president. That knowledge and experience allows me to understand how we need to transform ALA.I have a deep commitment to diversity. I think ALA needs to really emphasize diversity and we need to provide mentoring programs and leadership development. We need to recruit new librarians from the communities where the libraries are. In a scholarship program we did in New York City, when we recruited teachers to get their library degree from the schools where they were serving they are now some of our best librarians.Finally, I am an effective communicator. I am very experienced at public speaking. I’m very experienced at writing and I can bring my expression to bear to influence others including business people, PTAs and a wide community.  I’ve been able to advocate and convince people with information and my ability to communicate in a way that makes sense to them. Millsap: I decided to run for two reasons. I really want to use the power and influence of the biggest professional association for librarians in the world to really make some progress on the challenges we’ve talked about. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to showcase libraries as essential community assets.  I do think I am the right person to do that. I have the energy, I have the expertise, and I also have the experience or working not just within the library community but within all of the communities that I’ve worked in. This is the third. Right now I’m co-chair of a community wide visioning process here in Topeka and Shawnee County. We have 5000 community volunteers and many, many community leaders all engaged in that. I love that work, and without being boastful about it, I think I’m very good at it.I am a very experienced facilitator. I can help take all those wonderful resources at ALA, working with that great staff and with Keith and the administrators, and the division folk and the member volunteers and really get some things done.


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.



  1. I would be very curious to know whether the responses above were transcribed from an interview or typed out by the candidates.

    The reason is that there are a lot of inconsistencies and incomplete sentences. As a recent MLIS grad, it really concerns me that the future leaders of our organization either can’t deliver proper responses to interview questions or don’t bother to proof read the material that they send out.
    Before we look at anything, I’m going to point out that all “If…, then…” statements require a comma, even if you drop the “then.”

    Here are just a few examples of the errors above:

    “I think that we need to make the role of libraries really clear so that publishers don’t regard us as competitors and don’t feel that when they allow or promote library use and sell ebooks to libraries it can fit in with their business plan.”
    –This says that you don’t want publishers to think that libraries can fit into their business plan–seriously, reread this. Also, look at the punctuation.
    “I really love, and know how to bring people together, how to have good discussion and then move to action.”
    –This doesn’t make any sense to me. You can remedy this by either checking the subject verb agreement or adding the article “a” before good, and getting rid of that second “how.”
    “I remember when the Chicago Public Library did that one book, one city program.”
    –You remember which time? This happens every year. This will be year 11.

    There are way more, but I’m bored now.