March 22, 2018

Government, Inside and Out | ALA Annual 2017

ALA Council farewell address of outgoing executive director Keith Michael Fiels (seated, center)
Photo credit: American Libraries

The American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference, held June 22–27 at Chicago’s McCormick Place, saw booming attendance. At the conference’s end, the convention center had seen 23,545 people come through the doors, made up of 17,657 attendees and 5,888 exhibitors, beating 2016’s Orlando conference by more than 8,000 people and even narrowly edging out 2015’s San Francisco event by nearly 1,000  attendees. That number includes anyone who came only on the closing day: more likely than usual this year, as the conference’s closing speaker, Hillary Clinton, drew crowds that began lining up nearly five hours before the session’s 10 a.m. start time, and attracted attention from far beyond the usual library suspects, including a livestream from CNN.

For all those attendees, internal governance was far from the only thing on the agenda, but neither was it forgotten—and, of course, it reflected the currents in the larger worlds of both governance and libraries.

Politics, not as usual

The majority of the first Council session, for instance, was spent debating and fine tuning a resolution on climate change, brought to Council from the membership. After substituting new wording, removing a reference to President Trump, and refusing a motion to refer to a committee, the resolution was ultimately adopted. A motion to add a clause recognizing the work of librarians in rescuing climate change data that was removed from government websites was also defeated; members of Council are working on a separate resolution to honor their work, to be presented at the 2018 Midwinter meeting, which will be held in Denver, CO, February 9–13.

Outgoing president Julie Todaro also updated Council on the Fight for Libraries! at the federal level, which she referred to as a war and the loss of which would, said Todaro, harm the most vulnerable communities. Progress reported includes the appointment of Kathi Kromer, the new head of ALA’s Washington Office, and the formation of the Corporate Committee for Library Investment, through which vendors that serve the library market, including LJ parent company Media Source Inc., lobby Congress to preserve federal funding for libraries.

Representatives of the Washington Office urged librarians to balance their local advocacy with the fight for federal funding, as well as net neutrality, by visiting the district offices and town halls of their elected officials, making phone calls, and filing comments online. The Washington Office update detailed several successes— including a 64 percent increase in signatories of the House Dear Appropriator letters and almost half the Senate signing on—but also indicated that these have so far fallen almost entirely along party lines, with scant support from the Republican majority. A question from a REFORMA representative about ALA’s failure to address immigrant issues at the federal level elicited the response that Council had so far not set that as a priority.

Incoming ALA president Jim Neal continued the theme of ALA addressing real world politics, citing ALA’s efforts to fight fake news, including partnerships with journalist organizations and the rapid proliferation of LibGuides on the topic, and talks with several divisions and groups on how libraries can safely use Narcan to help save lives. At the third Council session on Tuesday morning, Council addressed the issue even more directly, adopting “Politics in American libraries, an interpretation of the library bill of rights,” as well as “Equity, diversity, and inclusion, an interpretation of the library bill of rights” without debate. Topics of concern around these issues include disinvited speakers, which public comments must be accepted on library social media, and employee free speech limits on social media.

In response to a question from the floor, Todaro clarified that the politics policy predated the recent controversy in Evanston, IL, in which adult services librarian Lesley Williams was disciplined by library leadership, and was not developed in reference to it, but that the Black Caucus of ALA and ALA itself intended to issue “a general statement of their values” with regard to the situation immediately after the annual conference. In addition, said Todaro, an award from the merit fund has been made to Williams, and more can be made available as needed. Before such a statement had been issued, Williams resigned on June 29.

The Office for Intellectual Freedom, at the third and final Council session, reported that its new hate crimes tracker had collected reports of 42 hate crimes in libraries since November 2016.

Valuing change

ALA also made progress on enacting its values internally. The task force on sustainability has been formed and had its initial organizational meeting at the Annual Conference; the resolution on family caregiver status as a protected class has been implemented; and the definitions of equity, diversity, and inclusion developed by the task force of the same name were unanimously added to the policy manual at the second Council session. At the same session, after some debate, a resolution on libraries as responsible spaces was passed. Implementation of the recommendations in the conference accessibility task force’s final report has begun:  an accessible ride service was available at Annual; the Park on the show floor exemplified universal design, and is a first step toward the recommended rest areas throughout the exhibit hall. Next steps include creating an accessibility pledge; sending a tip sheet to conference hotels; and ensuring that all restrooms, including those designated as gender neutral, comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. And as part of the previous conference’s resolution on gun violence, an American Libraries blog will provide a permanent platform on the topic.  And the task force on the future context of accreditation has submitted its final report to help craft the next generation of accreditation standards for LIS education programs.

Changing of the guard

Annual marked the final Council session of Executive Director Keith Michael Fiels, who is retiring in July. Mary Ghikas, Senior AED of Member Programs and Services, will act as interim executive director until his successor is named. Courtney Young, past ALA president and chair of the search committee for the new executive director, brought Council up to speed on the process; search firm Isaacson Miller is conducting interviews and will recommend candidates to be interviewed and then selected by the executive board at its fall meeting. (In response to Council’s decision, at Midwinter, to retain the requirement that the executive director have an MLIS degree, Council also added that requirement into the policy manual and moved language about the executive board, previously grouped with that about the director, to its own provision.)

Fiels delivered his farewell address to the Council, saying, in part, “We currently face the challenge of our generation. What is being proposed and will be proposed, I am thoroughly confident, over the course of the coming years, threatens everything that we have worked to build.… I am very bullish on ALA. We need to work to be strong…this month; we need to be strong next year; we need to be around in a hundred years because…people are going to need libraries and libraries are going to need…a strong association.” Fiels, who also said “serving as your executive director has certainly been the honor of my life,” received a tribute resolution, a plaque, and two standing ovations from the Council membership.

ALA by the numbers

ALA Treasurer Susan Hildreth presented the results of fiscal year 2017, which saw a modest deficit of $753,000 out of $51.5 million, and said the goal for next year is for the general fund to meet or exceed operating costs. She also presented the preliminary budget for fiscal year 2018, which she characterized as largely flat, with modest increases in the areas of staff compensation, publishing revenue, and in several offices, including about $150,000 to support one-time initiatives and another $100,000 to build out ALA’s e-store.  Council approved the budgetary ceiling. Hildreth also said the organization is doing very well in development, and mentioned that ALA’s divisions are using $1 million of their own money to invest in membership, capacity building, strategic initiatives, etc., including a new open educational resources (OER) platform developed by the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) which would represent a new income stream for the organization.

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz ( is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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