At the ALA annual conference in New Orleans, June 23–28, librarian Molly Raphael will take the reins as ALA president. PW recently caught up with Raphael to talk about some of the very real challenges—and opportunities—she'll face over the next year.
So, let's see: a historic recession, severe budget troubles, a toxic political atmosphere, and a bumpy e-book transition. I have to ask, what insanity drives one to be ALA president these days?
Well, I've just retired and felt this was a way I could contribute to the profession. I've been active in ALA from the mid-1970s, when I became interested in what ALA was doing with services for the deaf. From chairing that first committee, I went on to become a division president, to serving on the council, on the executive board, and on several committees. So I feel really comfortable with my knowledge of what ALA does and is and why it's important.
Would you agree that this is a tough, pivotal time for libraries?
Absolutely. I've worked closely with outgoing president Roberta Stevens, and I'm aware of the kinds of issues she's been involved with, and I think you're absolutely right, this is a very challenging time. I've seen libraries cycle up and down, but I think we're now in a totally different environment.We are in a much more antitax environment than in the past. And the rapid changes in technology are affecting how libraries do business and deliver service. The challenge there is not just what we can afford, but also recruiting and retraining staff to keep up with what our customers expect of us.
There is also more complexity in our relationships with our suppliers and the publishing community. But that also brings a lot of excitement. While we face big challenges around financial issues in the short term, we also have a bigger, long-term opportunity to help people understand why libraries are more valuable now than ever.
As often happens in recessions, library use is up. Does this at least give you some ammunition with legislators and community leaders?
Yes, advocacy is one of the things I ran on, along with diversity. My campaign theme was "Libraries: Essential for Learning, Essential for Life." We always hear that police and fire are essential community services. The point I want to make is how essential libraries are. I think that that message is getting through. Recently, the police chief of Los Angeles endorsed a ballot measure to increase the minimum funding for the Los Angeles Public Library. Librarians always say it, but for a police chief to say "The library is essential in this community" has enormous power.
From HarperCollins's lend limits to S&S and Macmillan not even selling e-books to libraries, is there an advocacy argument libraries now have to make with publishers, too?
I think so. You know, I'm a realist. I know publishers need to make money, and ALA totally understands that, too. But we do need to have a better conversation about e-books so we can get to a place that works for all of us. Right now, I think we're looking at the growing pains of the e-book industry. But some publishers don't see e-books as an issue, and some do, so the question is, how can we better understand the publishers' point of view and help publishers understand the library's point of view? Frankly, I think the HarperCollins issue has made e-books a much more public discussion, so that's a good thing.
Some publishers plainly see library e-books as competing with sales. What do you say to them?
Those publishers that see libraries as competition are missing a key point: libraries turn people into readers. It's a symbiotic relationship. People who use the library the most are the people who buy books, both print and e-books. Sure, sometimes readers get books from the library instead of buying them. But the assumption that if they can get books from the library, they won't buy them is just not true. And don't forget, we buy those books, too.
The bigger conversation to be had, though, is that libraries do so much more than serve as access points for books. Libraries help people discover things, both online and in the physical space, and that's a very important part of the library experience. Libraries are magnets for the community.