Lucia M. Gonzalez, director of the North Miami (Fla.) Public Library and award-winning author, will begin her term as president of the Association for Library Service to Children at the close of the ALA annual conference, after a very nontraditional, pandemic-clouded year. In addition to her many years of activity within ALSC, Gonzalez is also past-president of the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking (REFORMA), the affiliate that partners with ALSC to co-sponsor the Pura Belpré Award, which marks its 25th anniversary this year. We asked Gonzalez to reflect on how children’s librarians are faring in a new normal and to share her vision for the future of the profession.
How have children’s librarians and ALSC weathered the pandemic?
It’s a unique time to come into this position because, prior to the pandemic, we were already talking about changing the way we do things as an organization and in the practice of the profession. Then the pandemic hit and suddenly we have to rush through stages that would have taken perhaps a few years.
As children’s librarians come together under the ALSC umbrella, we have to reconnect with the base of our professional identity. We have to question ourselves. We know how we used to do things, but so many things have changed. Now we know that we have to get from here to there. But how can we rush it? We have to jump the river without a bridge. Virtual programming, access to learning resources, remote learning resources—that has to be the dream of all children’s librarians, to be able to provide these services to their families and their communities. We were moving slowly towards that and suddenly, we just had to be there. And we did it.
ALSC played a very important role in providing a platform for children’s librarians who were looking for guidance, for that collective knowledge that we’ve always shared. All the committees came together and they created resources and developed initiatives like #Look ToLibraries. I immediately pointed the children’s staff at our library there to see what others were doing so we could all learn quickly from each other. And we made it through. I think as we re-emerge from 2020, it’s not business as usual. We have reinvented ourselves, and are stronger than what we were prior to the pandemic.
What are some of the biggest challenges that children’s librarians are facing right now?
The challenges for children’s librarians are always rooted in budgetary support. Prioritizing budget assignments that are going to allow you to gain new resources, grow your collection digitally, get remote resources—that takes money. You want to keep providing those families with the same services that you were providing them before, but now you need more money to do that. As a children’s librarian, you are not the decision maker when it comes to your library budget, so that’s a big challenge.
How are you going to advocate for children’s services so that the people who are making the decisions about your budget are going to get it and are going to include you as a priority in the distribution of funding for the year? We know what we need, and we know how we can serve the community, but the challenge is how we can get the funds for these new services that are expensive.
Another issue is the identity of the children’s practitioner. It is always a struggle for us to identify our competencies and to advocate for them. If you work for a large library system, the trend is to bring in generalists. But how are you going to advocate for your practice, for those competencies that you know are needed to serve the children and the community, that body of knowledge that is children’s librarianship? You have to defend it every single day so as not to be overtaken by the generalist approach: “Everybody can be working children’s.” No. It takes a body of knowledge. And that’s a big challenge to continuously be advocating for acknowledgment, even more so in the year of the pandemic. When you have budget cuts, who’s going to go? Who is essential? You have to be continuously making a case for that body of knowledge that is essential to the library services to families, to children, and to the community at large.
We’re all competing—within a library or within a library system—for the same pot of gold. You have to have the best skills as children’s librarians. You have to develop those skills that are going to make you a tough competitor to get more funding for your department, for your section, for your practice. So, we have to be very well trained. Also, for a lot of children’s librarians, budgeting is a weakness. We are often so focused on learning new technologies and practices that many of us never really learn how to develop a budget until later on, until we’re out of the position, and then we learn it.
How can you and ALSC help librarians meet these challenges?
ALSC is continuously working on helping librarians in the field develop the skills they need. One of the things that surprised me the most when I was elected and I started learning the ropes, was the complexity of the work of all ALSC’s committees, task forces, and groups, and how they all come together.
Over the years I had been doing the work, participating by being a member of certain committees; I had even chaired an awards committee. But when you are in the heart of ALSC, and you see how incredibly diverse and complex it is, it’s like a web. It’s all these expert professionals—volunteers from everywhere—working together to support us in the field. I was really amazed.
And the work goes on. These committees and task forces, they are meeting monthly. They’re moving the organization forward every day.
What are some of the things you would like to accomplish as president of the organization?
My number one priority is to continue moving the ALSC strategic plan forward in all its points. That’s part of what I need to do. But I would like to concentrate on growing the reach of ALSC so that we can bring new members in. I want to increase our member diversity by not just being inclusive, but by working with the affiliates, reaching out and making that one-on-one connection so that their members discover the effectiveness of joining ALSC. Because of my background with REFORMA I know they have a lot of members who are doing wonders in children’s services. They’re members of REFORMA, but many of them are not members of ALSC. We need to engage those librarians and bring them all together under the ALSC umbrella. That’s how we’re really going to be inclusive, by listening to how we can do it from those are doing it—the children’s librarians from all the diverse communities who belong to REFORMA, or to other affiliates like the Asia Pacific American Librarians Association. Come in. We want you in, we want you working with us.
And one of my biggest goals is to reconnect with our identity as children’s professionals. That identity has suffered, as I mentioned, with the trends of creating generalists, with budget cuts, and with the influx of all the new technology.
In order to get some grant funding as children’s librarians we often need to be able to measure what kids are going to learn. We are forgetting that as librarians, we don’t want to measure a child’s learning ability. We have to go back to focusing on the independent learner, the joyful learner. We’re not educators. If we lose track of that, our identity is watered down. We have to have a strong perception of who we are as practitioners of children’s librarianship. We’re here to encourage learning. We’re here to engage our young audiences and their parents. We’re here to equalize the field. We’re here to provide you with all the tools that you need, and we’re here to provide the one-on-one service that will allow you to learn how to use those tools to help you learn. But I’m not here to be a teacher. After we’ve had that wonderful conversation that used to be called a reference interview, I know what book you’re going to enjoy and I’m going to give it to you. You may struggle through it, or you may breeze through it. But I’m not going to teach you how to read it. I’m not going to ask you what you learned from it. No, just enjoy it.
Childhood is so short. We have such little time to give children the best of the best. I’m not going to waste my time moralizing or teaching. I’m here to give you that unforgettable book that’s going to change your life. I want to unearth the passion that is within the identity of children’s librarianship.
Has current ALSC president Kirby McCurtis offered you any advice on what to expect when you become president?
Kirby has been very helpful. It was a bit awkward in the beginning because we had not met before and we didn’t have the luxury of going to an in-person conference and establishing that bond that comes with sitting together in conversation. Part of the transition process is a training session for the incoming president and board members. We were in a virtual meeting, which involved three days of three-hour trainings. She used an exercise about personality type and that was a true ice breaker. After that I became very comfortable communicating with Kirby. I feel like my job is to shadow her, see how she does things, so that when it’s my time, I’m prepared. She’s great at providing guidance and being there for whatever questions I have. And so are the ALSC staff members.
What makes you hopeful about the year ahead?
I’m looking forward to a blend of in-person and virtual meetings—where you have an option. Before, we didn’t have a virtual option for conferences or trainings. If you were lucky enough to receive funding from your institution, you could go to ALSC Institute or to the Annual or Midwinter conferences and you would be able to network. So, what makes me hopeful for the years to come is that the options have expanded. As we move forward, future conferences will be more inclusive, a hybrid, mixing the virtual attendance with in-person attendance, making it easier for people to attend. I think it’s one of the ways to achieve inclusiveness because librarians of color from all types of communities, now, whether they’re funded to go or not, they’ll be able to have a choice. They can join in the national dialogue. They can join in their conferences because the virtual option is going to remain. I don’t think it’s going to go away. We’re not going to go back to 100% in-person; I think that's a thing of the past, and offering virtual attendance would be a great way to really grow our membership.