As the story goes, in October 1897, the American Library Association (ALA) plunged into controversy when Rutherford P. Hayes (the son of former U.S. president Rutherford B. Hayes) seized the ALA presidency following the death of duly elected president Justin Winsor, despite there being no concrete succession plan in the association’s bylaws. A few months later, George Herbert Putnam won a hastily arranged (by 19th-century standards) special election and succeeded Hayes in January 1898. The crisis was over. And that was the last time anyone truly cared who the ALA president was.
Okay—so that last sentence is an exaggeration. There has always been a solid cohort of librarians invested in the ALA’s leadership and governance, and many excellent librarians have served as ALA presidents. But after 15 years covering the profession, I think I can safely say that ALA presidential politics haven’t exactly engaged, much less excited, rank-and-file librarians. After all, around 5,000 votes can usually win you the job, despite there being more than 51,000 members in good standing who are eligible to vote. And roughly eight out of 10 ALA members don’t even bother to cast ballots, even though voting can be done easily online.
This year’s election, however, is setting up to be a relative barn burner compared to past years. There are four strong, well-known candidates in the race. And the emerging favorite to win is a hip, energetic, social media–savvy millennial whose campaign hashtags include #makeithappen and #partyhard.
To put it mildly, J.P. Porcaro doesn’t fit the mold of past ALA presidents (who are usually more experienced, senior librarians). In fact, he obliterates that mold. In 2013, the culture blog Flavorwire named the young Porcaro one of the “coolest librarians alive.” And you may recall seeing him, decked out in yellow-framed specs and a crooked cap, among the librarians in Jordan Teicher’s 2014 Slate photo-essay, “This is What a Librarian Looks Like.” He lists “professional partier” among his past occupations. And in his 2012 Library Journal “Mover & Shaker” profile, he proudly claims to be the “party king of librarianship.”
But don’t let his style fool you. Porcaro, head of acquisitions at the Guarini Library, New Jersey City University, is a serious librarian and a natural leader. He is the founding president of the ALA Games & Gaming Round Table, has served on the ALA Council, and was named an ALA Emerging Leader in 2010. He is also a founder of the ALA Think Tank, billed as “social media’s largest space for librarians.” And, yeah, he runs the ALA Dance Party and is an administrator for the Librarian Wardrobe blog.
Porcaro may cut across the grain of traditional librarians, but whether or not he wins, he is effectively rallying a generation of young librarians to fight for the future of librarianship and to participate in ALA, a much-needed boost for an organization that has seen its membership slide precipitously over the last decade, down from a high of 66,000 in 2005 to around 55,000 today.
“My candidacy says that we millennials can be taken seriously at the highest level,” Porcaro told me at the recent ALA Midwinter Meeting in Chicago. “In fact, we are even more invested in the future on account of being millennials. I am concerned about what happens to libraries in 15, 20, 25 years. I want to deal with the big picture. Because if we don’t do something now, we are facing an implosion.”
When I ask if running for president is a way to encourage younger librarians to participate in ALA, he answers bluntly: “I think it would almost be a privilege to think that way, because so many young librarians can’t even get in the door. They can’t get jobs or are underemployed. They can’t afford to get involved with ALA. I think the real crisis for ALA comes if my generation of librarians gets further into their careers without ever thinking the ALA is important to them.”
Around the show floor at ALA Midwinter, I met a number of librarians, both young and old, supporting Porcaro’s bid. “We’ve been talking about the future of libraries until we’re blue in the face, but not enough about the future of librarians,” says Yale University librarian Tom Bruno, a Porcaro supporter. “I love how J.P. has energized the base on this. He really feels like he could make a difference for the profession, and I find that very compelling.”
At the Porcaro campaign table at ALA Midwinter, Nicole Powell, a young supervisor at the Sacramento (Calif.) Public Library, was handing out campaign information. She told me she, too, feels empowered by Porcaro’s positive message: “We’re at these conferences. We’re at the socials. We are in the exhibit hall. I’m on the Caldecott committee. We’re in all these meetings. We can be—we are—a driving force.”
A Big Job
If Porcaro is elected to the ALA presidency, it will be the second time in three years that a younger librarian has won the job. Current ALA president Courtney Young may be a bit more low-key than Porcaro, but in 2014 she became only the fifth African-American to serve as ALA president in 125 years of continuous elections, and its first Generation X president.
But as much as he is planning to rock the vote, getting elected won’t be easy for Porcaro. As mentioned before, there are four excellent candidates in this year’s race, including Julie Todaro, dean of libraries at Austin (Tex.) Community College; Joe Janes, associate professor at the University of Washington iSchool; and James LaRue, former director of the Douglas County (Colo.) Libraries, now a consultant.
It’s almost a surprise that neither Janes nor Todaro has already served as ALA presidents, given their distinguished careers. Both would make excellent presidents; both are accomplished, experienced librarians and excellent speakers, educators, and authors; and both recently published books with Rowman & Littlefield. In 2013, Janes published Library 2020, a collection of essays on librarianship’s not-so-distant future, and in 2014 Todaro published Library Management for the Digital Age: A New Paradigm.
Like Porcaro, LaRue is also something of an outsider in this year’s race. He is well-known for developing his own proprietary e-book lending system in Douglas County, and he has been an unflinching critic of publishers and vendors in the digital space. Part of LaRue’s platform is aimed at encouraging libraries to move “from being gatekeepers to gardeners”—that is, to move from mostly buying or licensing content to fostering creation in their communities, through things like self-publishing. “We are in the midst of a historic explosion of digital content creation. LaRue's platform states. "[Libraries] can’t just passively accept ruinous financial arrangements that ignore a host of new voices.”
The voting begins on March 24 and closes May 1, and the strong field of candidates makes this year’s ALA election one to watch. Whoever wins will be stepping into a job that has clearly leveled up over the past five years, as digital technology has roiled the profession. But the big winner may be the ALA, as the election is expected to generate the highest voter turnout in years.
“It’s fantastic,” says Janes, who hopes that when the votes are tallied, he’ll come out on top. “The bigger ALA is, the more heft it has and the more it can do, especially around policy stuff, e-books, dealing with publishers, e-rate, net neutrality, issues of intellectual freedom, and education. The more of us who are involved, the more we can do.”
Correction: an earlier version of this article referred to Courtney Young as the first millennial ALA president. She is ALA's first Generation X president.