For the American Library Association, there’s no place like home. More than 20,000 librarians, publishers and vendors are expected in the organization’s hometown of Chicago for the 2017 ALA Annual Conference taking place June 22–27. Historically, conferences in Chicago are among the association’s best attended—and participation is going to be important for ALA, as the organization faces both an internal leadership transition and some major battles in Congress.
How serious a time is this for librarians? In his latest budget proposal, President Trump doubled down on his bid to eliminate the Institute of Museum and Library Services (and virtually all federal library funding) as well as proposing deep cuts to other vital programs, including education and broadband support. And more importantly, many of Trump’s positions run counter to the library community’s core values—equity, inclusion, and diversity among them. At the ALA’s National Library Legislative Day, held last month in Washington, D.C., retiring ALA executive director Keith Fiels urged librarians in attendance to stay engaged, warning that libraries today are facing “the challenge of a lifetime.”
Incoming ALA president Jim Neal agrees.“The policy wars, the values wars, and the program and funding wars, those are clear threats,” he says. “Raising awareness and understanding within the library community, and preparing librarians to get out in their communities to educate and advocate around these issues, that’s our challenge.”
Changes at ALA
ALA will have to gear up for those political battles while in the midst of an organizational transition. The association gets a new elected president every year, of course. But in May, ALA Washington Office executive director Emily Sheketoff retired after 17 years on the job, during which time she delivered an impressive string of legislative and budget victories and helped to establish the library community as a major political force on Capitol Hill. After a nationwide search, Kathi Kromer, previously the president of strategy and outreach for the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Association, was named to replaced Sheketoff and began work on June 5.
And in July, ALA executive director Fiels will step down after 15 eventful years leading the organization.
“Very, very, mixed,” Fiels says when asked to describe his feelings ahead of his final ALA annual conference as executive director. “On a good day, this job is as good as it gets. It’s such interesting work. I love working with libraries. I love what we do. I love the people I work with. And I feel like we’re really making a difference.”
Of course, Fiels, concedes, they haven’t all been good days. In fact, he has led ALA through what will likely be remembered as the most extraordinary period in the organization’s history.
“As Keith is wont to say, he gets a new boss every year,” says ALA president Julie Todaro. “But the reality is that Keith has ably led this association through a number of extraordinarily difficult times, financial and social.”
Indeed, when Fiels took over in 2002, the country was still reeling in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and would become bitterly divided over the war in Iraq. In 2003, the ALA’s opposition to the USA Patriot Act would become a defining public moment for the association, and for librarians, with then ALA president Carla Hayden (now serving as the nation’s 14th librarian of Congress) clashing publicly with attorney general John Ashcroft over the government’s warrantless searches of library records, and gag orders.
Things were also tense within the profession. As the pace of digital change quickened, librarians found themselves at once evangelizing for digital technology and wrestling with its implications. There was the cost and complexity of licensing digital resources, not to mention the hardware. Peer-to-peer file-sharing services like Napster had elevated copyright issues to a full-fledged moral panic, and libraries were later sued for partnering with Google to digitize out-of-print library books, and for facilitating e-reserves on college campuses.
Meanwhile, libraries of all kinds were busy remaking their physical spaces to serve this new digital information age, often over the complaints of their print users, while battling the perception that Google and Wikipedia were making them obsolete. And just as it was becoming clear that, no, libraries wouldn’t be done in by Second Life, the mobile revolution began.
Today, iPhones, iPads, apps, Kindles, e-books, and, of course, social media are changing not only the way we access, consume, and create information and entertainment but the fundamental ways we communicate and interact with each other, with major implications for the future of libraries.
“It’s been like living on the fly for the entire 15 years,” Fiels says reflecting on his career at ALA. “If you look at what’s happened to the environment that libraries operate in, it really has been just totally transforming. I know that expression is often overused, but in this case, it happens to be true.”
And now comes yet another challenge: the Trump administration. “We knew things were going to be potentially very threatening for libraries, but we didn’t know for sure what form [Trump’s policies] would take,” Fiels says. “But the administration has exceeded expectations in that regard, with a wholehearted attack on just about everything we value.”
But, Fiels is quick to add, librarians are up for the fight. “The one thing Mr. Trump has done for us, if nothing else,” he says, “is focus us.”
The Trump Effect
In the days immediately after the 2016 election, however, many librarians’ focus was drawn to the ALA’s initial response to Trump. In November 2016, ALA faced a revolt of sorts following the release of a statement (later rescinded) in which ALA leaders offered to work with the Trump administration on issues of common interest. In fairness, it was the kind of boilerplate language the ALA would issue after any election.
What ALA leaders failed to grasp, however, is that this was no ordinary election. Librarians penned angry letters, blog posts, and editorials accusing them of being “collaborators.” Librarians took to social media. Some threatened to quit the organization entirely. A hashtag was born: #NotMyALA.
“That was kind of our ‘delete Uber’ moment,” says Joe Janes, a University of Washington Information School professor and longtime ALA member, noting the intense power of social media to instantly mobilize people. For its part, ALA leadership was quick to make amends and subsequently organized a town hall at the 2017 ALA Midwinter Meeting in Atlanta, during which a number of librarians expressed their concerns about ALA leadership directly to ALA leaders.
No question, the controversy was a difficult test for ALA. But there may yet be a silver lining, because the episode served to engage membership. The hope now is that membership will stay engaged with ALA as the battle over Trump’s policies intensifies in the public arena.
“The rebound effect of the 2016 election is that all of a sudden people are paying attention to information literacy,” Janes says. “Facebook is paying attention, trying help users tell if all those wacky things in your feed are true. Google is paying attention, because should all these crazy things really be showing up that high in your search results? This election has awakened people, and made them pay attention. And some of that attention is now focused in a direction we that we occupy. If you’re interested in truth, and reality, and thoughtfulness, guess what? Libraries do that. So it is an opportunity. And it is ALA leadership’s responsibility. But it is also every librarian’s responsibility to make our case. Because these moments don’t come around often.”
As the current ALA president, Todaro knows well just how tough those political waters will be to navigate for future leaders, not only in the nation’s legislatures but within the association, given today’s real-time, Twitter-fueled feedback loop. “Association leadership work today is not for the faint of heart, much less those who say, ‘I don’t read my emails after work, or on the weekend,’ ” she says. “The world can and does change overnight now concerning social issues, policy, and speaking out for our critical issues.”
Complicating matters further, Todaro notes, is the obvious fact that not all librarians think alike politically. “We strive for balance, given our members and our constituents,” she stresses. “We have all kinds of supporters, in our membership and in our stakeholders. In the end, though, we have to follow our profession’s vision. Our profession directs our attention in one way.”
Janes agrees that ALA leadership has to find a way to thread that political needle, at once standing up for the library’s core values while listening to all points of view. “Librarians don’t all think alike,” he says. “We don’t all live in King County, or Brooklyn. We’d do well to remember that.”
The Next Generation
Where ALA goes next in the face of new political challenges, and with new leadership, will be a hot topic of discussion in Chicago. To hear Fiels tell it, it’s time for the next generation of leaders to take the reins. “I think I’ve had a good run,” he says. “I tried to create a stable but fluid, forward-moving environment so that the work we do can flourish. But it’s the next generation of leadership that is going to take us to the next level.”
To his credit, Fiels is leaving behind a stable ALA after a roller coaster of a decade. In 2005, ALA membership hit a record high of 66,075, only to plummet over the next 10 years, bottoming out at 54,166 in 2015. Much of that membership decline, however, came in the aftermath of the recession that began in 2008, during which library budgets—and jobs—were deeply slashed nationwide. Over the past three years, as the economy has stabilized, ALA membership has been on the upswing, rebounding to around 57,000 in 2016.
To be sure, the political environment isn’t the only challenge facing the next generation of ALA leadership. In the age of social media, all membership organizations are deeply rethinking how they do their work.
“More and more meetings are being held virtually, and we are coming up with new approaches to working together,” Fiels says. “That’s been a great strength, but it also presents challenges, because not everything works equally well in this new environment. So there’s a lot of experimentation to be done, and there’s a lot to learn about what the association’s going to look like in the coming years.”
Janes agrees and suggests the pace of experimentation is likely to speed up now that the profession is finally showing signs of getting younger.
“For decades we’ve been hearing about librarians retiring, but now that’s actually starting to happen,” he says. “We have new people coming in with new perspectives about libraries, some of which, to be honest, are quite different from what I learned in library school, which is good. Because of its size, ALA has a reputation as one of these organizations that kind of steps along no matter what. But there is movement. And there is energy. I think the idea of this being a kind of transitional year feels about right. I will be very interested to see what happens on the ground in Chicago.”