As librarians head to Chicago for the 2017 ALA Annual Conference, the association is searching for a new executive director for the first time in 15 years, and a new executive director was just hired for the ALA’s vital Washington Office—changes that come at a fraught political time, including President Trump’s proposal to eliminate virtually all federal funding for libraries. It promises to be an interesting time for libraries, and for Jim Neal, who will begin his one-year term as ALA president on June 27.
Among his many roles over four decades of work, Neal is University Librarian Emeritus at Columbia University. And he has been involved with ALA since 1976, including stints as ALA treasurer and as an executive board member of the Budget Analysis and Review Committee. PW caught up with Neal to talk about his upcoming presidency, and a period of change for ALA.
ALA is in a bit of a transition as we head into this year’s annual conference: this will be Keith Fiels’s last ALA conference as executive director, and Emily Sheketoff retired from the Washington Office last month. Can you talk a little about what’s next for ALA leadership?
We actually have several ALA leadership positions that need to be filled, but clearly the most important thing that I will be focused on as president is the recruitment, appointment, and the onboarding of a new executive director. It is so critical to the health and success of the organization.
Keith Fiels has been with us since 2002, and Emily Sheketoff had been at the Washington Office for 17 years, so we’ve had strong and consistent leadership for a long time. The new director of the Washington Office, Kathi Kromer, was just announced, and the search committee for the ED position is hard at work. We have a search firm that we’ve partnered with. We’ve outlined a timeline and process for interviews. And the goal is to present at least two candidates to the executive board at its meetings in October. Those candidates will give presentations to the ALA staff and meet with senior leadership, and the hope is that we might be in a position to introduce a new executive director at the 2018 Midwinter Meeting in Denver.
Does the changeover at the top of the ALA organization put additional pressure on your presidency, given the current political climate for libraries—notably President Trump’s proposal to eliminate the IMLS and virtually all federal library funding?
ALA has a robust advocacy and political education effort in place. And not just in terms of federal funding, but also for challenges in a variety of policy areas—for example, the Copyright Office, network neutrality, and issues around privacy and other library values. We have outstanding people in the Government Affairs Office and the Office for Information Technology Policy, for example. And Mary Ghikas, our associate executive director, will be assuming acting ED responsibilities after Keith retires at the end of July. Mary has a long ALA history and will do a great job keeping us on track and focused.
Republican and Democratic administrations come and go. But in your career, have you ever seen anything like we’re now seeing with the Trump administration?
Clearly we are dealing with a very different political environment. We have an administration that doesn’t, in my view, understand the vital role libraries play in our communities and in our nation. And we have a responsibility—as an organization, and as individual librarians—to make sure that both the president and Congress see libraries as fundamental and essential. That means we need to have a strong voice and be well placed in terms of our relationship with key people in Washington. And we have to continue to maintain and build coalitions and alliances wherever possible, with social justice, First Amendment, privacy, school, higher education, technology, and publishing organizations.
Following the 2016 election, ALA was embroiled in a controversy among its membership over how to approach the new administration. That led to a town hall at ALA Midwinter and an ongoing discussion about the need to fight for the library’s core values—inclusion, equity, etc.—and not just funding. Has that episode, tense as it was, had the silver lining of more deeply engaging ALA membership?
When the nation elects a new president, ALA always tries to evaluate what the programs, priorities, and policies of that new administration will be and see how can we effectively engage. Last fall we were going through that same process—and the membership responded and reacted in ways that are not at all surprising given some of the president’s campaign positions. But that discussion did help us to affirm the centrality of our core values, what we stand for, what we should be fighting for.
Our 501(c)3 status means ALA can’t take a position on a political candidate. But we can and we should take very strong positions on policies, programs, legislative initiatives, or executive orders. My concern is that ALA not be stuck in a reactionary mode but that we remain proactive and values-based in support of the projects, programs, funding, and policies that are important to the communities we serve. We must always remember that we’re not advocating for ourselves as libraries and librarians, we’re advocating for the people who live and work in our communities and rely on our services. That is the fundamental connection we need to sustain.
You’ve been president-elect for a year, meaning that when you ran for ALA president, Trump hadn’t been elected. Can you talk about your agenda and whether Trump’s election has since affected it?
Trump’s election has made the issues I ran on even more important: equity, inclusion, and diversity, especially diversity and participation in the profession and the association; professional leadership; political advocacy and activism; and educating young people about quality information. I’d like to see ALA more effectively connected and bonded with other relevant communities, such as national libraries, other library professional associations, related organizations like the Digital Public Library of America, HathiTrust, the Internet Archives, OCLC, technology companies, publishers. I won’t go into the whole fake news thing here, but one aspect of this challenge that I want to pursue is a conversation between the library and journalism communities. I’ve had early discussions with journalism schools and some journalism professional associations about how we might come together to outline a joint strategy and plan of action.
I would also like to focus on leadership development. Librarians play leadership roles not just in their libraries, but in their communities, on their campuses, and in the profession. We need to make sure that the leadership development programs within ALA and outside of ALA work together to build a broader and more robust leadership capacity among librarians. And that ties in to advocacy. ALA already has strong advocacy training programs. Where I think we can improve is in preparing individuals who have a deep knowledge of particular legislative and policy issues to better understand and navigate the political process. We need go-to people who can go into a legislator’s office, or testify before a congressional committee, be interviewed by the press, or write a good op-ed piece, for example. So we are going to focus next year on a pilot program to train 12–15 librarians in various policy areas. If that proves effective, we’ll try to sustain it as an ongoing program.
In January, the Wall Street Journal reported that there were just a handful of school librarians left to serve the entire city of Philadelphia. Can you talk about the challenges facing school libraries? Especially given that Trump seems determined to gut the Department of Education and reverse the benefits of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which ALA fought hard for and hailed as a big victory at the end of 2015.
This is an extraordinary challenge for us. I’ve argued, as have many others, that school libraries are foundational to the health of all libraries in this country. Public libraries and academic libraries are able to do their work effectively because school libraries instill a love of reading and prepare students to understand how to discover, evaluate, and use information. If we’re losing school libraries, if funding is being cut, if staffing is being deprofessionalized, we have a serious problem. What I hope to do is to continue to engage the larger library community in looking at how the challenges school libraries face articulates over all of our work. It’s important to recognize that we are a community, and there is an ecology of libraries that we need to support and advance. School libraries will be a major conversation over my next year as president.
What’s your take on the health of library relations with the publishing industry? Relations seemed to be improving in recent years after tensions had flared over issues around e-book access in 2012. But with disagreements over the future of the Copyright Office and a few thorny fair use cases coming up in the courts on appeal, how would you characterize the state of the library-publisher union?
We do have disagreements around some key policy issues, chief among which are copyright and fair use, and of course we’re dealing with the issue of who should appoint the register of copyrights and ultimately whether the Copyright Office should remain part of the Library of Congress. But to me, those differences of opinion should not be definitional. There’s so much more that we come together on, and there’s such a fundamental interdependence. We need to build on that. You mentioned e-books, and we’ve made progress on public library access to e-books, but there is still much more to do. I was part of meetings this spring between ALA and several publishers, and I was quite taken aback by e-book prices and contract terms for public libraries, for example. We also have issues related to accessibility, privacy, and preservation. It’s alarming that there is no strategy for preserving and permanently archiving e-books and the vast quantities of born digital materials. Libraries and publishers may have differences, but we also have a working relationship. And that’s good, because there is a lot for us to work on together.