As I prepare for the 2019 ALA Annual Conference & Exhibition in Washington, D.C., I find myself looking back on a long and pretty heady career in libraries. In August, I’ll retire after 42 years in the profession, the last 16 of which I’ve spent serving as executive director of the Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Public Library, a job I’ve loved. And, among my fondest professional experiences: serving as ALA president for 2015–2016.
It was an honor to represent America’s libraries nationally and internationally as ALA president, to meet so many librarians and library workers from all over the world, as well as government officials, media figures, and celebrities, and to learn about the challenges and opportunities facing our profession.
I treasure my “Past President” pin—a piece of jewelry that is, quite frankly, priceless to me. Few librarians ever get the chance to serve as a library director, let alone to travel the world meeting other librarians and having the occasional dinner with their favorite authors. I did, and I will be eternally thankful for everything that came to my professional life through my work with ALA.
Looking back, I can’t say that serving as ALA president was on my professional bucket list. I remember sitting at dinner in San Francisco one evening with some of my favorite U.S. library directors—Carolyn Anthony, Clara Bohrer, and Luis Herrera—when the topic of the ALA presidency came up. I had been asked by the ALA’s nominating committee to consider running for the 2015–2016 presidency, but I was unsure. I had seen some incredible candidates suffer disappointing election losses.
My daughter Bridget was also at the table that night. “Do it, mom,” she said.
After that evening, I tried to conjure up a compelling platform for my presidency. Why should I do this? Why should ALA members vote for me? At the time, e-book access was an especially hot button issue for librarians, and I’d been serving as cochair of the ALA’s inaugural Digital Content and Libraries Working Group (DCWG). I drew from that experience. My colleagues on the ALA DCWG came together from libraries of all types and sizes to serve the profession very effectively, and successfully, in advocating for better access to digital content, and in this, I found an idea that I could build my campaign around: that we are “one ALA.” I asked ALA members to vote for me because I wanted to help advance our shared values—for all libraries, and for all library workers.
Still, once elected, I admit that I still found myself a bit rudderless. I’d never even served on ALA Council. Yes, I’d served as president of the Public Library Association, but even that incredible leadership experience had not prepared me for the ALA presidency. Fortunately, I’d assembled an advisory committee of my personal library superheroes—people whose ideas, experience, and perspective proved invaluable to me as I developed a focus for my presidency. The ALA Council and committees, including my own executive board, turned out to be quite forgiving of my inexperience. And I leaned on the remarkable staff at ALA, who made sure that I knew protocol and practice for every meeting and event. The ALA staff truly wanted me (and wants every ALA president) to have a peak experience—and I certainly did.
After serving as ALA president, ALA conferences have never been the same for me. I confess I don’t miss those very-early-morning breakfast sessions to prep for ALA Council meetings, with their parliamentary procedure. But at every conference, I still feel the need to thank vendors in the exhibit hall and to personally welcome members in the hotel elevators or on the shuttle bus.
I’ve also learned a lot about what draws people to get involved with ALA, whether serving on an ALA committee or just attending conferences (often at one’s own expense). Librarians and library workers are often misunderstood and misrepresented in the larger world. But when we get together, we are with our people. Librarians can communicate with each other in a shorthand language of books, learning, and social infrastructure. When we are together, we are empowered.
I also learned firsthand how getting involved with ALA and attending ALA conferences can have powerful, long-term effects on one’s career, whether you are a successful candidate at the ALA JobList Placement center or just enjoying the serendipity of meeting a colleague who understands your needs and shares your passion.
Decades ago, I heard Susan Kent, formerly the director of the branch libraries for the New York Public Library and city librarian for Los Angeles Public Library, talk about the planning effort for a new Minneapolis Public Library. I left that talk inspired to become a library director, and I began to shape my career trajectory to achieve that goal. I have never forgotten that ALA program or my appreciation of Susan and her contributions to both ALA and libraries.
For My Last Act...
What am I looking forward to at my last ALA conference as a working librarian? This is a bit unusual for me, but this year, I am less interested in the big speakers and programs—although I definitely intend to hear Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and I will be cheering when June Garcia is awarded the 2019 Melvil Dewey Medal at the ALA President’s Program. The award recognizes “creative leadership of the highest order” in libraries, which June has certainly demonstrated throughout her career.
But this year, I am most interested in hearing about some real organizational change happening within ALA, and a growing recognition among members and leaders that ALA must become a more modern and agile organization. I’m looking forward to hearing more about the ALA executive director search, about the ALA’s financial position for 2020 and beyond, and about the work of the ALA Steering Committee on Organizational Effectiveness. SCOE will hold five open sessions at the ALA Annual Conference this year in Room 103B in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center (check the conference program for specific times).
Back when I led the Libraries Transform public awareness campaign, I recognized that the rapid state of change in the profession required libraries of all types to rethink buildings, staffing, and service. But I have yet to observe ALA fully engage in the kind of transformational thinking we need to support the profession going forward, and, at times, ALA lags in addressing important trends and technology.
In Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin famously wrote that his deep love for America was exactly the reason that he must “insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Maybe that’s a fitting description for my perspective on ALA. Because I love the organization, and because I love our profession, I insist on maintaining a critical eye, as all members should. We risk too much by being complacent.
After my retirement, I intend to stay active in the profession, particularly with the ALA Washington Office, as well as with publishers, aggregators, and other literary organizations. I hope to get more involved in library policy and to use the skills I developed as a library director and as ALA president to advocate and articulate the value of libraries to media, government, and other stakeholders.
I will also continue to write this column for Publishers Weekly, which will give me a venue to contribute more reflections on the work of libraries, my hopes and dreams for libraries in the future, and, of course, to talk about some great books and authors.
But what I am looking forward to most at this year’s ALA is the chance to talk with friends and colleagues, vendors, and ALA staff—and probably a number of random ALA members in elevators and on the shuttle bus. I am particularly excited to see people I encouraged into the profession and into ALA involvement taking leadership roles and the reins of committees. I will break bread with some of my closest colleagues. I know there will be laughs and lively conversation about books, libraries, the conference program, and what comes next.
After August 2, I don’t intend to have an answer to the question, “Where do you work?” But I will be back at ALA conferences in 2020 and beyond. And for the rest of my life, I will always identify as a librarian.
PW columnist Sari Feldman is executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Cleveland, Ohio, and a former president of both the Public Library Association (2009–2010) and the American Library Association (2015–2016).