In April 2018, Mary Keeling was elected as the 2019–2020 president of the American Association of School Librarians. In addition to her library-services-supervisor position at Newport News Public Schools, and her work as an adjunct professor at Old Dominion University, Keeling has spent the past year as president-elect of AASL, assisting president Kathryn Roots Lewis. An active member of the organization, Keeling has held various roles, including chair for the AASL Standards and Guidelines Implementation Task Force. She has also been a leader in the Virginia Association of School Librarians over the years. We spoke with her about her vision for her presidential term, which will begin when ALA Annual comes to a close.
Can you tell us a bit about your presidential initiative?
My initiative is going to use strategies that have been recommended by ALA’s office for diversity, literacy, and outreach services. We’re planning to continue and expand efforts that have already begun in AASL to provide a safe, respectful, and inclusive space for diverse voices and perspectives.
There are several strategies that make sense to me. I’ll be working with a committee of people who are really dedicated to issues of equity, diversity and inclusion, and as they work through some of these things, I think the plan will take more specific form. But I’m looking at perhaps providing professional development opportunities for member leaders [from the Association’s affiliate assembly], and these member leaders will then take a lot of this new learning back to the states. We want to look at issues such as understanding and addressing unconscious bias and power dynamics in associations that might keep some people from participating as fully as we’d like them to.
Another thing that I think would be smart for us to do is to work with ALA’s six ethnic affiliates, because they have a wealth of information available to us about topics and speakers and programs and other kinds of continuing education resources that we can all access as members of ALA.
Finally—and we’ve done a really good job with this in the last couple of years—we’d like to enhance recruitment, mentoring, and networking activities to continue to build a diverse and inclusive school library work force.
These are the three things I think we can make a difference in. But I’m sure that my committee will have really good ideas to add to that.
What challenges lie in the year ahead for school librarians? What are some of the big issues facing your membership?
One of the interesting issues that has come up recently is a concerted and organized effort to censor our subscription databases—particularly those provided by the state libraries. We’ve seen a similar approach in multiple localities, where someone raises concerns about content, and it’s typically imagery, that is accessed through these subscription databases. And we see that as a kind of organized attempt at censorship. That’s an interesting challenge to be prepared for, through using our strategies for dealing with challenges to material.
A related challenge, of course, is our continuing need for citizens to be media-literate, to be able to critically evaluate information in all kinds of forms. Whether it’s coming across on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or more traditional news outlets, we really need for all of our citizens to be prepared to evaluate media messages. And related to that is our continuing need for a strong press in the face of some kinds of public attacks on the press.
These are issues that we all need to be concerned with and school librarians can certainly be at the forefront of addressing that in terms of helping our young adults become media savvy as they consume messages in all of the different venues where they encounter them.
What are your plans for being an advocate for school librarians?
I think the most important thing is to show the kinds of differences we make for learners, particularly in helping learners be good citizens as that relates to being savvy consumers of media messages.
Secondly, we need to emphasize our role in providing equitable access to resources that prepare all learners for a positive life, the work that we do with children who come to us from poverty, or with children who come to us from families who speak English as a second language. All of the work that we do to help kids be successful is a big part of our story about how we help our country be strong. And I think that’s the bottom line for us, that school librarians are one of the first groups of people that educate children about citizenship in general. That’s a really important story that we need to tell everywhere we can.
What are you most looking forward to at ALA Annual this year?
It’s kind of hard to pick the most exciting thing, but it’s looking like a great conference for school librarians this year. I think it’s going to be so fun to work with the AASL board as we flesh out our strategic plan. We’ve been working on that this year and we’ve got some goals in mind, and we will be bringing those goals to the board for approval and to flesh out some strategic actions.
I’m looking forward to the 50th-anniversary celebration of the Coretta Scott King Award. There will be authors there, and I’m just all aflutter about getting to do that.
We have a new format for our awards ceremony this year, and we’re doing that as more of a social event in the late afternoon/early evening. We think that will be a fun way for our members and other librarians to interact with our award winners. Matt de la Peña is presenting the AASL President’s Program, so we’re all terribly excited about that.
What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned as president-elect, and how will that serve you well as you begin your own term as president?
The need to be flexible in a volunteer membership organization is probably the biggest takeaway for me this year. We all come to associations for different reasons. Associations exist to enrich the lives of our members and to solve common problems. But everybody has a different value perspective on different issues, and what’s really interesting to me is how when you engage with all those different perspectives, that makes for stronger decisions. So I’m looking forward to having an open mind and being flexible about approaches to different kinds of things as they come up—I know I can’t plan for what’s going to happen. I think the big question to ask is, Who knows the most about this and is that person in the room, and how do we get that information on the table so we can have everything we need in hand to make the best decision possible for our members?