In January, after a lengthy national search, the American Library Association announced the appointment of Tracie D. Hall as its new executive director, the first female African-American executive director in the association’s long history. Just days later, at the 2020 ALA Midwinter Meeting in Philadelphia, it was revealed that the association is facing a serious financial shortfall. And just weeks after that revelation, the nation went into lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, forcing ALA to recommend for the first time in its history that the nation’s libraries close, as well as the cancellation of the ALA Annual Conference for the first time since 1945. With a virtual ALA conference now set for June 24–26, PW caught up with Hall in mid-May to talk about guiding the association’s necessary, if complex transformation.
First, congratulations. Your hiring is an important milestone in ALA history: the first African-American woman to serve as executive director. How meaningful is it for you to break that barrier?
Yes, thank you. You know, it’s interesting to think that any barrier like this needs to be broken in 2020, right? I wish there wasn’t as much fanfare about my being the first African-American woman in this role, but it’s not lost on me that part of the work I have to do is to make sure there are fewer firsts like this.
You’ve certainly been presented with some hurdles since taking the job—an association financial shortfall, and now a global pandemic. In a recent editorial you described these circumstances as a perfect storm. Are you confident that ALA will weather this storm?
Of course ALA will weather the storm. Think about all of the other things ALA has had to weather—wars, the Great Depression, social change. It has had to evolve with and come out on the right side of the civil rights movement, and that work is obviously very much still in progress. But the association has proven to be durable. So, I don’t think it is a question of will ALA survive—of course it will. It has a necessarily symbiotic relationship to the library profession. But will ALA have to change? It will have to change mightily. I am coming to the association at a time when librarians, information science, and all of our adjacencies, information services, information access, informatics, are really in need of what I call the “great leap forward.”
I’m certainly not asking you to point fingers, but can you talk a little about how ALA got into its current financial crisis?
That’s a really important question, and I think the answer is not a nuanced one. ALA is a 501(c)3 association, but it has relied almost solely on earnings to operate, sometimes as much as 90%. Very, very few 501(c)3 organizations—and I’ve worked in a lot of them, and I’ve been a funder as well—very few if any are that reliant on earned revenue. I think what has happened is that, because ALA’s traditional three-legged revenue stool of conference services, membership, and publishing supported the association for so long, there was this abiding belief that it would continue to do so. But those revenue lines have faltered almost everywhere, not just for ALA. It’s now past time for a rethinking or a review. It is time for a complete shift.
What do you think it will take for ALA to emerge from this budget crisis?
Externally, we have to diversify our revenue lines, that’s number one. As for our traditional revenue lines, we will need to expand our relationships. That means engaging stakeholders who are maybe not directly in the field of librarianship. I think what ALA has not done well in the past is to assert its brand outside the profession. I’m of course interested in reaching more librarians and people who work in libraries—that definitely has to happen. But I’m also interested in linking in people in adjacent fields who are concerned about education, about democratic engagement, about the quality of life in our communities, people who work with data, and technology, in community and public health informatics, and letting them know there’s a place for them in ALA.
Internally, we are really looking closely at alignment, seeing where there are opportunities to synergize and create more impact. For example, continuing education. During the early days of the Covid-19 crisis, ALA’s various divisions and units held virtual sessions that served more than 6,800 people across public, school, and academic libraries over three or four days. Now, it’s not uncommon for online events to reach upwards of 12,000 people weekly. ALA is the leading provider of continuing education in the field, yet we haven’t ever fully claimed that position or created an intentional strategy to guide or grow it. So that’s an area of ALA business that needs to be better leveraged.
All of that makes great sense. But I also know from my experience on ALA’s executive board that continuing education is an area of ALA that is complicated in the sense that, well, big ALA, as it has been referred to, has sometimes been seen as a competitor to the divisions and offices in terms of programming. How do you change that?
Well, to start, I think the fact that the terminology you used exists—big ALA—that is concerning to me. There is only one ALA. I want to make sure that our members and stakeholders experience our full and united set of opportunities and offerings. If we allow ourselves to be thought of as just our parts, rather than our sum, we squander our full capacity. ALA is structured into specialized units, offices and divisions for one reason only—to improve and evolve librarianship and, ultimately, to make sure that the benefits of those improvements and evolutions reach the end user—and that end user is the public. Any real or perceived internal competition stands in the way of that goal. So, I’m glad you used that terminology, big ALA, because it is one that I totally disavow, have never used, and will never use. I am getting closer perhaps to understanding where it comes from. But it must be completely and radically erased.
ALA is a large membership association with a lot of viewpoints and constituencies. How do you balance the natural tension between the association’s urgent need for more operational efficiency with its robust member involvement and governance?
I think ALA’s strength is that we have really passionate members. As for the changes ALA faces in terms of its operational effectiveness, we will have to be transparent and fully communicate the information that is leading us to make the changes we’re seeking. And we will have to bring our membership and our member leaders along. We want to use the passion of our members to fuel efficiency. I actually see those things as connected. Our chief asset is the people who comprise ALA, and we hope to drive even more passion to support the sustainability of the association, and more importantly, the sustainability of the profession.
Considering the competitive climate for federal dollars, the need for universal broadband, and the digital content, copyright, and e-book issues under consideration in Congress, what’s in store for the ALA Office of Public Policy and Advocacy in Washington, D.C., formerly known as the Washington Office?
Oh, I think a full court press on all those issues. We know that advocacy and policy issues are at the heart of our systemic support for the advancement of library services. We’re going to focus on advocacy now more than ever, because I think we’re entering what I’m calling the third great wave of librarianship. The first great wave was adult literacy and then family literacy and early literacy. I think the second great wave was digital literacy and making sure that we weren’t losing people to the digital divide—work that, frankly, is far from complete, as the pandemic has shown us. And I think the third great wave is already here, and that is data literacy and mass data enfranchisement. So the ALA Office of Public Policy and Advocacy will be pushing even harder and helping to grow our advocacy muscle across the association.
With this year’s Annual Conference replaced with a virtual event because of Covid-19, how is ALA thinking about maintaining and perhaps evolving its relationship with publishers and vendors?
ALA and libraries have a symbiotic relationship with publishers. When it became clear that we needed to cancel ALA Annual, we reached out to publishers and other vendors to think through what the future might look like. We know that our members rely on having publishers and other exhibitors come to ALA so they can hear about new titles and try out new models and ideas for collection development and other services. Going forward, we will make sure that our publisher and vendor partners are with us, and that those connections are preserved. What ALA is looking at for the future is always thinking hybrid—not only face-to-face conferences, but online as well. And at the heart of that will be working with publishers and exhibitors to make sure that they don’t miss a beat in connecting with our members.
I was fortunate to be ALA president when the Libraries Transform campaign was launched in 2015. Given the uncertain transformation now facing libraries in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, is Libraries Transform still the right tagline for ALA and libraries?
Absolutely. If we didn’t have it, we would have to create it for 2020. We know that taglines and campaigns have a shelf life. But I think the Libraries Transform campaign is more vital than ever in the wake of the pandemic. So many people are working jobs with precarious futures right now. Some of those jobs will be lost or will change dramatically. As a nation, we need to upskill the workforce to a place where more workers are equipped to adapt, whether that means working remotely or changing fields. And it’s going to require all kinds of libraries—school, public, academic—to ensure sure our future workforce is ready.
I know you’ve just started, and under some very challenging circumstances. But if you could look forward, what would you want your legacy to be? What would success be to you?
I would want my legacy to be that I led the association boldly into the future. For me, that means a wider recognition of the library as key to our national infrastructure. I also hope to break wide open the notion of what people think about when they think about who a librarian is or what they look like. Over the years, so many people have been surprised when they find out I’m a librarian. Even this past January, when I was going in and out of the convention center in Philadelphia during ALA Midwinter, some of the security staff would look at me and say, “Oh, no ma’am, this is for librarians.”
So, during my tenure it is important to give librarianship my face. And by that I mean the face of people from my community—black, brown, working-class, activist. I want to make sure librarians and library staff that are sometimes marginalized along with the communities they come from are brought into the circle. I want my legacy to be that I expanded the field’s promise and capacity in every way.
PW columnist Sari Feldman is the former 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).