At the 2012 ALA conference in Anaheim, Maureen Sullivan, a long time consultant to numerous libraries of all types, will officially begin her yearlong term as president of ALA. Sullivan will take over for Molly Raphael, who worked tirelessly in the last year on behalf of ALA on a range of issues—notably the lingering e-book question.
Sullivan is also professor of practice in the managerial leadership program at the Simmons College Graduate School of Library and Information Science—and her membership will be counting on her to provide leadership, as 2012 promises to be another challenging year. PW caught up with Sullivan to talk about her goals and about the task at the top of ALA's to-do list: e-books.
Congratulations on your upcoming inauguration as ALA president.
Thank you. I'm looking forward to it. When I was asked to run for this office, I immediately said yes because it was a chance to give back to the field, and to ALA. Without ALA I would not have had the career I have, nor the support network, relationships, or the wonderful professional development experiences I've enjoyed. I think ALA continues to be the very best place for professional development, and through a range of activities, not just at the conferences but webinars, toolkits, and publications. I think ALA has become a great resource, whether dealing with issues around censorship or public policy, ALA has developed the capability to support its members in many arenas. I also think that, as an association, we've done very well in identifying trends and helping people with those trends in practice.
What are some of your goals for your year in office?
When I ran, I talked about four things: literacy, learning, leadership, and international relations. One of the members of the ALA international roundtable said the "L" you can use there is links—as in links around the world. One of the particular things I'm moving forward on is the promise of libraries to transform communities. We're hoping to work with Rich Harwood of the Harwood Institute on this, and what I'd like to do to help create a sustainable capability within ALA to support community development.
The e-book question remains at the top of the agenda, too, and I know outgoing president Molly Raphael has done a lot of good work on this. What are your expectations here?
I expect more work on this issue, and I have to say it is Molly's expectation as well, and she made sure to include me in the meetings she had in New York in January and February. From the beginning, she said, "Maureen is here because we expect these discussions to continue," so there will be continuity, and that was really great of her.
You have an academic background, and the academic world has been through a digital transition before. Is that a helpful experience to have now that the transition has come to trade books?
Yes, I was at Yale when the e-journal transition started, and generally, I'm always one who looks for what we can learn from other experiences. [Columbia University Librarian] James Neal gave me a couple hours of his time, and one of the things he said to me was, "Remember, we've had this experience before with the e-journal issue, and there is a lot for us to learn from that." What I think is different for us, now, is that it is not just a small number of people who recognize we have to deal with this issue. And what makes me optimistic is the willingness of the stakeholders to engage in discussions.
I think another thing that will help us is that the reading public really values libraries. There is an increasing recognition of libraries needing to be able to lend books in these various formats. One of the special values of libraries is that we deal with all readers—with the digital natives as well as people who want nothing to do with digital. And we all have people in all of our communities who can't afford devices or to purchase materials. As librarians, we want to continue to serve our communities, and we want to continue to have productive relationships with publishers. And we know what we have in common—librarians and publishers want to have a reading public.
I've heard from some publishers that the conversations are starting to yield some progress. Do you think the e-book issue might break in your year in office?
I am really hopeful, and if it does, I'd like Molly to get the credit, and I would make sure Molly does get the credit. There are many ways to characterize the conversations, but again everyone's willingness to keep talking is really important. And I have to credit Harvard's Berkman Center [for Internet and Society] for this: one of the things that has emerged is a four-quadrant model to capture the theme of this discussion. There is the need for education—that is, to help people understand the issues, what the options are, what the opportunities are, and the challenges. Second, we need to have as many pilots or experiments as possible going on in the field. Another is the need for data. We've discovered a set of myths, and we want to makes sure we replace those myths with reality—let's understand where we are making assumptions, and let's get back to facts. I've been heartened to discover that most of the distributors or aggregators do have data that can be shared. And fourth is the importance of communication. We need to keep having these discussions.
Do you have any observations about the political environment? We seem to be in a "less government" push during this campaign season, and I wonder if that has any effect on the ability of libraries to compete for funding?
I think the way we advocate for more support is to demonstrate what we do. I think the whole e-book issue is giving us a very special opportunity to really demonstrate our value, and not only the value of libraries but the work of librarians.