If you’re a member of the American Library Association, and value the association as many of us do, you have enough to worry about. The Midwinter Meeting—held last month in Denver—was so poorly attended you could roll a bowling ball down the center aisle of the show floor without hitting anyone, with attendance at its lowest point in almost three decades.
Conference attendance is one of the three financial legs that ALA stands on, along with publishing and membership. Publishing has remarkably held its own—despite the incredible disruptions in media. And membership is down from a high of 66,000 in 2005 to around 56,000 today.
If that isn’t troubling enough, talk within the ALA’s many divisions is increasingly dire. Often members will continue their ALA membership but drop the pricey fees necessary to belong to the specialized divisions, like the AASL (American Association of School Librarians), LITA (the Library Information Technology Association), and RUSA (the Reference and User Services Association), all of which are facing steep declines in membership.
One division has lost nearly 50% of their net assets in the last 10 years and is scrambling to develop a business model to keep afloat. In response, some ALA divisions are reorganizing, discussing mergers, or talking frankly about shutting down.
Now add to this the fact that Keith Fiels, the ALA’s executive director, announced his retirement over 18 months ago and departed in July—and there still isn’t a permanent replacement in sight. The organization is facing serious financial challenges, and President Trump wants to gut federal support for libraries, but, hey, what's the hurry?
On the positive side, hiring a new executive director is an enormous opportunity for ALA. It’s a chance to bring in fresh blood, and to tap into expertise in association leadership that could help re-engineer the organization for the 21st century.
Except, a good swath of ALA’s membership is far more concerned with the ALA’s past than its future—specifically, they want to require that the ALA’s next executive director hold an MLS. And they are gumming up the search process to get their way.
So how is it that ALA is still looking for Keith Fiels’s permanent replacement? The saga began at the 2017 ALA Midwinter Meeting, when the executive board introduced a resolution that would have made the MLS degree preferred for the executive director position, rather than a requirement. The resolution was narrowly defeated in the ALA Council, 78–75.
Months later, however, the search for a permanent replacement for Fiels failed to turn up a suitable candidate. So the search committee, led by former ALA president Courtney Young, recommended that the executive board and council revisit the MLS requirement. And last fall, ALA Council voted electronically to make the MLS “preferred,” this time with 77% support.
That's when the MLS-required minority mobilized to undo that vote, successfully circulating a petition to place the MLS question on the ALA’s spring ballot. Voting began this week, on March 12, and runs through April 4. To undo the council’s action, 25% of the ALA’s paid membership needs to vote—certainly not a lock, as ALA normally struggles to break 20% in its election turnout. If that turnout threshold is met, a simple majority decides the outcome of the MLS question.
But what’s really driving all this tussling over whether the MLS should be preferred versus required for ALA's next executive director? Well, you don’t need a doctorate in sociology to know that dominant groups develop, maintain, and promote myths to maintain their power. And requiring an MLS for the executive director job—because that’s the way we’ve always done it—is presented as a sacred myth, an inviolable truth.
Of course, within ALA, the dominant group is white, and by chance, 87% of those who hold an MLS degree are white. Thus, requiring an MLS all but guarantees that the successful candidate will be white, despite ALA’s rhetoric about diversity and inclusiveness.
And though anyone can join and participate in ALA—trustees, foundation presidents, library workers, vendors, libraries, publishers, association professionals—requiring an MLS means that unless you are in that 62% of the membership with the degree, don’t even think of applying to lead the organization.
But why? Worrying about whether there are enough MLS degrees among ALA leadership is a bit like worrying about whether there are enough dogs at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. ALA is all about librarians! The large and unwieldy ALA Council (ALA’s policy-making body) as well as the ALA executive board are both full of card-carrying librarians. And for better or worse, ALA annually elects a librarian as its president.
It’s regularly claimed that the ALA executive director position is some sort of pinnacle of the library profession, the pope of librarians. This is false. The executive director is an administrative position. In fact, many ALA members will have only a vague idea of who that person even is. The executive director is charged with executing the will of the ALA board, and managing the day-to-day operations of the association. In Game of Thrones parlance, the executive director is the Hand of the King, minus the nifty pin. The public face and voice of the association is always the ALA president.
Still, the MLS-required camp continues to promote the idea that only a librarian can be trusted to uphold our professional values.
Indeed, American librarianship has a unique and important set of core values that define and guide our profession. These values include equity of access, confidentiality and privacy, education, lifelong learning, diversity, intellectual freedom, social responsibility, and more. And they are values we can all be proud of. But let’s be honest: our values aren’t difficult concepts to grasp. Over lunch (make it three courses) you can easily cover them.
In my experience, when many of the MLS-required folks last worked in libraries, Gerald Ford was president. Librarians in the field today aren’t nearly so insecure and defensive. And the reality on the ground today is that good libraries pull together the staff we need to provide our communities with excellent library service. This includes new MLS graduates (who, even after earning the degree, still often have little concept of our professional values) as well as social workers, reading coaches, teachers, systems folk, and baristas, all of whom often want to work in libraries precisely because they share our values.
And we need them all. It’s our job as library leaders to instill our traditional values in our organizations and staff, whether that’s the new executive director at ALA, or the new security guard in your library.
Yes, the MLS remains a valuable degree. But today’s libraries—public libraries, certainly—simply don’t revolve around an MLS/non-MLS binary, although the inflamed rhetoric of the MLS-required group is certainly sowing plenty of divisiveness on the listservs.
But What About Carla Hayden?
Are you happy to have Carla Hayden heading the Library of Congress, after decades of non-librarian leadership? I certainly am. Not only is she the right person for the job, but her appointment corrected a decades-long wrong after all the years the LC was headed exclusively by nonlibrarians. That was an affront to every librarian.
The MLS-required crowd is quick to equate Hayden’s appointment to the executive-director job. But that’s a false equivalency—most obviously because, despite its size and the incredible scope of its mission, the Library of Congress is still a library, and it shares its DNA with libraries across the country. ALA, on the other hand, is a professional organization with the mission of promoting library service and librarianship; its DNA is closer to the American Hospital Association than any library.
This is not to say that librarian managers don’t develop incredible skills that can transfer to any number of positions, including the management of a professional association. And maybe we’ll get lucky and a librarian with deep association experience will present herself.
But in my experience, the best, most outstanding library managers are obsessed with being librarians. The best librarians are concerned with making their libraries better, rather than creating a better professional association. And that's where we should want the best librarians—in libraries. What we should want at the top of our professional association is the best association leader.
In fact, there’s even a professional association for that—the American Society of Association Executives, which provides a rigorous certification program for association executives.
It strikes me as pretty hypocritical that librarians have for decades been impersonating Rodney Dangerfield, complaining that our profession gets no respect, yet we can’t acknowledge that association managers have their own specialized skills. And what we stand to lose by not recognizing that fact are some of the best, most logical candidates to lead our association.
An 'Extraordinary' Process
When you don’t like the outcome of something, it’s tempting to blame the process. And that’s exactly what MLS-required crowd is doing now.
Specifically, they’re calling foul on the ALA council’s electronic vote that made the executive director position MLS preferred. It’s being called “extraordinary,” with the implication being that the vote was somehow underhanded—this despite the fact the voting was open for a week and was preceded by a week of discussion.
In a profession where many of the practitioners have received their degrees completely online, and in an association where many committees now work virtually, an electronic vote is hardly extraordinary.
No, “extraordinary” would be waiting until next year’s ALA Midwinter Meeting to vote in person.
And what really is extraordinary is that a vocal, privileged minority would reject not only the vote (which wasn’t close) but the recommendations of the ALA search committee, executive board, council, and the presidents, boards, and councilors of 10 ALA divisions.
At the end of January, ALA veteran Mary Ghikas agreed to step in and serve as interim executive director through January of 2020. But while that stopgap move offers a measure of stability for ALA in the short term, what our association needs is a new leader ready to execute a long-term strategy.
Make no mistake, this battle over MLS-required could do real harm to ALA. And it's up to ALA members not to let that happen. In such extraordinary times, with so many challenges facing libraries and librarians, our professional association needs the best candidate out there, period, to lead us—not the best candidate who also happens to have an MLS degree.
PW contributing editor Brian Kenney is director of the White Plains (N.Y.) Public Library, and a former editorial director of Library Journal and Publishers Weekly.