Meet the Candidates: ALA President 2020–21

Voting for the American Library Association (ALA) 2020–21 presidential campaign will open on March 11, and ALA members in good standing can cast their ballots through April 3. Results will be announced April 10. This year’s candidates, Julius Jefferson and Lance Werner, represent libraries from both the government and public sectors.

Voting for the American Library Association (ALA) 2020–21 presidential campaign will open on March 11, and ALA members in good standing can cast their ballots through April 3. Results will be announced on April 10.

This year’s candidates represent libraries from both the government and public sectors. Julius C. Jefferson Jr. is section head of the Library of Congress’s Congressional Research Service, Washington, DC. An active member of ALA for 15 years, Jefferson has been a member of the ALA Council since 2011, and most recently he completed a three-year term on the Executive Board (2015–18). Lance Werner is executive director of Kent District Library, Comstock Park, MI, and a 2016 LJ Mover & Shaker and 2018 Librarian of the Year. He has been an ALA member for ten years and is an active member of the Public Library Association (PLA) and the Library Leadership and Management Association (LLAMA), and is a member of the new ALA Policy Corps.

LJ invited the candidates to weigh in on some key issues pertaining to ALA and librarianship; more information can be found on ALA’s Election Information page.

LJ : Why do you think turnout in ALA elections is so low, and what can be done to change that?

Julius Jefferson: About 20 percent of ALA members participate in ALA elections. Many of our members may not be as connected to ALA governance as they are to the programs, conferences, and networking that ALA provides. As president, I want to focus on making all ALA members feel engaged in all aspects of ALA, especially governance, by frequently communicating the internal and external policy issues that are being discussed by the governing body and incorporating member viewpoints.

Lance Werner: Many ALA members, from librarians to vendors, question the value of their membership. This is not to say that there isn’t value in membership, but I believe the problem stems from communication and engagement. Communication is a two-way process, so it is essential to have effective ways for member voices to be heard and for ALA communications to do a better job of conveying information that is relevant and impactful to our members. Member engagement is the cornerstone of my campaign for ALA President, and has come as a result of talking with library members and vendors across the country about what they really need from ALA. While ALA has a big role in turning this around, members need to be reminded that their vote counts—their vote is their voice.

How do you feel ALA can best address racial microaggressions in the organization and the larger field?

LW: First, we need to acknowledge that this problem exists. We need to challenge ourselves by confronting and actively fighting against the biases that have been, unfortunately, culturally ingrained in us. We have to recognize and speak up against microaggressions, whether or not they were directed toward us, and we have to act with integrity, always. Most importantly, we need to listen. We need better ways to help members recognize the more subtle and implicit instances of racial bias from ourselves and others, then train them to promptly and constructively respond. I’m a big fan of Ken Blanchard’s One Minute Manager, which is a simple and powerful philosophy of dealing with issues as they occur. If issues are not dealt with on the spot, they accumulate as extra baggage and become increasingly difficult to unpack later. Many people recognize these issues as they arise, but are uncomfortable with confrontation. With training and practice, they can learn how to do it in a safe and helpful way, and participate in some difficult but constructive conversation.

JJ: There is much to be gained by a full and honest discussion of this topic and I believe in continued and open dialog. Each ALA member must accept responsibility for being culturally competent and aware of personal and institutional racism. As president I would focus on providing webinars and workshops that define and address the systemic causes of racism which manifest in racial microaggressions, and work toward creating healthy work environments.

How can ALA support MLIS/iSchool students so they're better prepared to step into the field?

JJ: The more opportunities ALA members have to interact with students, the greater chance that students will be prepared to enter the field. I encourage ALA members to be a resource for students by joining their iSchool alumni association or work with their iSchool to develop an association so that mentorships can be formed. As ALA president I will focus on building relationships between ALA members and ALA student chapters with the goal of helping students understand the ALA structure and the importance of networking, thereby enabling them to take full advantage of the professional development resources ALA offers.

LW: Additional training in subjects [other than] the traditional core curriculum and internships would be very helpful. Some of these subjects include psychology, finance, human resources, customer service, communications, etc. There are many skill areas that have a significant impact on how effective a librarian can be. By providing this training early, students can start their career on a more complete and solid foundation. Also, making it more affordable for students to participate in ALA would be helpful in order to establish a lifelong relationship with the organization early on.

Which of the models proposed for organizational change do you support for Council: continue as is, discontinue council, representational council, advisory council (or something else)?

LW: An advisory council model, without a doubt, is the best option for the ALA Council. The core purpose of the council is to delegate authority to the divisions, which is absolutely the right thing, but with an advisory model there can be better upward and two-way communications.

JJ: Any organizational change should reflect the needs of the institution and its members. As president, I will support a model that is dynamic and provides an opportunity for all voices to be heard. As a member of Council, I look forward to discussing and debating this issue.

It was announced at Midwinter that a new event would replace Midwinter, focusing on education rather than meetings. What can be done to make such an event different and more successful? Or do you think that will be sufficient? What should be done with the meetings that will no longer fit?

JJ: I support a Midwinter that will ensure that the needs of our members are sustainably and feasibly met. We must lower the cost of Midwinter and focus on programs that are important to members such as: Youth Media Awards, RUSA [Reference & User Services Association] Book and Media awards, programs from the Center for the Future of Libraries, networking, and exhibit floor visits. We must find the right balance of essential face-to-face meetings, programs that are diverse and relevant, opportunities to engage ALA leaders, and members and time to visit the exhibits. There should be opportunities for committees to elect to transact business virtually instead of a face-to-face meeting.

LW: Conducting two national conferences is quite an undertaking, and it is extremely costly for members to participate at each. In years with a national PLA conference, do we really need an ALA Midwinter conference? I don’t believe so. Much of the council and committee work can be conducted online with web conferences throughout the year. If the activity of a council or committee is important, it shouldn’t depend on a once-per year meeting. Moving to a more agile, rolling mode of operation is better for efficiency and effectiveness.

What is your position on increasing digital/online meetings for ALA governance?

LW: We absolutely can and should conduct more of our meetings online. We have the technology!

JJ: We must focus on our IT infrastructure to provide opportunities to allow members to have greater participation before and after meetings. I would like to see us get to a point where distance does not prohibit participation and our governance is nimble enough to sustain virtual discussions and debate that leads to resolutions.

What is your position on divesting the ALA endowment from fossil fuels? Does the recent adoption of sustainability as a core value mean it is time for the organization to revisit that proposition, which was previously rejected?

JJ: Our investments must reflect our values. I was a member of the Budget Analysis and Review Committee (BARC) and the Finance and Audit Committee (F&A) that supported the increased allocation to ESG [Environmental, Social and Governance] funds to nearly 25 percent. I would like to see this number increased and see us divest from fossil fuels by using a responsible approach that will prepare for us the inevitable fluctuations that occur in the market. I understand that there may be other options at this time and would be open, as I was as a BARC and F&A member, to continue the conversation.

LW: It is absolutely time to revisit a socially and environmentally-focused requirement for endowment investments. We should walk the talk.

After the recent murders of librarians Amber Clark (a 2019 LJ Mover & Shaker) and Leroy Hommerding, Sacramento Public Library director Rivkah Sass called on ALA to do more to protect library workers from violence. How do you think the organization can best help safeguard its members and all who work in libraries?

LW: ALA and the library industry are already doing a lot of what needs to be done, but unfortunately, there’s a chance that these types of tragedies will happen again. With that possibility fresh in our minds, we must increase efforts to prevent them. Some of the ways to do this include more collaboration with mental health experts and other areas to minimize or eliminate root causes of these tragedies. Most of these acts of violence are committed by people who have a significant area of need. Substance abuse and mental health are also root causes, and libraries do a lot to help people struggling with these issues. As an organization, ALA can lobby, in partnership with other human service organizations, to increase support to solve some of these problems through the creation of policies and research that lead to hands-on resources for libraries. ALA can also do more to bring these issues to the forefront with national grief counseling, crisis management, and a relentless effort to eliminate the root cause of these tragedies. This is a tough question, because it is being asked by everyone, everywhere, but I think it boils down to education and policy.

JJ: The loss of our colleagues is tragic and my deepest condolences go out to the Clark and Hommerding families. I responded to a question at the candidate forum at Midwinter asking whether ALA should be involved in issues that are not related to libraries. The issue of protecting library workers from violence is a tough call issue that requires thoughtful consideration, as gun violence has the potential to affect all aspects of our lives. ALA should support reasonable, evidence-based public policies to reduce gun violence on the one hand and provide workshops at Annual and Midwinter conferences regarding active shooter training, to prepare library workers for a worst-case scenario. We should lead the way in encouraging all libraries to offer similar training.

What is your vision of what libraries are and can be?

JJ: Libraries as a physical space are centers of engagement in our communities that represent the cornerstones of our democracy and the repositories of our culture. But the library would just be a building with print and digital information without the library workers who are the keys to providing access to information and satisfying our intellectual curiosity. My vision is to focus on the individuals that provide service in the physical spaces. I want to bring attention to library workers who help us organize, navigate, and make available the information that impacts our communities, and our individual lives. Moreover, libraries can be a beacon of hope in our communities that bridges gaps of inequality and is an emblem of progress.

LW: Public libraries are transformational places that exist to further all people. They are the most dynamic government entity because they can become whatever their local community needs them to be. Academic libraries are repositories for new thought and, like public libraries, need to take whatever form best serves their educational institution. It would be arrogant for us, as libraries, to make assumptions about our roles in the communities and institutions that we serve. It would also be a disservice to wait to be told of our roles. It’s imperative that we’re engaged on a strategic level with those who we serve and that we have a seat at the table when determining our future. This is how we, as servant leaders, make this a better world.

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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