ALA Goes Looking for a Leader | Leading From the Library

There’s no debate that it will be hard to replace the American Library Association (ALA)’s current Executive Director (ED). But there’s plenty of debate over the next ED’s qualifications. Should the MLS be required? Or do we look for the best association leader we can find?
Steven BellThere’s no debate that it will be hard to replace the American Library Association (ALA)’s current Executive Director (ED). But there’s plenty of debate over the next ED’s qualifications. Should the MLS be required? Or do we look for the best association leader we can find? Last year, library professionals overwhelmingly stated their preference for a degreed librarian to head the Library of Congress (LC). They were fed up with our national library being run by anyone but a librarian. Given the 40 years since an MLS-degreed librarian last ran LC, there was strong support for Carla Hayden. Librarians got what they wanted. We can only conjecture how the Trump administration would have handled it. It would have just found some bibliophobe to do the job. Fortunately, that’s not our worry. Now we’re on to another leadership conundrum—finding the next ED of ALA. When it comes to the leaders of library-related associations, of which there are many, what qualifications are most important for success? What should ALA and the membership be looking for in its next leader? That’s our current issue and, unlike our stance on the next Librarian of Congress, here we stand divided.

Replacing Fiels

We can probably blame Keith Michael Fiels for the current mess. How dare he announce his retirement? He’s only been serving as ALA ED for 15 years. Seriously, Fiels has done a fantastic job with ALA, particularly leading it through some lean years, and improving the operation along the way. It certainly helps that he knows libraries. He served as a school and public librarian and he holds an MLS degree. Times have changed since Fiels took over in 2002. Professionals are less inclined to join associations when there are many other ways to network, gain continuing education, or advocate for a cause. Members are getting vocal about not playing nice with the Trump administration. The ALA Board recently considered changing the position description so that the MLS is preferred, but no longer required. Ideally there would be someone who offers the best of both worlds, an MLS holder who is also wise in the ways of associations. Is the library world ready for ED without an MLS? Apparently not everyone is.

To MLS or Not To MLS?

On one side we have the MLS camp. Having library experience as an MLS holder may or may not be critical for success, but they advocate requiring the degree owing to its symbolic importance. What does it say about our most significant professional qualification if the most visible library association is led by someone who lacks it? Those arguing for the MLS consistently pointed to the profession’s core values. It is without question that Fiels’s successor must demonstrate a commitment to those values, but can those values be adopted by or internalized only in library science program graduates? There is also fear that opening the position up to those without an MLS invites the possibility of giving the ALA reins to a distrustful corporate bean counter. On the other side we have the MLS desired but not required camp. They contend that ALA requires a seasoned association manager and leader. Library experience is less critical than association expertise. They also make the point that the ED oversees the day-to-day leadership of ALA, but its true leaders are the members and those they elect for leadership positions. In that context, how likely is it that a non-MLS ED would create a sudden vacuum of core librarianship values within ALA?

Do Members Care?

At the ALA Midwinter Conference in Atlanta I did several “librarian in the street” polls to gauge the attitude of frontline practitioners on this issue. Overwhelmingly those I spoke to either see the MLS as a preference or unnecessary for the next ED. The few who believed it should be a requirement based their position on the importance of having someone who shares our core values. Those less concerned about the MLS emphasized the need for association management experience. I was surprised to hear several say they prefer an ED with a strong business and management background. Others seemed to not care at all, simply saying they have no sense of what the ED actually does nor does it impact their involvement in ALA. Is there someone out there who is the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup equivalent of library and association experience? If so, would that person be more qualified than someone with limited library experience but extensive, demonstrated skill and success with association leadership? That’s likely to be our dilemma.

Who Makes the Best Association Leader?

There is surprisingly little research into the qualifications for association leaders. With no definitive answers on the importance of having the practitioner’s degree, what other guidance can be found? Curious as to who leads other professional associations, I did some spot checking for nursing, law, engineering and a few others. In nearly all cases, the executive directors held the professional degree. That said, they all also had some prior high-level leadership position in that association, government, or industry. None appeared to be professional practitioners who suddenly shifted to association leadership. A study examining who best manages hospitals, physicians or professional administrators found that the best hospitals are managed by doctors, although many hospitals are run by non-MD professional managers. Whether it is coaches who played the game or college presidents who rose from the professoriate, the study found there is a certain “walked the walk” credibility that instills confidence in workers—and probably association members too. That said, many of those highly rated physician CEOs had extensive management and leadership experience beyond the MD.

This Always Comes Up

Doctors being in charge of hospitals is analogous to librarians being in charge of libraries. They usually are, except when the college president decides the IT director should be in charge of a merged library-IT organization. But is leading an association of professionals analogous to leading the organization where those professionals deliver their services?  Our profession is hardly the first to face these questions. I spoke to an association administrator who has experience in several different association settings. According to my colleague, the degree debate frequently arises when it’s time to find a new CEO. The outcome can go both ways. EDs with or without the professional degree can succeed or fail. What appears to matter more is the leadership they bring to the association. What the next ALA ED needs is a strong vision for the association to which members emotionally connect, the ability to strategically plan for a path to get there, and the power to earn the trust of members.

What Best Fits ALA?

Considering the complexity and size of the ALA operation, its next ED must bring a combination of industry knowledge, political savvy, financial savvy, and the emotional temperament to wisely lead the membership into the future. Owing to ALA’s unique organizational nature, Council, multiple divisions, roundtables, a library background–heavy staff and more, turning to a seasoned library professional with an MLS makes sense. But what about a regional library consortium executive who lacks the degree or a city government official who has no MLS but has extensive experience dealing with the public library system and its board? Should we automatically eliminate them? ALA may be in need of serious restructuring, its conference planning and management is at an inflection point, and membership is plateauing. The next ED must understand and be able to work within associations that have a unique structure like ALA’s, but the position requires proven experience in restructuring association organizations and rooting out dysfunction, waste, and duplication between units. If no candidate with an MLS brings these skills, then we need the flexibility to look to other professional backgrounds. If we ultimately choose in favor of the MLS requirement, then we should also be prepared to allow the new ED to hire a Chief Operating Officer who brings the organizational administration experience that an MLS-degreed ED is likely to lack.

First and Foremost, A Leader

The membership is divided on the MLS requirement. Symbolically, it would indeed be a fine gesture. Yet I find myself siding with the members who support making the MLS a preference rather than a requirement. Experience with association management and leadership, government, nonprofit advocacy, leading a large, complex organization (e.g., colleges, hospitals), to my way of thinking, are all better indicators of potential success. More than anything, perhaps by looking beyond professional degrees we can find that individual who blends leadership skill and talent, and whose own core values reflect the ones we most associate with MLS degree holders. The next ED of ALA will no doubt be making some tough decisions and they will probably be unpopular with members. Will the ED job description include competencies such as “good listener,” “thick skin,” and “creative diplomat”? ALA’s next ED, whoever it is, will need all three. Postscript: On Monday, January 23, the ALA Council, by a narrow margin (78–75) voted to require the next ED to hold the MLS degree. This close vote reflects our internal division over how the requirement will affect the search process. Candidates who potentially qualify with the necessary association experience, skills, and leadership ability, but lack the MLS, are automatically eliminated. It is possible that lightning could strike twice and another Fiels-like leader will surface. We should maintain our enthusiasm that the search committee, led by Courtney Young, will find that just-right individual with the combination of library and association leadership experience. Let’s hope we have not painted our professional association into a corner from which it will be difficult to address its considerable future challenges. For library leaders, particularly those who lead our professional associations, there will be lessons here to learn.
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Hi Andrew. Thanks for sharing your perspective on the issue - and identifying why you supported the requirement for the ED to have an MLS degree. The one point where I am less confident is that an ED with an MLS would be more likely to stay with the position longer than someone who didn't. That MLS holder could certainly use the experience to jump to a better paying position as the director of a large public library system or possibly a large research library. You'd hope that person would stay as long as Fiels did, but there are never any guarantees, regardless of degree. As I stated, I too hope ALA will find the just-right person from a good pool of candidates.

Posted : Jan 30, 2017 06:23

Andrew Wertheimer

Fine piece, Steven, but I'm very pleased that Council voted to keep the ED's position as requiring an MLS/MLISc. In fact I was one of the council members speaking in favor of maintaining the requirement for this position. Of course, I am somewhat biased since I teach in a master's program, but that also helps me to know what our students learn about leadership, the profession, legal and ethical issues. It is not enough to like libraries or find someone who supposedly shares our values. It reminds me of the typical non-librarian keynote speaker at a local library conference. Such a speech usually starts out with warm library experiences, and a love of libraries, but then goes on with little appreciation of what libraries do today and the complex issues we deal with. I am certainly not saying that all division directors or state library association EDs need such a degree, but I think this position is different. (I understand that there are many good EDs in state associations and other ALA staff). However, ALA presidents serve for 1 year (+2). We need an ED who has a long-view of the wider profession and the many complex ethical, legal, technological issues involved with our work. I hope the person can also be a change agent, and good fundraiser, but would rather see someone with a professional background and leadership experience. I would hope that someone with such a background also wouldn't consider being ALA ED as a stepping-stone to a more profitable association. In any case, there is a good search committee that is up to the task. I am confident they will receive some wonderful applications.

Posted : Jan 29, 2017 09:31


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