Still Thinking About Your ALA Presidential Vote? LJ Talks to the 2021–22 Candidates

Despite many other activities being on hold this month, voting for the American Library Association (ALA) 2021–22 presidential campaign opened on March 9, and ALA members in good standing can cast their ballots through April 1. LJ invited candidates Patricia “Patty” M. Wong, city librarian at Santa Monica Public Library, CA, and Steven Yates, assistant director of the University of Alabama School of Library and Information Studies, Tuscaloosa, to weigh in on some key issues pertaining to ALA and librarianship.

Despite many other activities being on hold this month, voting for the American Library Association (ALA) 2021–22 presidential campaign opened on March 9, and ALA members in good standing can cast their ballots through April 1. Results will be announced following the Election Committee’s count on April 8.

LJ invited candidates Patricia “Patty” M. Wong, city librarian at Santa Monica Public Library, CA, and Steven Yates, assistant director of the University of Alabama School of Library and Information Studies, Tuscaloosa, to weigh in on some key issues pertaining to ALA and librarianship; further information can be found on ALA’s Election Information page.

LJ : How do you think ALA can best resolve its fiscal problems?

Patty Wong head shotPatty Wong: Fiscal controls, accountability, a comprehensive process and diversified business models. ALA has many financial challenges ahead, but one of our greatest benefits is the value, commitment, and innovative expertise of our members and the opportunities of new leadership. We have a strong staff and committed member leaders with experience and financial acumen. And we have the vantage of examining our current practices and identifying what needs to be done. We need to put our best minds, along with our finance and executive leadership, to develop fiscal controls at all levels of the organization while supporting proven revenue generation, and invest in our member experience for the short-term cultural shift and longer-term sustainability.

ALA is also an organizational ecosystem. ALA is only as successful as the sum of its valuable parts. We have relied upon the three businesses of publishing, conference, and membership to provide support for the organization. Those efforts may still produce revenue for us but we need to seek investments in businesses that make best use of new and emerging technology, bring added value to our members, and produce diversified income. We need leadership at all levels who are familiar with the organization and willing to support necessary changes. But we also need our membership to reinvest in our association. And this requires communication with intention and transparency. Accountability is key in order to re-establish trust and galvanize commitment to an ALA for the future.

Steven Yates head shotSteven Yates: ALA’s endowment and longer-term financial picture are definitely more secure than the short-term picture. The association’s three traditional modes of revenue—membership, conferences, and publishing—have not yielded sustainable growth since the 2008 economic downturn. Some units within ALA have had more positive financial activity during the same time that ALA’s financial picture has become more uncertain. While the current issues did not develop overnight, we can take immediate action. Although the Steering Committee on Organizational Effectiveness (SCOE) was not asked to answer any pressing financial questions, adopting some portions of Forward Together could lead to cost savings.

Also, member leaders and staff need to look closely at units whose operations are doing well and see where ALA can redirect effort toward adopting methods leading to revenue production. Resources are finite, and members and staff must keep that in mind as we move forward. While our association needs to make tough decisions, these choices are essential for ALA to remain a world leader for libraries and library workers. Remaining mission-driven throughout this time of great change is key to a strong future.

How would you increase transparency to prevent repetitions of the surprise many divisions felt at Midwinter about the $2 million shortfall?

SY: A key part of my candidate platform is transparency. Adopting the Forward Together recommendation for a volunteer clearinghouse is one way to provide a single virtual location for all engagement opportunities across the association. We need to take that clearinghouse idea a couple of steps further to provide single virtual locations for all board activity across ALA units as well as virtual meeting notices for all ALA units. The spirit of openness should extend to virtual meetings as well as traditional conference-focused meetings. Additionally, I propose quarterly virtual town halls via Zoom, in which ALA Executive Director Tracie D. Hall and I can provide live opportunities to update the membership while also being available for Q&A. We must be committed to our core values and transparency allows us the best chance to uphold professional ethics while respecting the vast amount of hard work that our volunteer leaders and amazing ALA staff perform behind the scenes.

PW: Part of organizational change is to establish a process of expectations and accountability and the requisite communication. We have a responsibility as ALA leaders to ensure true financial understanding throughout the organization and to work with our Executive Director and staff to create checks and balances where financial constraints can be minimized. So the goal, overall, would be to avoid such shortfalls in the first place. And that comes with cost controls and hard decisions to reduce costs before it becomes an emergency. It does mean that there needs to fiscal oversight at many levels and at the highest levels and that key leadership needs to be a part of the construction.

Not many years ago, the Treasurer, the Budget Analysis and Review Committee, and the Executive Board Finance and Audit Committee had liaison relationships with each of the units within ALA where there was deep understanding of individual budgets in the context of the larger budget. Education and financial acumen was expected. Goals and strategic priorities were commonly understood. The fiscal leadership for each division were true partners and allies in financial planning. The Planning and Budget Assembly was more than just a placeholder for sharing information. Decisions were made and information was shared and the impact of such decisions. We need to return to that same level of financial understanding and engagement.

How do you want to see the work of SCOE proceed? What is your position on the proposed elimination of the ALA Council?

PW: A new ALA governance structure requires careful stewardship and understanding, conversation about representation and voice, and an opportunity to reaffirm commitment to our profession. The existing SCOE team has commendably developed internal and external engagements within a wide range of ALA communication channels. As ALA President, I would continue and expand on that same engagement with members and potential members in a purposeful way, and work with the SCOE 2.0 planning team to develop a plan that gathers feedback and impact in an integrated way.

While a good deal of input has been collected from member leaders, many members have not yet participated. ALA is a big organization. Sometimes our members need information flagged for them in a number of ways, formally and informally. I would use the American Libraries column and enhanced engagement with members to highlight the effort, solicit input, and connect the dots. I would ask the divisions and roundtables to host fora. I would invite state chapters and state library cooperatives and agencies to host town hall meetings. I would negotiate partner programs with ALA affiliates to reach their respective audiences. More importantly, I think we need a facilitated and organized engagement with Council. Based upon the current situation and Council composition, I believe that a progressive, phased-in plan is the most prudent—a hybrid that would transition to the new model with an interim approach. Evaluation is critical; we must measure and survey our member response. Success means more members participate, vote, engage.

SY: As a member of the SCOE team, I fully support the Forward Together recommendations. I look forward to the implementation team being named and for the results of the financial and constitutional reviews of the recommendations to be shared. Many components of ALA’s structure have been in place for more than 100 years. The Forward Together recommendations from SCOE allow us to modernize our practices and structure without sacrificing our commitment to our core values and organizational democracy.

The elimination of Council has been a single polarizing issue from an entire set of recommendations. Before any member or prospective member of our profession passes full judgment on Forward Together, I encourage them to read the full set of recommendations. The goal of SCOE was to provide clear paths to engagement for all interested members while reducing perceived duplication of efforts across units. Council’s structure is built on the privilege of attendance and flexible work/travel schedules, a luxury that most school librarians do not and will never have. While I have been pleased to see the current movement toward being able to conduct Council business electronically, I believe the Forward Together recommendations will provide the year-round organizational structure and culture needed for today’s libraries and library workers.

What changes do you want to see for the revamped/replaced Midwinter meeting?

SY: First, the already adopted changes need to be more widely communicated to current and prospective members. A more regional approach for meetings in a winter timeslot could allow for more members to experience the excitement and benefit of attending an ALA conference, but we should not cannibalize ALA unit conferences in the process. As changes continue to be made on the conference front, I know that volunteer leaders and staff will continue to engage with our vendors, exhibitors, and supporters. Whatever changes are made must be viable for these partners to support as well.

PW: Like SCOE, the change to Midwinter meetings are just as meaningful to members, but some of the messaging has been lost with the other changes that have taken place. There are many that use the Midwinter meeting as an opportunity to do critical work of the association such as legislation review and intellectual freedom policy, award decision making, division and round table engagement, and governance. Midwinter meeting stakeholders need to be provided opportunities and support to change work processes and digital communications and engagement. This requires the same kinds of communications strategies as SCOE.

One of the great opportunities we have with a new structure is to be able to bring ALA to other parts of the country. A learning and networking experience that can be both physical and virtual and celebrate commitment to our many awards, the future of libraries and equity, diversity and inclusion could be incredibly rewarding and engage more members than ever before. Evaluation will rely on member productivity combined with strong efficiencies and positive fiscal return.

What would you like to see ALA doing over the next year to ensure its relevance to new professionals and potential members?

PW: In addition to creating stronger protocols for financial infrastructure, I would work with our Membership staff throughout the organization to take the Avenue M (our recent Membership study) recommendations and develop some goals for the next three to five years. One of those key areas is building upon our work with equity, diversity, and inclusion. Although the Spectrum family of scholarships and focused programs on internships and minority fellowships are still in place throughout library communities, we are not keeping pace with the growing population and the need for diverse staff in all types of libraries. In addition, there are still inherent inequitable practices in recruitment and selection as well as retention, staff development, and promotional opportunities.

Growing our own: One of the best examples of this is a prior REFORMA [The National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking] initiative with the Santa Ana Public Library and the Seeds to Trees program. We need to encourage and provide opportunities for people from all walks of life to become part of our volunteer and paid staff at all entry points in our system, with sustainable coaching, mentoring, and staff development along with the appropriate funding. And we need to partner with others investing in our youth. The California State Library is funding a program to support public library staff who need to complete their undergraduate degree in pursuit of their MLIS. It also offers a significant Public Library Staff Education award to support tuition for staff who can enroll in graduate MLIS programs now. We need to use some of these great programs, to showcase them for state chapters and professional library organizations to replicate and to support research and triangulated study of the impact.

We must continue to support Spectrum as a foundational piece—funding is still needed for all students, but especially for people of color in their higher educational pursuits. Advocacy needs to be maintained beyond ODLOS [ALA Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services] and those hosting a scholarship. Our collective EDI [equity, diversity, and inclusion] efforts cannot be merely placed within priorities of ALA but also as a practice and implementation goal at the ALA staff level as well. Our goals cannot be fully realized without a staff that have the tools and training and acumen, often with lived experience, as partners in the work. We can elevate through deliberative and strategic staff engagement under the leadership of Tracie Hall. In other words, our EDI priorities in our work and how we approach that work needs to become part of ALA DNA.

There are several areas where we can place more emphasis.

LIS: We can work with ALISE [Association for Library and Information Science Education], COA [Committee on Accreditation], and LIS partners to develop curriculum standards where EDI is embedded in course work and in plans for faculty recruitment and retention. We need to emphasize the same levels of support for PhD and EdD students of color and research opportunities so that MLIS minority students see themselves reflected in the faculty, and provide bodies of work to illuminate these needs and the impact. A demand for faculty of practice will lead to student readiness to implement EDI support, interest and advocacy as they enter the library profession.

Partnerships: As ALA we can work with new IMLS [Institute of Museum and Library Services] director Crosby Kemper and strong Spectrum and EDI advocate Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden to elevate the conversation and to deliberate on creating a plan of action to address these deep needs—this is a transformational change that goes beyond a single organizational priority. A potential partnership would be to work with PLA [Public Library Association] to elevate the relationship with the Government Alliance on Race and Equity to leverage institutional work on creating a race and equity model in local jurisdictions.

Leadership: ALA cannot solely create the best environments for change. Librarians and library workers and the profession needs to be elevated in the eyes of the people from all walks of life. Schools need to retain and elevate the role of librarian as key to educational success, and we all need to collectively work together in that advocacy. ALA can elevate conversation but should also identify data in the experiences of librarians and library workers of color in the workplace, from recruitment and selection to workforce development and retention policies and practices. This is not one unit’s responsibility, but could be a priority for many divisions, roundtables, and ALA-APA [ALA Allied Professional Association].

Promotion of librarianship as a career opportunity: The campaigns associated with the early days of Spectrum in a variety of languages should be elevated to our State Chapters and all affiliate professional library associations, but especially our ethnic professional library partners. ALA needs to work with multilingual media to promote the profession at the grassroots level. Interviews with local and regional librarians of color and allies can highlight the professional opportunities. ALA can also work with a number of allied professional organizations utilizing joint promotional materials and expertise to strengthen reach.

SY: The years between now and ALA’s sesquicentennial in 2026 are critical to our future viability. I mentioned transparency above—that’s one portion of my candidate platform. The other three are advocacy, cultural competency, and training. We must continue to support the advocacy efforts led by scores of committed volunteers and the Public Policy and Advocacy Office. Building a national legislative network that provides a library advocacy presence in each congressional district was a great idea started by ALA Past President Jim Neal. Continuing to build our advocacy capacity in this way and empowering members to be advocates at the local and state level can happen in the next year.

Cultural competency is needed in every American community. ALA has committed to advancing EDI, but I believe this work has fallen on the shoulders of too few volunteers in our profession. This work belongs to all of us, and ALA can expand opportunities for current and potential members to build cultural competency as part of an iterative process, not a one-time check mark in a meaningless box. Training and support opportunities like Spectrum, Century, and Emerging Leaders need to be expanded. Emerging Leaders specifically can be expanded in ways that do not hinge on physical attendance for participation. Our commitment to EDI means that training opportunities should be extended to members who may never enjoy the privilege of work travel. ALA can and should be the profession’s continuing education provider, regardless of physical location. In some cases, educational opportunities also should not hinge on membership status. While we cannot provide all of our opportunities to the profession pro bono, our association can explore untapped ways of reaching out that could attract a variety of potential members.

Given the current situation with COVID-19, and ALA’s cancellation of National Library Legislative Day and the Annual conference, how can the association pivot to be financially viable and useful to members?

SY: ALA chapters across the country are dealing with the reality of cancellation and postponement. My own home chapter in Alabama had to cancel both our legislative day in Montgomery and our annual conference in Birmingham. I have been pleased to see that the ALA Chapter Relations Office and multiple ALA divisions are working to provide town hall opportunities for members to share strategies and support one another during this time.

As far as ALA’s financial picture goes, we must examine how we do business and make the tough decisions needed to reduce expenses while also committing to building new sources of revenue. Although our country has experienced a pandemic before, we have not worked through one with the benefit of a vast digital infrastructure. We need to continue to develop opportunities that tap into the potential of learning and networking without travel while always providing consideration for those who fall outside of connectivity. While some of these opportunities can be revenue-producing, our approach must be fundamentally different as it comes to budget projections. The days of overly optimistic budget practices need to be in the rearview mirror for now. This work must be done while remembering to involve library workers of all types and remembering our core values at every decision point.

PW: It was the wisest decision to cancel conference early to reduce the losses to our organization. We need to explore ways to support our respective teams who conducted work at conference and provide some advanced ways to bring some of these programs to life in a virtual context. Many libraries today are nimbly moving their resources and creating content that can be delivered virtually. [Texas Library Association] cancelled its conference and was able to deliver a virtual experience. We deliver virtual content all of the time. There are mini-conferences like [San José State University] iSchool’s Library 2.0 web conferences, where invited practitioners from around the world deliver content in virtual rooms across several hours in a day.

Our membership and staff are working with their respective groups to advance a new approach as many of them are celebrating special anniversaries. Do you postpone or do you activate a virtual representation? How do we create a virtual conference and collaborate across unit lines? ALA is, and needs to be, activating existing leadership within the Conference Committee, and subject matter experts in and out of the association, to bring resources and timelines together to maximize member impact and create different pathways for delivery. Garnering the experience of staff, member investment, vendor engagement, innovation, and shared resources could harness and generate a year’s worth of content and reinvestment in ALA. Messaging is key, and for the most part, the members are appreciative of the decision, but now it the time to engage critical stakeholders invested in conference activities—to plan, with ALA staff as partners, in rebuilding or redeveloping conference offerings in stages throughout the next six months to a year.

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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