LJ Talks to ALA President Emily Drabinski

New American Library Association (ALA) President Emily Drabinski has her eye on ALA’s projects and goals, as well as the association’s ongoing work standing up for its organizational values. LJ caught up with her in between stops on her tour of U.S. libraries to hear more about what she has planned.

Emily Drabinski
Emily Drabinski
Photo by Ali Cotterill, CC BY-SA 4.0

When Emily Drabinski assumed the presidency of the American Library Association (ALA) in June, the field was experiencing an all-time high of challenges—to materials, ideology, and the freedom of patrons to read what they choose. Those disputes extend not only to libraries but to ALA itself, with state libraries in Montana, Missouri, and Texas announcing plans to cut ties with the association for its stance on intellectual freedom.

Drabinski, an Associate Professor at the Queens College Graduate School of Library and Information Studies, NY, has also come under fire for her personal and professional beliefs. But Drabinski has her eye on ALA’s projects and goals, as well as the association’s ongoing work standing up for its organizational values. LJ caught up with her in between stops on her tour of U.S. libraries to hear more about what she has planned.

LJ: You’ve had a busy summer. What have you been up to?

Emily Drabinski: I spent my president-elect year traveling to as many libraries and ALA chapters as I could. My priority was to make sure that I understood the shape of what libraries were facing—libraries of all kinds, and in all kinds of places—so that I could represent the work of American librarians during my presidential year.

As I stepped into the role, there’s been a lot of governance that has been happening—many, many, meetings. A lot of what we’ve been doing is planning for the year, which includes an intensified focus on intellectual freedom and the challenges libraries are facing. Thanks to our Executive Director, Tracie D. Hall, we have significant monies to put toward those efforts. That includes an intellectual freedom convening that’s scheduled for January, as well as resources to enhance the work that we do with chapters on the ground, including grants for local help lines for librarians to connect with one another about what’s happening, and training that we’ll be offering through our United for Libraries division about how to run for library boards and best practices for serving on those boards—work that that division has been doing for a long time.

Other than the intellectual freedom convening, do you have anything you want to put on people’s radar for LibLearnX or elsewhere this fall and winter?

One of my campaign issues, and it’s been an issue for ALA presidents for many years, has been a focus on climate change. We see the impact of climate change on libraries more often than I want to—fires, libraries destroyed by heavy rains and winds, in all parts of the country. Looking to bring all the work that’s been happening across the association around climate change to a central location, we’ll be supporting a climate action summit. The work on that will begin at LibLearnX with a gathering of some of the best minds in the field who have been working on climate change and climate action in libraries. And they will be bringing forward a national agenda, a national strategy for libraries. That’s in collaboration with the Sustainable Libraries Initiative.

We passed a resolution at Annual to support the development of a task force focused on employment issues related to LGBTQ+ librarians. We know that’s a group of workers that has been particularly targeted during this time, so we’ve got an active working group looking at ways to both track firings and workplace discrimination against LGBTQ+ library workers and come up with ways to support those workers. That work is ongoing this year as well.

During your campaign, you spoke about wanting to enhance and elevate the ALA Allied Professional Organization (APA). How does that fit in with the work you’re doing now?

When we when we talk about the controversy about me, that’s about my political identity and my gender and sexual identities. I think it’s important to think about the identity that I’m most proud of, which is my identity as a librarian, something I’ve been for two decades. I know that the attacks on our professionalism have been really devastating for a lot of people, and I see the work that we’re doing to expand the Allied Professional Association as part of the campaign promise that I made and part of what I really care about as a person. A working group appointed by Lessa [Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada], the past president, has been working on a set of recommendations for ALA-APA in order to strengthen it. We are expecting to hear those recommendations at our October meeting in the fall.

You’ve also been effective in your career as an organizer. How are you bringing those skills to something as wide-reaching as the ALA presidency—which has a lot more moving parts than the organizations you’ve worked with, but a lot of the same issues?

It’s sort of staggering, right? The scope of ALA is something I thought I understood as a member, I thought I understood it as an ALA councilor, I thought I had a grasp on it as the president-elect. But as president, I see just how large it is, and how diverse it is, and how many different organizations and people and library types and geographies are involved in the association. I believe that the networks we have, the connections we have to one another, are what makes [libraries] strong, and that includes ALA.

I am continuing to talk to as many people as I can. I focus on talking to people inside the association to get a better sense of their work, because my job is to both represent America’s libraries and also to represent the great work happening across the association. Learning about work that the RUSA [Reference & User Services Association] division has done to revise and update the Interlibrary loan code and enhance resource sharing in a digital environment, that’s the kind of work I see happening every day at the association that maybe doesn’t get all the press. But that’s really the power of ALA, that it convenes us to solve the knotty problems of American librarianship. And as an organizer, I want to make sure everybody knows about the good work that’s happening across the divisions and the round tables.

It’s definitely a focus I’m taking in my travels this year. And I’m making sure that, wherever I go, I reach out to chapter leadership so that we can have a conversation about their priorities. One of the other things that’s happening this year is we’re seeing an intense range of really difficult conditions for state and local advocacy work, so making sure that people feel connected to the national association and the resources that we can provide, and the support that we can offer, has been a big part of the project too.

Serving all of America’s libraries is a big mandate right now. How do you reconcile the common mission of libraries with the feeling that the country is very segmented lately?

That’s one of the things that I love about libraries—we are local. We build collections for the communities that we serve, we provide programming to those communities, and all of those are highly local decisions. In a library in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, New York, you might have significant Polish-language collections and significant Spanish-language collections. In another part of the city, you might have other kinds of languages represented. And in rural libraries—I was out in Idaho, and one of the libraries in the mountains had a bicycle repair kit that you could check out because everybody’s riding their bicycles in that area.

ALA and America’s libraries have the same mission—we are committed to connecting people to resources that can enable them to live full lives. And those resources are different. If I’m a teacher librarian in a university with a Health Sciences program, that means core nursing journals, for example. If I’m in a school library, it means providing picture books for my K–12 students or curricular-enhanced programming—at P.S. 28 in Manhattan, they have a big focus on climate change, and the librarian there has brought in some composting machines and has a whole curriculum that’s aligned with that. It’s all very specific and particular, but it’s all the same project of wanting to improve the lives of the people in the communities that we serve by giving them access to information and resources.

The country is divided, but they’re not divided about libraries. ALA’s poll indicates that 70 percent or more of people, regardless of their partisan politics or where they fit on the [political] spectrum, want their libraries to provide books to their community, and most of them trust the library to do that and librarians to make those sorts of local decisions. If we tell the story of American libraries effectively, we could see this as a moment of uniting the country around the value of those institutions.

How will you—and ALA—help tell those stories?

Our year, hopefully, will culminate in a tour of American libraries where we’ll drive across the country highlighting the amazing work that libraries are doing. That’s scheduled to kick off in early June [2024] in Rhode Island, ending in San Diego at our Annual Conference. Every time I visit a library my mind is blown by some amazing thing it can do, from Narcan giveaways at East Warwick library in Rhode Island to the Touch a Sanitation Truck event at Boise Public Library. New York Public Library offered tango lessons this summer. Making sure that people know what libraries do and the ways that they serve as the heart of their communities is the project, and making sure that we’re telling those stories and telling them to everyone.

How does ALA plan to respond to state associations that want to sever ties?

As a national association, we support America’s libraries whether they are members or not. Our focus has been on talking with the people who are most directly affected by the challenges to libraries in their areas. And as an association, we continue to talk heavily among ourselves about the best role that we can play during this time. But I’m confident in our resilience and our capacity as a nearly 150-year-old association to navigate what I think we all see as a temporary condition of libraries being the focus of these organized attacks. I don’t think we could have expected to not be one of the targets, as we have been really out in front of the anti-censorship fight.

As an executive board, we’re in constant conversation about it, and doing our best to focus on supporting the chapters that are having to deal with these issues on the ground. There’s a press response, but then there’s the material response—how are we supporting library workers in Montana and Wyoming and other parts of the country where they have governments that are hostile to their institutions? The library needs support, and the community needs the support of the library.

How can members of the library community support you, ALA, and the anticensorship work you’re all doing, whether or not they’re ALA members?

I want to emphasize how important support for the American Library Association is right now as we face unprecedented attacks on us as a body and on libraries as a community—and make sure that people are following what ALA does, and recognizing the crucial work we do at the policy level for libraries across the country.

I have a couple of asks. The first is to get a library card, if you don’t already have one, and use your library. In terms of supporting the ALA and its mission, we’d like everybody to sign on to our Unite Against Book Bans campaign that will link you to the action alerts we send out, activating the growing number of supporters around our efforts. And the third thing is to consider making a financial donation to ALA—you don’t have to be a member to give to us. We have a number of funds that you can support, including our Merritt Fund that provides direct material support to library workers facing challenges to their employment due to their support for intellectual freedom, or because they’re discriminated against in the workplace.

You’re doing some solid advocacy in the public sphere—I thought your conversation with Tressie McMillan Cottom on the Ezra Klein Show was great, and I’m looking forward to the Mellon Foundation–sponsored discussion on Reading, Power, and Freedom you’ll be part of on September 26. How did that one come to be?

They invited me. And I found out when you did who my interlocutor would be—I’m very excited that it’s Tressie.

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Lisa Peet


Lisa Peet is Executive Editor for Library Journal.

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