LJ Talks to the 2023–24 ALA Presidential Candidates

Now that voting for the American Library Association (ALA) 2023–24 presidential campaign has begun, LJ invited candidates Emily Drabinski, interim chief librarian at The Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY); and Kelvin Watson, executive director of the Las Vegas–Clark County Library District, to weigh in on some key issues.

head shots of Emily Drabinski and Kelvin WatsonVoting for the American Library Association (ALA) 2023–24 presidential campaign opened on March 14, and ALA members in good standing can cast their ballots through April 6. Results will be announced following the Election Committee’s count on April 13.

LJ invited candidates Emily Drabinski, interim chief librarian at The Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY); and Kelvin Watson, executive director of the Las Vegas–Clark County Library District (LVCCLD), to weigh in on some key issues; further information can be found on ALA’s Election Information page.

LJ: How can ALA better support libraries and library workers faced with book challenges and hate speech?

Emily Drabinski: ALA and our state library associations are pulling incredible weight right now on behalf of library workers everywhere. That work needs to be really loud and really public so that all of us know our institutions have our backs. We also have to acknowledge that these fights are local and require grassroots organization and mobilization. We need a professional association committed to building those skills for all our members.

Kelvin Watson: If elected, I will create a plan that targets both local and national needs, leveraging the fine work that has already been done by ALA, including toolkits with well-developed talking points. We must continue our outreach efforts to get these toolkits into the hands of our local and national advocates, allies, and partners, arming them with facts and truth in response to complaints. I have found that often, the complainant has not read the book that they are concerned about, but are picking up disinformation about it online. We must also be prepared with policies and staff training on rules of conduct, which should be posted in branches, and on our websites and social media channels. This gives staff clear and unequivocal guidelines to follow if they feel threatened due to hate speech.

I would also like to take a moment to address the concept of neutrality when it comes to collection development. As a public library, our collection development policy guides us in evaluating materials objectively, and nonfiction items are reviewed for accuracy, validity, relevance, and currency. Exposing a wide audience to the importance of diversity and equity has increased awareness of the urgency surrounding these issues. However, my one concern on neutrality is that I fear it can allow libraries to take a non-stance on important issues, thereby avoiding accountability, and abdicating ethical responsibility. Claiming neutrality can endanger us as an institution by resulting in an unconscious adoption of the values of the dominant political model and framework. Simply put, we cannot be neutral in social and political issues, and the resulting impact on our customers, because these issues impact us all.

If elected, how would you strengthen ALA-APA to better support frontline library workers, in particular reducing precarity, increasing pay, and supporting unionization efforts?

ED: Most ALA members aren’t even aware of the Allied Professional Association, and that needs to change. As president, I will be committed to elevating the crucial work of this arm of the association, directing resources as I can to build capacity for APA’s work on behalf of all of us. That means also means pushing for meaningful professional development related to worker-centered organizing and advocacy.

KW: See below.

Along with a lot of other frontline professions, we’re seeing a librarianship backlash lately, with people leaving in frustration, anger, and fear. What can ALA do to help combat that sense of dissatisfaction?

KW: I see overlap in these two questions and will answer them in the following response.

At the branch level, we must first acknowledge the toll that the pandemic has taken on our staff and encourage our employees to take advantage of health and wellness resources available through employment benefits and in our communities. As a profession, we need to look at creating a library workforce of the future by better aligning training and education with the new normal in mind, and create a career path that will better serve our library workers. I believe this could include broadening our library science degrees through courses in business, technology, the sciences, social work, and public policy, to name a few, to expand our knowledge base and build advocacy from a variety of life experiences and perspectives.

ED: Solidarity with each other as we act to change our working conditions is the only way forward. Libraries and library workers are under siege, and we must connect our struggles with those of other public sector workers who, after decades of disinvestment, are asked to perform Herculean efforts on behalf of our communities. ALA must continue to use its power and voice on behalf of library workers, telling louder public stories about what those of us on the ground need to make good on our commitments to our communities.

What has the field learned from the last two years of the pandemic? What can it keep, what needs to change?

ED: Libraries are essential social institutions, and we can’t be the only ones. As the state leaned on us to provide everything from parking lot Wi-Fi to COVID tests, we all learned that libraries can’t do everything. We must advocate for the investments we need to serve our communities—from broadband to book budgets—while we push for broader support for the social infrastructure we need to sustain meaningful lives, including schools, parks, childcare, university, [and] healthcare.

KW: COVID-19 has fundamentally changed how people relate to each other and how our communities relate to our libraries. That’s where “Pivoting to Succeed” comes in, where flexibility and resiliency matter. It means taking on new roles and trying new things. The pandemic has also taught us the important role of libraries in our communities and the expanse of the digital divide. Libraries have become community centers, and sanctuaries from home and work. Both online and in person, we serve our communities in times of crisis by being safe, empowering, embracing, and ever-present.

With the shutdown of public places limiting essential services, we also saw the effect that the lack of access to technology had on our most vulnerable. Libraries were able to help bridge the digital divide with Wi-Fi extending into our parking lots, career services, homework help, free legal clinics, small business resources, and more. Filling these critical roles demonstrated to politicians and philanthropists the enormous potential that lies within our library systems. We are reinventing the roles that our buildings play and this is attracting new partnerships and funding sources. Going forward, libraries must step up to tell our stories better and to the right stakeholders to attract new partnerships, funding, and political advocacy.

What would your presidential priorities be, if elected, and how do you plan to pursue them in light of ALA’s current budget and revenue stream concerns?

ED: My priorities will include deliberate and intentional sharing of power in the service of equity, amplifying ALA’s commitments to environmental sustainability, and building organizing capacity among ALA members so we are all prepared to respond in meaningful ways to local, national, and international crises as they come. As president, part of that work is shaping the narrative so that ALA remains an institution that library workers are proud to join, that meets us where our needs are, and that is worth our member investment. That narrative work is essential and not costly. Coupled with strategic funding for organizing and advocacy training, I believe my presidency can contribute to the bottom line.

KW: My action plan has been formed by meeting with ALA members over the past months, and listening to their ideas and concerns. If elected, I will continue to seek out your ideas and solutions to the challenges that we face together. My plan includes:

  • Advocating for our role as defenders of intellectual freedom
  • Advocating for safety and fairness in our workplaces
  • Taking steps to realize greater diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility, and social justice for all library workers
  • Leveraging my proven fiscal experience to raise new funds and find new revenue streams, and reinvest in our people and profession
  • Advocating for our public, school, academic, and special libraries
  • Supporting and furthering ALA’s sustainability goals

Given that you both stated in the ALA Candidates’ forum that Council reorganization issues might not be the best use of an ALA president’s energies, how do you see yourself supporting its transformation going forward?

KW: I agree holistically with the idea of streamlining the organization and making it more agile. However, I believe that it is important to retain Council as the policymaking body rather than the proposed shift to acting only in an advisory capacity. It has been my experience that this is the very place where honest conversations happen and the hard work is being done. I believe [this shift] would significantly eliminate open discussion and debate that results in good, well-vetted policy decisions.

ED: Council reorganization is crucial in terms of association finances—we need a governance model that we can afford. We also need a Council that can effectively mobilize members and our allies on behalf of urgent issues in the library ecosystem. Many smart people have been working for a very long time on reorganization efforts. As president, my role will be to listen broadly and to articulate the stakes of the decisions we make so that members can see clearly what we are deciding and why it matters when Council recommendations make it to member vote.

How would you want to steer ALA’s legislative priorities during your term?

ED: ALA legislative priorities must be shaped by ALA members. As president, I will remain committed to listening both broadly and deeply to library workers across the ecosystem and the association to ensure that our efforts match what library workers tell us they need. And as all of us have learned over the past few years, we don’t always get to choose our priorities. Sometimes, our priorities choose us. What matters is that we are organized and ready, no matter the fight.

KW: This is a powerful moment for public libraries to evaluate and require equity in terms of the three components of a successful library experience: access, discovery, and delivery. Each of my priorities outlined in question five can have legislative components. I would also focus on:

  • Push forward ALA’s advocacy efforts around the unfair pricing structure publishers have imposed on libraries
  • Bring renewed focus to the Build America’s Libraries Act, which is still pending in Congress
  • Pursue new funding sources, including the Biden administration’s recent Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act
    • To help bring 21st century technology and skills to our buildings
    • To support library staff in elevating their careers
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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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