Mary Davis Fournier on Taking the Reins at PLA

On May 14, the American Library Association (ALA) announced the appointment of Mary Davis Fournier, most recently director of ALA’s Public Programs Office, as executive director of the Public Library Association (PLA), a division of ALA. LJ caught up with her to hear more about what she plans to bring to the new role and the challenges—and opportunities—in emerging from the pandemic.

Mary Davis Fournier head shotOn May 14, the American Library Association (ALA) announced the appointment of Mary Davis Fournier as executive director of the Public Library Association (PLA), a division of ALA. Most recently director of ALA’s Public Programs Office (PPO), Fournier has served in various roles at ALA over the past 20 years, spearheading projects such as Libraries Transforming Communities; the National Impact of Library Public Programs Assessment; Building Common Ground: Discussions of Community, Civility and Compassion; and the “One Book” resource Planning Your Community-Wide Read. She recently coedited Act, Listen, Empower: Grounding Your Library Work in Community Engagement (ALA Editions, 2020).

Fournier’s first day in her new role will be Monday, June 14. LJ caught up with her to hear more about what she plans to bring to the new role and the challenges—and opportunities—in emerging from the pandemic.

LJ : How did you get involved with library associations?

Mary Davis Fournier: In retrospect my path to the library world makes sense, but it's always felt a little bit serendipitous. I'm a tremendous book lover and library user. I started right out of college as a bookseller, working at the amazing Books and Books in Coral Gables, FL, then moved on to journalism working for an alternative newspaper, and then working more and more closely with publishing, producing, and programming for literary festivals in Miami and Chicago. I landed at ALA to manage a project called Live at the Library, which brought great authors into libraries all over the country. I felt I found my home there, in the library field and at ALA.

How do you feel your time at PPO will inform the new role? What overlaps do you anticipate, and what differences?

The resources, small grants, and program supports we've developed have allowed me to be at ground level with so many public library workers, working with them to scale exhibits and programs and to develop the corresponding skills training that goes with that. That is something I love and will absolutely take with me. Our most recent work with small and rural libraries and their communities has been tremendous in the last year, and has broadened my understanding of them in a way that I think will help me at PLA. Also the mindset of helping develop capacity , whether it be STEM learning, media literacy, or financial literacy, and contributing to the field's movement into the solid framework for community engagement. All of that we have been able to achieve in collaboration with PLA and other divisions.

In PPO we early on saw the potential of the PLA Project Outcome resources, the free tool that made life easier for our small grant recipients in the field, and built that collaboration in so that we could all, as staff in the association, learn from what was working and what wasn't. I think that what I'll be able to do is focus some of my collaborative and fundraising strengths to enhance PLA, and that will be a little different in that it will be beyond my specific focus on programs.

A lot of the landscape is changing in many ways, and I think that I am well positioned—in part because I'm coming from a unit that is constantly shifting initiatives and circumstances, and that will be complementary to what is in front of us at PLA. Did I mention they have the best staff? I am so grateful. Scott Allen and Larra Clark and Mary Hirsh and the rest of the team are just terrific. One of the things that has become apparent to me even in my early conversations with them and the board is that they embrace change, and they are ready to move forward in a way that's really supportive. My approach is highly collaborative—that's how the PPO found its legs across [ALA] and with external partners—and that's the real strength that I think PLA will continue to build.

What work would you like to see PLA take on in the next few years?

Continuing to work with ALA to make and solidify these huge gains with funding for digital access and equity and inclusion, and going from pandemic to recovery. My first responsibility is to really listen and build on their existing strengths, and collaborate to move all those areas forward. The priorities have been evolving daily during the pandemic crisis, and we'll have to look at the priorities as they present themselves, as circumstances change on the ground and nationally.

I think PLA and ALA have done a tremendous job in creating opportunity for dialogue virtually during this time, and that is going to continue. One of the unanticipated benefits of this time is that any hesitance about our ability to communicate with each other in this limited technological framework of Zoom, or whatever the platform, has been overcome. Yes, there are limitations to it, but it has been a lifeline in many ways, for so many—me included.

What are some of the challenges facing PLA that you hope to address?

PLA needs to be extremely attuned to the challenges of the field, meeting the needs of our members as they move from crisis to recovery. I think committing to listening, learning, and advocating with and for them is going to be the largest overarching challenge. I just cannot say enough how aware I am—and my colleagues are—of the toll of the past year-plus, and the need we all have for networking and connection as we're building the future. I think there will be many challenges along the way, but that need is going to inform everything for the coming time period. And it's not just the pandemic. This has also been a period of tremendous social disruption, and all of it is interrelated.

But with disruption there is also opportunity. One of the things that I've learned in working with small and rural libraries, urban libraries, and suburban libraries, is that we as a society are experiencing some commonalities in this period, but there is so much variance in terms of how everything is unfolding—institutionally, regionally, on the ground, sometimes county by county, system by system. That is not to say that there isn't a lot of room for advocacy and response—there's so much—but it is early days to be able to hone in on that.

How can PLA play a more active role in advocating for library workers?

My experience at ALA and in PPO is that we're always advocating for library workers, but I also believe there's always room for improvement, and I'm looking forward to hearing from the members—and when I say I, I mean, we—about the needs they're seeing, and their experiences.

I will never forget talking with a librarian in the [parish] in Louisiana with the highest per capita COVID rate in the entire state who was trying to submit a proposal and put it together while she was sanitizing books. She was trying to figure out a way to get some money through this grant to buy hotspots and some tablets because so many of the people in her service area were unemployed, unable to get their kids to school, unable to get broadband, and she was managing this as a one-and-a-half person shop. I talked to so many librarians who are struggling with limited access and resources and capacity, and are working so hard on behalf of their communities, grasping at any opportunity they can get in the midst of this period. I'm not exaggerating—it has been the most staggering experience and privilege of my career in libraries to be able to speak with them, and listen and offer any help through ALA. I think that so much of what will be needed going forward also has to do with trauma response, both for library workers working with their community members who are coming out of this period, and then the library workers themselves are also grappling with that. Going forward, I think some of those needs will become explicit as we're able to listen and respond more.

Former PLA Executive Director Barbara Macikas leaves a real legacy—what have you learned from watching her that will help you step into the role?

I'm lucky to call Barb a friend as well as a mentor, and someone whom I've admired throughout my time at ALA. I hope I picked up everything from Barb. She and I always had a lot to talk about because we both came from large event planning. I think PLA has been so fortunate—and I don't think it's just good fortune, I think it has to do with intentionality—to have such capable and consistent leadership from Barb. It’s also a testament to Barb's leadership that PLA has a longstanding staff that is incredibly expert. That is the best possible circumstance, to begin work with such an exemplary team, such engaged and innovative members, and such a solid foundation. I think the field is indebted to Barb for leading PLA into such long and sustainable relationships with funders and vendors, and her immense expertise with conferences and management. To me all of that has been this great formula for creating a strong division within ALA. I have big shoes to fill.

The 2020 PLA conference in Nashville was, for many of us, the last large public event we attended. What’s planned for 2022?

Portland, 2022—it's in person. I hope everyone comes and that it is all safe. Everything is pointing in that direction. The call for proposals for programs is live now—the deadline is June 21. Get them in! It'll be a tremendous time for reconnection. I cannot wait to see proposals because they are going to tell such a story of new learning and resilience and paths forward. It'll be a fascinating conference. I hope everyone who can goes.

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Executive Editor for Library Journal.

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