Meet the Candidates: ALA President 2018–19

Voting for the American Library Association (ALA) 2019–20 presidential campaign opened on March 12, and ALA members in good standing can cast their ballots through April 4. Results will be announced April 11. LJ invited the candidates to weigh in on some key issues pertaining to ALA and librarianship; more information can be found on ALA’s Election Information page.
Voting for the American Library Association (ALA) 2019–20 presidential campaign opened on March 12, and ALA members in good standing can cast their ballots through April 4. Results will be announced April 11. This year’s candidates both hail from academic libraries. Wanda Kay Brown is the director of library services for the C.G. O’Kelly Library at Winston-Salem State University, NC, a historically black public research university that is a constituent institution of the University of North Carolina. Peter Hepburn is the head librarian at College of the Canyons, a community college in the Los Angeles suburbs, and is a frequent LJ Reviews contributor. LJ invited the candidates to weigh in on some key issues pertaining to ALA and librarianship; more information can be found on ALA’s Election Information page.
1. ALA is in the beginning of a radical reenvisioning—how do you think the organization should change direction? Specifically, what should it stop doing?

Wanda Kay Brown

Wanda Kay Brown: At Midwinter the decision was made to bring in an outside consultant to review the organizational structure. I wholeheartedly support this. ALA is a membership driven association, because people just like me choose to give their dues to an entity that commits to keeping its members informed, engaged, and connected. How we answer the member question, “What have you done for me lately?” is crucial to our continued success as an association. Ultimately we need to determine what resources are needed to fulfill our mission within our budget. How we proceed is extremely important. We need to hear from all the voices. No one person should determine our future. Representatives from our membership core, along with selected members from Council, should be tasked with exploring options. What should we stop doing? Simply put, we need to stop spending more than we take in. But also we have to determine how we best engage our members. What strategies can we align with our mission to enable our success as an association? What is the best approach? Is it stopping Midwinter or is it changing the structure and location of Midwinter? Is it going regional and combining efforts with the state associations? I am not sure of the answer, but we need to communicate across our divisions and bring together those best capable of walking us through this process.

Peter Hepburn

Peter Hepburn: There is already conversation—and concern—within ALA about reorganization. ALA is large and complex, and that can be a barrier to greater involvement in the association for many. Despite the potential efficiencies that could be gained, I am not convinced that merging and eliminating divisions and round tables is the best direction for ALA if it means that members cannot readily find a home within the association. The assumption that ALA could be organized around a small handful of divisions focused on library types would contribute further to the siloing within ALA. Above all, though, members should continue to feel a sense of belonging within at least one part of the association. What ALA should do is reduce duplication of efforts across the association so as to free up resources that could be returned back into the work that ALA is committed to doing. In this way, ALA invests in its long-term sustainability. Redundancies can be eliminated, and pathways for members can be made clearer, but ensuring that the work of ALA continues, supported, is a primary goal of my presidency.

2. How do you plan to address ALA’s declining membership and conference attendance?
Wanda Kay Brown: Our younger professionals don’t necessarily see the value. We have to find a way to make the association more inviting, more diverse, and more intriguing. The days of the longstanding member who paid year after year are slowly declining. How do we reach our new professionals? Perhaps we need to introduce a student-only track at ALA. Let’s get them excited early on. Let’s offer more scholarships to offset the cost of attendance. Let’s begin featuring student speakers. Perhaps we need to change the format of the sessions, [fewer] of the one-way style of presentations. Instead, let’s have more real conversations, where real-life current challenges and failures are discussed. Peter Hepburn: Dues are a barrier to membership. ALA needs to explore different structures than it currently has: based on income, for example. Another possibility is bundling memberships across divisions or round tables so as to make wider involvement possible at a better price. ALA might also offer pricing incentives to attract lapsed members back. I am encouraged to hear that the association is considering joint membership models with some of the affiliates as well. Ultimately, though, whatever the cost of belonging to ALA, members have to feel there is value, whether through the more concrete benefits such as conferences and continuing education, or the community and the strength in having a united voice on issues important to us. As for conferences, I am eager to see what members think of the streamlined conference this year, and whether the new model will result in a sustained bump in attendance. Midwinter needs some deeper consideration, however. With numbers down dramatically from two years ago, ALA must look at the value of continuing to hold the meetings, and whether Annual might benefit from higher attendance were Midwinter no longer held.

3. One of the economies proposed at Midwinter council was for the incoming president to forego a presidential initiative as a cost saving measure. Would you be willing to do that? If so, how would you make your impact? If not, why, and how would you pay for it?
Wanda Kay Brown: I would certainly expect to forego my presidential initiative given the proposed restructuring conversations. I will have made an impact as ALA president if all members feel connected and every voice feels valued, welcomed, and heard within the association; if we have positive outcomes that can be measured against goals that we have set collectively with Council and other division leaders; if we have established some new relationships and strengthened our longstanding partnerships; and if we have taken a public stand, speaking out when necessary as the voice of equal access and fair treatment to all. Peter Hepburn: I have no plans for a new presidential initiative. Instead, I will make my impact by ensuring a stable environment within the association and the sustainability of work currently underway, such as addressing the recommendations from the Task Force on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. This will provide the incoming executive director with a firm foundation on which to build a successful tenure at ALA. Some funds I have access to will need to be earmarked in order to ensure the success of this ongoing work, but I do not plan to allocate money to brand new initiatives.

4. In light of the newly adopted core value of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, how do you propose to make both the profession and ALA more diversified by recruiting, promoting, and retaining librarians of color?
Wanda Kay Brown: I have been a member of ALA for more than 30 years. During this time I have heard much talk around diversity, and of late the word inclusion has been linked. However, the numbers show we have made very little progress towards the recruitment and retention of librarians of color. What we have to change is the mindset of those who have the power to make a difference. I suggest that we explore options around what we include in our leadership training. I wasn’t even fully aware of the biases I bring to the interview table until I attended a cultural sensitivity workshop designed specifically around hiring biases. I would love to see an institute that focuses entirely around recruitment and retention issues. I would also love to see academic and public libraries partner together bringing in internships that introduce librarianship as a career to middle and high school students. I support creating programs that partner librarians from majority serving institutions with HBCUs, Title III public schools, and public libraries in communities of color. Mentorship plays an important role in providing guidance for all individuals and I support and will help create initiatives to teach, educate, and mentor individuals in this profession. Peter Hepburn: The Spectrum Scholarship has been a success in terms of providing financial support to librarians of color as they work through their graduate programs. Expanding the funding available through a focused fundraising effort would have a very real and positive impact. Ensuring that there are pathways to graduate school is important as well. Jim Neal convened discussions with high school counselors, among others, so as to introduce to pre-university students the possibility of librarianship as a career. It would be fruitful to continue nurturing those pathways. Like many of my colleagues, there are steps I can take locally as well. It isn’t enough to target librarians of color through recruitment channels. We have to write the job postings to make it clear that we welcome a diverse pool, we have to hire librarians of color, and we have to work with them to ensure that their careers within our libraries are rewarding for them as well as beneficial to our users. We can demand that ALA do much to diversify the profession, but we have personal responsibility in our workplaces to do the same. Developing joint membership with the ethnic affiliates could make it easier for librarians of color to join both. What needs to happen in conjunction with that is greater collaboration between the divisions and round tables, on the one hand, and the affiliates. This would create clearer channels and opportunities by which librarians of color could become more involved in the association.

5. How would you like to see ALA step up its advocacy in light of yet another budget proposal that seeks to shutter IMLS? How do you see ALA proceeding if IMLS is defunded?
Wanda Kay Brown: A key element of advocacy is to ensure that lawmakers fully understand the role that librarians play at all levels of education and public need. Helping our lawmakers understand and support this role should be a primary agenda item and goal of ALA and all of its divisions. We all benefit from well informed and educated communities. If funding is cut or totally depleted, this is when private businesses that profit from libraries need to step up and offer better financial support. If that is slow to happen, we will adjust and respond accordingly. We are in a profession that always finds a way to keep pushing. Peter Hepburn: ALA will need to continue championing IMLS and telling the stories of how IMLS has benefited so many communities and people across the country. The Washington Office must focus on this critical issue. Targeting the White House is likely less effective. Instead, we must talk to all of our representatives in Congress. And candidates for the midterm elections! We’re going to need a wide array of legislators on board to ensure that IMLS does not get shuttered, and should it be shuttered then we’ll need allies in Congress who will see the value of refunding it when the administration changes.

6. How would you promote sustainability issues through ALA?
Wanda Kay Brown: I see the role of sustainability as critical to our organization. We have to be the link between what we want our libraries to model as well as [educating] and training around current relevant topics. Collaboration remains the key for us in educating our communities. Combining efforts across all divisions would increase the number of people we reach. In keeping with the theme of “Libraries Lead,” perhaps launching a state-by-state campaign of planned events around sustainability education would be a step in the right direction. As well as partnering with other divisions of ALA, we can encourage libraries to collaborate with other community groups. We could also launch a national day/week of collaborative programming within each state. Peter Hepburn: Sustainability is a growing concern across many parts of the association. Happily, there is a round table that is focused on the issue, the Sustainability Round Table (SustainRT). I would draw upon the expertise within SustainRT as well as encourage and facilitate collaboration between it and other units within ALA. The potential for this round table to form partnerships and lead within the association is immense. The final report from the Task Force on Sustainability is due to the ALA Executive Board by this summer’s annual conference. I will be looking carefully at the recommendations from that report, and will work with the appropriate units and staff within ALA to act upon them wherever possible.

7. What international community collaborations would you like to see ALA involved in?
Wanda Kay Brown: I would suggest that we extend our partnerships to developing countries, countries that are in need of our resources. Statistical data suggest that there are some 200,000 public libraries in developing countries. We discard much of our collections, while the world around us is in need of books and other resources. I would love to see us strengthen our efforts in support of sharing our resources. Peter Hepburn: Recovery from the hurricanes that did so much damage in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico last year points to one area: relief work. ALA has set up mechanisms for assisting American libraries, especially the ones in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Extending that model in other instances of disasters would be one way to collaborate further with the international community.

8. Libraries as neutral space: pro or con?
Wanda Kay Brown: Libraries are neutral in service; everyone (should) have access to our collections, meeting spaces, and research assistance. However, there are times when it is impossible to be totally neutral. We have the moral obligation to be advocates for equity of treatment and sometimes that is a difficult pill to swallow. For instance, early in my career I had to advocate for a display that showcased one of America’s hate groups. I did so under the Intellectual Freedom guidelines. Personally, though, it was still challenging. As libraries, we are committed to allowing freedom of expression and speech. Within the library space, we need to be neutral as well as inclusive. All voices are valued, welcomed, and respected. There are times when we must be intentional. Peter Hepburn: Libraries are not neutral—people administer and staff them, write and interpret policies and procedures—but as spaces, they must be open to all members of the communities and institutions they serve.

9. What is your vision for libraries?
Wanda Kay Brown: My vision for libraries is that we remain at the heart of the communities we serve, connecting people with ideas, resources, and support. We are an essential link to developing and sustaining informed and well educated communities. My desire is that we become even more of a conduit between communities, K–12 schools, and higher ed in redefining 21st century education. My vision for libraries is that all feel included, with our staff mirroring the communities served. Diversity of thought adds value to any organization, and libraries are no different. As we know, libraries have become much more than warehouses of collections. We are social hubs where great minds come together. We are constantly evolving as our users and their needs change. I embrace the challenge of defining our next phase. Peter Hepburn: I look toward greater connection and collaboration among libraries and library workers from different types of libraries. Issues such as school library funding or net neutrality do not affect one type of library only. Instilling information literacy skills does not start at the college level with nothing coming before or after. My vision is one wherein we support each other no matter our library type or our titles or job functions because we have much that we share in common, and in this current political and social environment we make a stronger case for libraries together.

As a bonus question, LJ asked outgoing ALA president Jim Neal what books he would recommend to the incoming president. Jim Neal: There are two new books that I would encourage the incoming ALA president—in fact, all of my professional colleagues—to read. The first is Ijeoma Olou's So You Want To Talk About Race (Seal Pr.), an honest, forthright, and insightful commentary on the realities of racism. The second is Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case For Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (Viking), an affirmation of the positive path of the global human experience.
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