LJ Talks to ALA Interim Executive Director Leslie Burger

On November 15, the American Library Association (ALA) announced that it had selected Leslie Burger as interim executive director, effective immediately. She succeeds Tracie D. Hall, who resigned on October 6. LJ caught up with Burger as she began settling into her new role to talk about the experience she brings and her plans going forward.

Leslie Burger head shotOn November 15, the American Library Association (ALA) announced that it had selected Leslie Burger as interim executive director, effective immediately. She succeeds Tracie D. Hall, who resigned on October 6.

Burger is a longstanding member of ALA and served as president from 2006–07. During that time, she launched the association’s Emerging Leaders program, dedicated to providing leadership opportunities to new library professionals. With her husband Alan, she is the founding partner of Library Development Solutions, a consulting firm that offers guidance to public, academic, and special libraries. She is an adjunct professor at Rutgers University, NJ.

Burger served as president of the Connecticut Library Association in 1982 and of the New Jersey Library Association from 2001–02. As executive director of the Princeton Public Library, NJ, from 1999 to 2015, she helped plan, design and secure funding for a new 55,000 square foot library. She raised more than $27 million during her 16 years there, and reimagined and modernized library services.

LJ caught up with Burger as she began settling into her new role to talk about the experience she brings and her plans going forward.

LJ : What aspects of this new role appealed to you?

Leslie Burger: It comes at an interesting moment in time, given the political context and what ALA is dealing with right now. For me, personally, it’s an opportunity to give back to the association, which has been so important to me professionally, and to so many others, and the ability to be able to provide some leadership and assistance during this transitional time. Unlike accepting a full-time position with no end, this is durational. I actually have a pretty good track record of being an interim director elsewhere. I think the skills of being an interim director are transferable and, and in those roles, I can tackle some immediate issues that that may need some attention at ALA.

When you were ALA president, you had to deal with privacy issues and demands from the FBI to access patron records under the USA PATRIOT Act. How do you feel your experience maps to current intellectual freedom challenges?

In 2026, ALA is going to be celebrating its 150th anniversary—150 years of an association that, if you think back over that stretch of time, has weathered lots of challenges and ups and downs politically. The point of that is that we have staying power. Obviously, the big challenge right now is the censorship issue, and, unfortunately, the move for libraries in particular cities and towns and states to disassociate with the association. I think being able to speak cogently and intelligently about why libraries purchase the kinds of materials they do, and believe so strongly in the right of people to read freely, is an important message to counter this ultraconservative environment.

What I’m bringing to the table is the ability to listen, to have conversations, to not immediately get defensive and say, “you’re wrong, we’re right.” Even in [politically] blue Princeton, we had challenges—not huge challenges, but from people who were concerned about some of the programming that we were offering, and we had challenges from the FBI. Particularly in the aftermath of 9/11, that heightened security environment, they would come in and demand, “We saw an email message that emanated from your IP address, so please turn over that information.” And the answer was always no.

These are challenging times, not just for libraries, but politically. But the thing that really impresses me about ALA is that it is very much a values-based organization. We don’t waver on those values, whether it’s censorship or privacy or providing information freely. That, to me, is the real strength of the organization—that we can be supportive of people throughout the country who are working in libraries, and that we’re a terrific resource to help them when they when they face those challenges locally.

This is a transitional time for ALA itself as well. Where do you want to focus your efforts in your time as interim executive director?

I purposely stepped away after my term as president and past president because I felt it was important for new members to emerge in leadership positions, so it’s been 12 years since I’ve been involved actively. Stepping back to it now, I’m so pleased to see that there are new leaders ready to accept the challenges for now and whatever comes in the next few years or the next few decades. I was the founder of the Emerging Leaders Program for ALA, which is still going strong since 2006, and that has been a really good feeding ground for building confidence for members to take on leader member roles. I would like to continue to nurture that.

I think also, like many older organizations, we need to change—you can’t just keep doing things the same old way. As we enter this period of reflection about what we’ve done over the past 150 years, ALA is also thinking about conferences, and what those need to look like going forward, and thinking about the basic structure of what do committees do, how do we function in this kind of new work environment, and members who want to be engaged but maybe want to be engaged in different ways. From an external point of view, we need to be thinking about those things. Internally, they have an incredibly talented staff team. They’ve made some great changes in terms of infrastructure and technology and modernizing the organization. I’d like to continue those efforts, make sure that the organization is stable for its next executive director.

I know you’ve only been in the role a short time, but are there any opportunities that interest you?

I think it’s slightly too soon to tell, because I haven’t even been on the ground [in ALA’s offices] yet. I’m going next week, so I’ll have a better sense of what’s going on then. We’re planning a fundraising campaign for the 150th anniversary and I think that provides an opportunity not only to reach out to members and others who have been supportive, but to use this as an opportunity to talk about the important work that ALA does with people who are outside of our immediate giving circles. I’m very excited about that because I love to do fundraising. If I can leave the organization with a little bit more income, that would be terrific.

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Lisa Peet


Lisa Peet is Executive Editor for Library Journal.

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