Who is in Charge?

Shortly after the Presidential election in November 2016, the Washington Office of the American Library Association issued a press release indicating that the association was “ready to work with President-elect Trump.” Almost immediately after it was released, ALA members took to social media to voice their frustrations with the statement, organizing around the hashtag #NotMyALA. You can review the tweets for yourself, but the general sentiment was that a number of Trump’s statements and positions were grossly misaligned with ALA’s core values, and if our organization was going to support the White House, we’d just as soon quit ALA than be complicit with this administration.

To their credit, ALA heard those frustrations and took action. Within a couple of weeks they rescinded the press release and then-ALA President Julie Todaro issued a message to members along with a supplementary Q & A document. I know that at least a few people opted to leave the association after those events, but I appreciated that the ALA administration responded to member concerns and did something about it.

This past fall, after waffling for a few weeks, I opted to renew my ALA membership. I’ve stayed active in the association, and continue to value what I’ve learned from other members, so I wasn’t quite ready to let it go. Still, for me, #NotMyALA brought to light how the ALA Washington Office operates independently from the larger ALA organization. (Rory Litwin wrote a blog explaining aspects of its governance that I found helpful during that very confusing time in 2016.) And in the statements from Todaro and other members of the ALA administration, I got the sense that things would change–that there would be more interaction between ALA members and the lobbyists representing libraries in D.C.

Evidently that didn’t happen.

Last week the Washington Office announced that the 2018 recipients of the James Madison Award were two members of Congress: Mike Quigley and Darrell Issa. The subsequent reaction on Twitter was again swift, with several library workers expressing their frustration with the selection of Issa, who, among other things, opposes Net Neutrality. This led to ALA President Jim Neal tweeting that the selection was not made by a member committee, and that he was recommending that the Washington Office consult with ALA members in the future. The Washington Office then updated their press release to state that they had consulted ALA members in the home states of these Congressmen.

Somehow, we’re here again, with our lobbying office expressing support for a politician whose views often run counter to the mission of libraries as expressed in our Code of Ethics. I can only assume that we’ll see the timeline play out in a similar fashion, with the award either being rescinded, or a new awards committee formed, followed by a statement that “No, ALA doesn’t think we should abolish sanctuary states.”

But the thing I’ve really been wondering is this: Who is in charge of our professional association? I’ve been a dues-paying member of ALA for a decade now, but it’s not clear to me who at ALA can I call to protest this award? Who can I call to tell them to stop using the phrase “fake news” on our promotional materials? Or making light of college student food insecurity? Who can I call to tell them that Melvil Dewey’s racist face shouldn’t be attached to a podcast? Seriously, who is in charge? Because the last two ALA Presidents have had to walk back actions from the Washington Office, so I’m guessing this goes beyond who we elect to represent us.

Which brings me to the other issue roiling ALA: the search for a new Executive Director, and the debate over whether this person should have a library degree. Lots of people have weighed in on this, and I (clearly) don’t understand the inner workings of the association enough to offer a strong public opinion as our members vote on the matter. That caveat stated, here’s what I’m thinking…

The Washington Office didn’t do anything wrong. The charge on their website makes it quite clear that their job is to “represent libraries on Capitol Hill.” They lobby for money and policies that benefit libraries (especially funding IMLS), which I acknowledge has to involve working with members of both major parties in Congress, as well as the White House. Recognizing a prominent Republican like Issa with an award is probably a good move, in that it shows pragmatism in the face of the current political reality.

I know a lot of librarians will likely disagree with that assessment, and are furious with Issa receiving this award. A number of people expressing their frustration on Twitter made reference to “librarianship’s values.” Thing is, the Washington Office doesn’t work for librarians, it works for libraries. I understand I’m wading into a synecdochic swamp here, but I think there’s a distinction to be made. The Washington Office, and the Executive Director who will oversee it, are charged with representing libraries, not librarians. Sometimes our values as librarians and the needs of our libraries are in alignment, but as this year’s Madison Award demonstrates, sometimes they’re not.

And right now we’re debating whether or not the Executive Director should be a librarian. I fully recognize that an MLIS degree does not automatically imbue someone with a deep commitment to patron privacy and intellectual freedom and desire to be open and inclusive. Likewise, there are leaders in our profession doing excellent work who don’t have a library degree. (There are several examples, but right now I’ll point to MIT Library Director and generally excellent person Chris Bourg.)

But in the discussions around what credentials or experience the next ALA Executive Director should have, I’ve read or heard comments along the lines of “We just need someone with strong leadership experience, who cares if they have a degree?” And while I mostly agree with that sentiment, I wince when I think about what’s happened to administration in higher education, where retired politicians with no teaching or research experience have been named university presidents.

Would we be okay with that within ALA? Should we seek out a three term Senator or a Governor who just hit their term limit to run our organization? They’d probably do a better job of getting IMLS funded in the next Federal Budget, but I’m not sure they would be prepared to tell law enforcement “no” when they come asking for circ records. But as ALA is structured right now, their job is only that first part. In other words, “Yeah, treating people with dignity and calling out appalling behavior is a nice idea, but we’re going to need some money from the administration, so let’s not antagonize the Justice Department right now.”

I don’t care that much about the degree requirement for the Executive Director. But I do care about having a professional association that represents the professionals first and the institutions that employ us second. I want to know that the people who are in charge believe at least some of the same things that I do. The last week has reminded me that we still don’t have that.