Making ALA Great Again9 min read

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However one may feel about his policies, Donald Trump without question has delivered a shock to the American political system. And in the early days of his administration, Trump has also sent a jolt through the American Library Association.

After the November election, ALA faced a revolt from many of its members, following the release of a statement (later rescinded and referred to as a draft) in which ALA leaders offered to work with the Trump administration on issues of common interest. Librarians penned angry letters, blog posts, and editorials accusing ALA leaders of being “collaborators.” They took to social media. Some threatened to quit the organization entirely. And a hashtag was born: #NotMyALA.

For example, a few weeks into Trump’s transition, ALA Washington Office Executive Director Emily Sheketoff sent an email to ALA councilors, explaining how the organization was planning to approach the new administration. It was the kind of postelection update she’s surely sent many times before in her 17 years at ALA, probably without much feedback. This time, however, was different.

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In a blistering post on her blog (bluntly titled: “F@uck You, ALA”), NYU librarian April Hathcock called Sheketoff’s email a “slap in the face” to ALA members. “My ALA does not collude with fascists. My ALA does not normalize hate. My ALA does not sell me and mine on the auction block to the highest bidder for a few bucks to fund a library,” Hathcock wrote. “This is not my ALA.”

Full disclosure—I am not a member of ALA. But as a reporter who has covered the organization for almost two decades, I found the backlash to be, well, refreshing. Inspiring, in fact. Because, in all my years covering the organization, never have I seen such engagement by rank-and-file members. For many librarians, ALA exists largely in the background of their professional lives. I mean, ALA is an organization of some 57,000 librarians, yet it only takes about 5,000 votes to win the ALA presidency (even though you can vote online over a period of weeks)—hardly robust engagement, right? But in the first days of the Trump administration there was ALA, front and center.

OK, I wouldn’t necessarily call all the criticism leveled at ALA constructive, and yes, the rhetoric got a little heated. But the message to ALA leadership was clear: we’re paying attention. And while anodyne statements and strategies may be normal for ALA following an election, the Trump administration, librarians stressed, is not normal.

Scenes From a Town Hall

Still, the question remains: How exactly should ALA—a professional membership organization representing librarians from around the country, blue states and red—approach the Trump administration? Acknowledging the strong feelings of its members, ALA leaders decided to put that question directly to members.

At the 2017 ALA Midwinter Meeting, hundreds attended a town hall meeting, at which more than 30 librarians shared their views with ALA leaders. (A video replay is available on the American Libraries Facebook page, and a transcript is available on the ALA website).

Among the first to speak was John Sandstrom, a past ALA councilor, who acknowledged the tricky position ALA leaders now find themselves in. “We have spent many years working to be part of the conversation, working and fighting to have a place at the table in policy making,” Sandstrom said. “If we walk away from the table because we don’t like who is sitting at the head of it, we will hurt ourselves.”

“We need to stand strong together for our core values, and for our communities, during these challenging times.”

Another librarian, Andromeda Yelton, questioned whether ALA’s focus on funding issues might somehow be used to buy librarians’ silence on key issues such as free speech, Internet policy, or gay rights. “Funding is important, but so is our soul,” Yelton said, in an impassioned statement. “And when I look at [ALA] messaging, I wonder, do we have a soul? Can it be bought? Or, are there lines we do not cross?”

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Sarah Houghton, director of the San Rafael (CA) public library—and a strong critic of the ALA’s postelection statements on her blog, Librarian in Black—said she did not want ALA to beg for scraps at the federal table, and cautioned ALA leaders not to dismiss the views of younger, millennial ALA members as inexperienced.

“I do not want a future where our organization ignores the opinions of any of our members,” Houghton said. “We need to stand strong together for our core values, and for our communities, during these challenging times.”

Hathcock was also on hand. “We are not saying we don’t want you to sit down with the Trump administration,” she told ALA leaders. “We are saying that we want you to understand where we are coming from.… When you send us statements, when you send us emails about the work that you are doing, don’t treat it like it’s business as usual, but acknowledge the fact that we have these concerns, acknowledge the fact that there are issues here, acknowledge the fact that some of us feel we are in danger as you are fighting for funding.”

Sara Slymon, a public library director from Massachusetts, suggested that maybe ALA didn’t need be so focused on how to work with the new administration. Instead, maybe librarians should focus on reaching out directly to the public.

“Maya Angelou said when someone tells you who they are, believe them the first time. This administration has told us who they are,” Slymon said. “It’s clear that the route to success for libraries will come not by appealing to the government, but by concentrating on activating the American people, our patrons, and our staffs. We need a loud and proud appeal directly to the public. By demonstrating our value to the people, they will mobilize to demand our preservation.”

Extraordinary Times

If the library community’s strong political engagement strikes you as unusual, it isn’t. In fact, librarians have a rich history of political engagement, as pointed out in an excellent and comprehensive article published last week on the PBS NewsHour website by arts reporter Elizabeth Flock.

In the article, Flock notes that, for example, in the 1950s librarians stood up to the Red Scare. In the 1960s, it was the battle for civil rights. Indeed every decade has had its political challenges: in the 1970s, the Vietnam War and Watergate tore at America. More recently, librarians fought back forcefully against the Patriot Act and the rise of government surveillance following the 9/11 attacks.

To be clear, librarians don’t need the ALA to activate them politically. In her piece, Flock reported on a number of examples of local librarians standing up for their core values in the face of Trump’s recent executive actions, unabashedly taking politically active stances.

Citing the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights, the Cambridge, (Mass.) Public Library announced in January that it would continue to be a sanctuary space, Flock noted. The Hennepin County (Minn.) Public Library in Minnesota (which serves a large Somali population), launched a campaign called “All Are Welcome Here.”

And after Trump’s travel ban was announced, Rebecca McCorkindale, assistant library director and creative director at the Gretna, Nebr., public library created and displayed a series of images in different languages proclaiming that “Libraries are for Everyone.” The images went viral and are now displayed in a number of libraries around the country, in many different languages.

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“Libraries are the heart of a community, for anyone and everyone that lives there, regardless of their background,” McCorkindale told Flock. “And so we strongly believe that libraries are not neutral. We stand up for human rights.”

Message Received

To be fair, ALA does good work. And the Obama years were decent ones for ALA,with a number of legislative victories. In fact, for two years running, The Hill has named ALA in its roundup of top lobbying victories.

And it isn’t as if ALA has not been socially and politically engaged—just look back at the strong slate of speakers for ALA’s various conferences (most recently W. Kamau Bell; in 2015, Roberta Kaplan; Bryan Stevenson) or the outstanding work librarians did in Orlando following the mass-shooting there in 2016.

With the election of Trump, however, the political landscape has changed dramatically. For many librarians, Trump’s rhetoric and policies are an attack on the libraries most fundamental values, and in conflict with the ALA’s Code of Ethics. And for many librarians, it’s time for ALA to draw a line in the sand.

For their part, ALA leaders appear to have gotten the message. Following Trump’s controversial executive orders, including a measure that would strip federal funds from so-called sanctuary cities and an order to drastically restrict entry into the U.S. by people from seven predominantly Muslim nations, ALA issued a blistering response.

“ALA believes that the struggle against racism, prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination is central to our mission,” read a January 30 statement from ALA president Julie Todaro. But it’s the final line of the statement that laid down a marker for ALA’s future direction: “ALA is committed to using its national platform for speaking up and speaking out for its members and constituents in these chaotic, unprecedented and challenging times.”

A week later, ALA officials criticized Trump’s new head of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, for an order retracting multiple reports—a disturbing and increasingly common occurrence at various federal agencies these days. “While new FCC leadership may have new policy directions, the public record should not be permanently altered,” the ALA statement read, adding that ALA was “dismayed” by the FCC’s attempt to “revise the public record.”

Staying Woke

If ALA leaders seemed to be sleepwalking through the first few weeks following the election, the angry voices of their members has awakened them.

In his January PW column, White Plains (N.Y.) Public Library Director Brian Kenney wrote about the ALA’s initial communication missteps following Trump’s election. “Perhaps, as with so many things we fear today, some good will come from this episode,” he concluded. “Maybe it will help to mobilize a new generation of librarians who will lead ALA forward. There’s certainly a whole lot worth fighting for.”

Indeed, in the month since Kenney wrote that column, the engagement of members has already appeared to have an effect on ALA’s actions. Going forward, ALA members must remain engaged. Strong libraries will be vital in the coming months and years. And as much as any time in history, librarians need a strong ALA standing behind them.

A version of this article appeared in the 02/20/2017 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline:

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