Library Leaders Face Tough Choices


ALA Mid-Winter is going on right now in San Diego, in case anyone wasn’t aware. ALA President Roberta Stevens was guest on San Diego Week, Friday at 8pm, with host Gloria Penner, under a headline “Library Leaders Face Tough Choices”.

For almost 6 minutes she answered some very probing questions on some very relevant issues facing libraries today. I sincerely wish I could report that she provided me with reassurance that ALA is leading the way into 21st Century librarianship, so that we can create 21st Century libraries. I can not!

President Stevens fielded the first question of how libraries are fairing in this economy with the mantra that “The good news is that there’s no longer any question about why do we have libraries, why do we need libraries. Everybody knows why we need them.” and supports that premise with the increase in library use during hard economic times using all the trite rational of assistance with job hunting, etc. IMHO, this is a trite, useless and inaccurate response, similar to Mr. Kniffel’s archaic 2010 message from ALA – “Read!”

Stevens says that’s the good news, as if that will sustain libraries when the economy turns around. We did such a great job supporting our communities when they were down on their luck that they WILL ensure that we survive when they don’t need us any more to find jobs, or borrow DVDs, or entertain themselves for free. OK, that is not a huge help for the future of the library.

The bad news, Stevens says, is that “libraries are being affected by the cuts in funding for services at the state and local levels” like everybody else, all very matter of fact. It’s not our fault, it’s just the way things are right now. Sorry, but if there is no longer any question why we need libraries, why are libraries being closed and drastically underfunded more than other community and state services? These two arguments don’t make sense to me, because they contradict each other. Seriously!

Although, she does give the “talented” librarians a plug for understanding information on the Internet more than customers. So consult your librarian for how to answer those job application questions, because they know the “good information”.

Stevens does assert that “it is very important that we be ahead of the curve” on new technologies, which is why that is a topic at the conferences. In the ALA Mid-Winter Program Book the word “technology” appears once in Part 1. In Part 2, “technology” appears more times in the booth listing than anywhere else. In Part 3, “technology” and “technical” appear several times in discussion and interest group schedules and in the ALA acronyms section. Part 4 is exhibitor listings, so it appears frequently there. Part 5 is attendance instructions guide portion of the Book. I never did find the programs, so I gave up. We’ll take President Stevens’ word that there was a heavy emphasis on technology at Mid-Winter. (Personally, I’ve always found ALA’s websites difficult to access and even more difficult to navigate, but maybe that’s just my problem.)

Stevens asserts that “libraries are already doing more with less” by admits to “cuts in hours to accommodate the lower budgets”. And, she confirms this by stating, “every time you cut hours you’re really shutting out thousands and thousands of people”. So what she’s saying is that the increase in patronage for some libraries equates to doing more with less for all libraries, even the ones that are cutting hours. ????? Can anybody explain this logic to me? Sounds like politician speak.

Stevens is obviously impressed by the 2 Billion items that circulate in American libraries every year. She says “our business is huge”. Is it more huge than Amazon, Google, Barnes & Noble, or SAM’s Club? Huge is a relative condition, and ALA should be comparing our circulation with our competition’s business. Libraries are relatively miniscule, and our market is eroding rapidly!

Penner asked probably the most incisive question of the interview when she asked; “How are libraries re-tooling in this economy to accommodate all the [technology] changes.” Stevens replied by stating that eBook lending rates increased by 10% from 2008 to 2009, blah blah blah “we are ever evolving our services to address these changes”. Her response could not have been more vague, and she did not even use the word technology. (Could the ALA president be a techno-phoebe?)

Another interesting question was about building new libraries. Stevens responded that it was not so rare, but then herself raised the dreaded “Why do we need the library?” question (that she previously claimed “there’s no longer any question about why do we have libraries, why do we need libraries”) to justify why we need new libraries. “Have you been in a library lately? You come in the doors and the place is packed. The computers are all in use.” So, heavy computer use during hard economic times is adequate justification for building new libraries? I’d like to hear that argument before the city council.

And finally, Penner delivered the coup de grâce question, “What about the future of the library?” Stevens reply was again less than inspiring, “I think the future of libraries is very good. We will get past this bump in our economy, but we are ourselves as an association, and as a profession, re-tooling ourselves so that we are ready for the future.”

Obviously, President Stevens feels libraries and librarianship ARE NOT IN the future yet. (IMLS believes we’re in the future.) But we’ll be ready by golly! Whenever it happens. Anybody seen any significant signs that ALA is even headed in that direction? Well, it’s only 2011. There’s still plenty of time before the 21st Century is even close to being over.

My burning question to President Stevens is “Why is ALA the only professional association that I have ever known that seems either ineffective or disinterested in ensuring that its profession is on the cutting edge of technology application, library operations, professional education, and every other aspect of the librarian career?”

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