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Professional associations have work to do

28 September 2020  
Posted by: Rob Mackinlay
Professional associations have work to do

Tracie D. Hall

The new leader of the world’s largest and oldest library association explains how she aims to keep it relevant to a fracturing profession while serving a divided nation.

Tracie D. Hall, who will be keynote speaker at CILIP Conference – Reimagined on 19 November - took up her post as Executive Director of the American Library Association in January. In an interview with Information Professional she said: “This as a time when associations everywhere are in states of precarity because there are so many new and different ways for professionals to congregate and share ideas.” She adds that there is another problem that professional associations need to overcome: “What I’m really concerned about is that we are reaching our younger members, because there is a shift in the utility of professional organisations for younger professionals. It is no longer only about career trajectory. We have to continuously demonstrate to people, that being a part of an association is not only about what they can achieve for themselves and for their own career development, we also have to show them what they are contributing to – that membership in the ALA is also about the positive change – wider information access, more equitable digital resources, tools for educational and economic mobility-- they can help to bring about for their communities and for the larger society.”

The goals

There are plenty of worthy goals for the ALA to mobilise around, but Tracie isn’t convinced that’s enough: “I don’t think you can assume anything right now. You can’t assume, that without careful strategy and without making concerted efforts to mobilise our base, that the profession, or our membership, is just going to stay intact. We are constantly having to ask ourselves: ‘what is the value proposition of an association?”

In her inauguration speech Tracie set out a three-pronged call to action to galvanise the ALA’s current and future membership:

  • universal broadband.
  • rapid racial diversification of the library workforce
  • the preservation and sustainability of library services (by making the case for libraries to new funders and stakeholders)

Universal broadband

Tracie said: “I see access to the internet as an extension of the right to read.” She said that Covid-19 had made the link between education and students’ ability to get online even more obvious, adding that other sections of society had similar unmet internet requirements. “You are hearing about workers driving to sit in the parking lots of fast food restaurants or coffee shops or camping outside libraries to use the internet. Universal broadband for me is key to the creation of strong social infrastructure something that will increasingly depend on the viability of information networks in the future.”

Racial diversification

The second prong of Tracie’s strategy, the rapid racial diversification of the library workforce, is necessary because “libraries haven’t changed along with our demographics, especially when it comes to the institutional decision makers… For libraries to be credible, their workforce must be made up of the communities they are trying to serve. We have to catch up with our users’ information needs and retrieval methods, ethno-linguistically and in terms of the styles and platforms with which people access information. We have to know the context people come from, that’s very important to me. Let’s look at the political process right now. We have a whole group of people who feel completely left out, who aren’t being engaged by or in the political process and when they are upset, as they rightly should be, they are struggling for the channels to make their voices heard. It’s because we haven’t done enough to engage them--younger people, working class people, poor people, Black people, people of color... They feel left out, even left behind. It’s the same in libraries.”

She added that staff training would be needed as well as diversification: “We have to diversify the ranks of the library and information workforce. But we also have to make sure that the current corps of library workers are retrained to see the work we do through an equity lens. I cannot overstate how important that is. Today equity, diversity and inclusion are core to the work we do.”

Co-navigator

She points to the lack of “relevant and reliable information” that communities need to function and doesn’t believe libraries have done enough to provide it. “It’s pushing us toward a certain type of activism around information reliability,” she said, “especially as we’ve seen an erosion of journalism and an explosion of people asking ‘for unbiased and reliable information sources?’ I think libraries not only need to have the answer but be the answer.”

Tracie said: “The role of the library is to be a co-navigator. Think about it, in the past libraries have sought out and made available information on gender and race and sexuality, even when some of those conversations weren’t popular, even when some of those conversations were ones that the public shied away from. It’s part of our responsibility to collect the record of human thought and cultural production. I think it’s important to continuously examine our institutions in this light by asking, ‘Are we equipped to be co-navigators? Will the makeup of our current workforce get us there?’ The answer to that question should mobilize us towards the change we must make and embrace -- meaningful and tangible diversity.

Value proposition

When it comes to a value proposition for the profession Tracie said: “We need to make a case about the importance of libraries on every level. We can’t rest on libraries’ laurels and say, ’well everyone knows how important libraries are.’ That attitude doesn’t draw the kinds of stakeholders and funding needed to protect library services against reductions or eliminations. In the midst of a pandemic, we have to be climbing to the tops of mountains and shouting that we need wider and more robust library service options than ever. We need to be tying any and all community health and economic resilience efforts to information access and the services that libraries make possible.”

She said: “As an association, ALA has to fought against the erosion of library services that we are beginning to see with widescale staff layoffs and cuts to service hours. We have to project the impact of all of this not only on our membership, but also the larger public, and we have to be prepared, more than ever, to show people why it’s important for them to be members of the association and to create a public face to our work. We must look at new models. We can’t rely just on library professionals to form our core membership base. It is critical to have a professional membership base, yes, but there are so many other stakeholders that care about libraries and it’s time for us to reach them. Frankly, it’s been time and this work is overdue.”

Building a Robust Information Ecosystem

“We know how important it is for librarians and information professionals to be well trained - that isn’t a question. I think that the future will call for a more expansive information ecosystem. One where librarians are still central, but where there are many kinds of professional roles. Other fields understand that a profession necessarily creates its own larger ecology. For instance, the legal field centers lawyers, but relies heavily on para-professionals; and the medical field has really gained from supporting many types of professionals, physicians, but also nurses and the emergence of the nurse-practitioner over the last two decades or so has been a game changer in expanding access to medical care for everyone. It’s important that we similarly grow our ranks by recognising all the players in the information eco system. Librarians play just one part; support staff also play an important part. I also think we are coming quickly to a future where many of the people who have the title of librarian will work outside of libraries as will those in supporting roles. I don’t think it challenges librarians at all to think more expansively about the who, how, and where of information access and delivery points. If anything, it makes our work more viable if we think of ourselves as part of a larger ecosystem.”

Challenging environment

Tracie sees the challenges to funding for libraries and even the ALA’s funding. Some are ideological: “We are seeing more and more of our public services becoming privatised or ripe for privatisation. The conversation we’re having now about the US Postal Service - could easily become a conversation about public libraries if we are not vigilant.” The threat of defunding has already been levelled at libraries and museums under the current administration: “The Institute of Museum and Library Services, along with other agencies, has faced the threat of defunding and we’ve had to fight against that.” These are conversations she thinks library leaders across the world need to pay attention to: “In many ways, it’s because we have taken our services and goods for granted. The truth is we must advocate for them. We have to continuously remind the public that they must be preserved.”

Another threat is the immediate coronavirus pandemic: “As a result of Covid 19 we are seeing erosions of public library services that I’ve maybe never seen in my career. Reductions in staff and reductions in hours as cities are struggling, and with libraries bearing the brunt of funding shortfalls. That’s despite the role that libraries have traditionally played in workforce development and workforce readiness. As I’ve said, we are stepping up our advocacy efforts, working to grow more stakeholders, and telling our story more widely. Yet, I’m anxiously watching what is happening in the UK and across the world. It’s always good to learn from non-US examples of responses to similar issues”

Dangerous subjects

But these are difficult times to unify. The BLM movement has swept across the US and a stand-off between the library and the police department in Douglas County Nevada illustrates how divided the nation is about it. When the library service declared its support for BLM, the Sheriff said emergency calls from the library would not be answered. Tracie said: “The ALA was very much involved, simply because we don’t want to see any library being refused public safety or any other kind of municipal services because of their support of intellectual freedom, or support of diversity and inclusion.” Media reports suggest the stand-off has been de-escalated, but Tracie said: “I think it is an issue that is continuing to evolve,” adding, “I think what’s important here is the degree to which statements about inclusion, like BLM, continues to raise a conversation in local communities. Something like that should be universal, right? We should be able to make statements about supporting particularly vulnerable communities. You should think ’of course’. But it shows you where the dividing lines are. And it shows you the degree to which libraries, when they make a stand in attempt to bridge those divides, are not exempt from scrutiny and pushback – and I think that’s important, because libraries have placed themselves on the line in service to their communities which is as it should be.”

Divided country

Tracie acknowledges that different value systems operate in the US but sees no reason to dilute the library stance: “I do agree that we should not be politically naïve. We want to make sure that our associations, regardless of people’s political standing, really stand for a democracy and really stand for inclusion. I couldn’t say, politically, where the average ALA member stands, but I know that it is hard to be a member of the ALA and not care about social justice issues, and to not care about issues like poverty and underemployment and homelessness, because those are the areas that so much of our work is concerned with. When we’re thinking about how to design more proactive user services, we’re thinking about who stands to benefit from that. And all those people we’ve just mentioned would be beneficiaries. We’re thinking about working families who don’t have time to be effective first educators for their young children. Or that worker in the gig economy, or new immigrant worker doing 15-hour shifts every day. We’re thinking about that because these are the realities faced by residents of this country. That’s America.”

Election energy

Although the upcoming election will be divisive, she says: “All of the conversations leading up to the election: conversations about social justice in the context of policing reforms and evoking the names of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and most recently Jacob Blake, conversations around opioid addiction, economic inequity, academic achievement and post-secondary education gaps, those questions push on our mission even more so, to provide learning and access to education for all. The reality is that in 2020 those gaps have hardened and calcified. They have been widened and weaponised and this really pushes on us to mobilise around ALA’s mission in a way that really constitutes movement building. To be a librarian in the 21st Century is to recognise that we must attend to the social issues that make for the differences in information access and equity. I think that we have to imagine ourselves as activists.”

Find out more about other speakers and how you can register for the CILIP Conference 2020 Reimagined.

Header image: Tracie D. Hall speaking at the Public Library Association Conference in Nashville, Tennessee in February 2020, photographed by KinserStudios.


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Published: 28 September 2020


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