by Michael Wood, MLIS Day, SALA Marketing Director
[All year long, Staff Writer Michael Wood has brought you quality profiles and interviews of local and national figures. At the end of last month he had the opportunity to speak with ALA President Carol A. Brey-Casiano and ask her a few questions. This very special interview is being published jointly by Alki, the Journal of the Washington Library Association, and by the Silverfish. - Ed.]
Silverfish: Carol Brey-Casiano: As president, what do you feel is the first duty of ALA?
ALA President: ALA is the voice of America's libraries. That's how we describe ourselves. ALA is all about its members. From that perspective I think that we see several important roles. One is of course to support libraries and librarians in their efforts to advocate for themselves; another part of our role is our advocacy efforts at the national level. From the Patriot Act to Internet issues impacting patron privacy and access to information-I think all of that is reflected very well in our upcoming strategic plan. (Our Web site includes a draft of our strategic plan).
Another goal I haven't mentioned is continuing education; many look to ALA for this and we have played a strong role in that area for decades. Now increasingly we are offering continuing education opportunities through technological means. For example, our advocacy institute that I'm sponsoring at the annual conference will be partially Web cast live that day, allowing people to participate from all over the world if they want to. We are trying to do more and more of that.
Silverfish: What can ALA do to remain vital in the new century?
ALA President: I would say continuing to listen to our members, and checking what it is that our members want. We are such a large organization; we have sixty-six thousand members now. We have such a diverse membership base that we need to make sure that we understand what our members want and need from us.
Silverfish: Looking back at your term as president, what comes to mind as something you are thankful for?
ALA President: Well, can I say more than one thing? [laughs] One is the ALA staff. They are just fantastic in being supportive of their officers and helping me to be successful in the things I wanted to accomplish this year. The other thing I've been thankful for is the many librarians from all over the nation and actually from around the world who I've come in contact with; visiting all of you in Washington State - and having had the opportunity to do some international travel as well, and to find out that even though we have many different issues that we are grappling with, what we have in common is a very strong dedication to literacy, intellectual freedom, and access to information… And that is so gratifying-that those principles remain strong and at the heart of what we do as librarians.
Silverfish: Can you speak of something during your tenure that gives you a special feeling of pride?
ALA President: I would say that one of the things I'm most proud of is that we had two libraries threatened with closure in Texas - and ALA was able to come in and partnership with some people from the Texas Library Association and with the Texas State Library to provide support for the community - in terms of how to create an advocacy campaign to show that there was a lot of support for the library in this community. And that library reopened just a month later. I believe that the library will continue to stay open now because of the awareness that has been raised related to that situation. On a larger scale: I am most proud of the work we've done in advocacy nationwide. I'm proud that we've really tried hard to spread our message across the nation; we've had one very successful advocacy institute and we are getting ready to have another one. I think advocacy is alive and well for libraries in our country now, and that's a great thing.
Silverfish: Any regrets?
ALA President: You never have enough time to do everything that you want to do. [laughs] The good thing for me now is that I will have a year as the immediate past President where I will have an opportunity to continue some of the issues that we began under my Presidency. I'm very impressed by ALA's Executive Director Keith Fiels, and he has promised me that I will continue to have a role in ALA, particularly in advocacy efforts and in my international work that is so important to me. So I'm looking forward to continuing as an ALA member and continuing some of the work that I started as President.
Silverfish: What do you think of the strategy of advocating for libraries by influencing our library unions' legislative agendas as they affect libraries and library workers?"
ALA President: I think that that can be very effective; it certainly has proven to be in some situations. Unions have proven to be very effective partners for us in some cases. So certainly I would say that that is something that could be explored.
Silverfish: Some library workers hesitate to advocate for their employer. What would you say to library staff who say it's just not their thing to advocate for libraries, or that they are already giving enough to libraries by being employed at one?
ALA President: Well, I think that the important thing to remember is that advocacy doesn't have to be a very difficult job. Really it can be a natural extension of your day. You know, all of us are out in the community-we talk with our families, we talk with our friends, we attend community events, we do our shopping-those can all be opportunities to talk about the library. I just work it into conversations. It doesn't mean that you have to go out and carry placards and spend hours on the sidewalk shouting support for libraries.
It simply means representing your employer in your daily life. The first step toward advocacy as I've said many times is: talking to your neighbor about the library.
Silverfish: From your perspective at the head of the organization, how does the future look for new librarians? As a leader in librarianship, what advice do you have for someone entering the field?
ALA President: I think that libraries have a bright future and so I believe librarians do too. I know that this is a very difficult time for libraries in some ways; to quote Dickens, it's "…the best of times; the worst of times…" We are seeing new libraries springing up all over the country, we are seeing phenomenal increases in visits to libraries and yet we are seeing probably more budget cuts reported than we've ever had before. So that just tells me that libraries are still incredibly popular in our country and we just need to keep our advocacy efforts strong in order to make sure that our communities understand how important their libraries are for the health of those communities. So in that respect I think that this is a very exciting time to be a part of the library profession. We are facing some interesting challenges, but we also are facing a time when libraries seem to be more popular than they have ever been before.
In terms of advice I would give to someone new in the field? Hmm… I would say: Be willing to be flexible and keep an open mind. You know, I came into this profession thinking that I wanted to be a reference librarian and I wanted to work with adults. And my first job was as a bookmobile librarian working primarily with children and I absolutely loved it. [laughs]
You never really know where this profession will take you. I did not ever dream when I got into library work that I would become a library administrator-that I'd become the director of a major urban system-and it's absolutely the best job I've ever had. So I think that it's important to look at all your options and be flexible, and you'll find that you can have an incredible career.