Over the past two weeks, I, the ALA Executive Board, and staff have received many communications, representing a wide variety of opinions, about how we can best advocate for libraries and for our values as an association.
Following the November election, two press releases were issued through the ALA Washington Office, including a draft release that was posted in error. Each release included examples of how libraries do support and can continue to support economic and cultural growth and make a positive difference in people’s lives during the new administration.
Wording in those releases elicited a passionate response from many members, concerned that ALA might not be taking the strongest possible position on core values such as equity, diversity, inclusion and intellectual freedom. Since then, there have been a series of communications from ALA to clarify our position and respond to member concerns. This Q&A is intended to provide more detailed answers to some of the most frequently asked questions.
While we all agree on our vision and our values, on what we stand for and on our overarching commitment to social justice, diversity, equity and inclusion, there are differences within our membership on how we achieve our goals, and on when and how we express ourselves.
Let me first reiterate the context within which we advocate at the national, international, state and local levels:
- The core values of equity, diversity and inclusion, as well as intellectual freedom, are at the heart of what libraries and librarians do. ALA firmly and unequivocally supports those core values.
- ALA’s mission is to work to strengthen libraries and librarianship and our stakeholders in order to ensure that all people have access to the accumulated knowledge, information resources and guidance they need to prosper – in their personal, professional and community lives. This access is one of the surest guarantees of opportunity for all, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or socio-economic status.
- ALA advocates for the value of libraries and librarianship and seeks to influence both regulation and legislation to enable libraries and librarianship to prosper, for the benefit of the communities and institutions they serve. In difficult times, this is even more important.
- ALA conducts its advocacy, including legislative advocacy, in a way that respects its commitment to core values, including equity, diversity and inclusion; intellectual freedom; and, privacy.
Answers to Frequently Asked Questions:
The following are responses to questions raised by members over the past two weeks.
- Why did we write the press releases in the first place?
ALA often reaches out to constituents, advocates, and decision-makers – both proactively and reactively – to request actions, express our support for actions taken, request a decision-maker consider libraries in general, and request that libraries be considered for specific activities or purposes. My presidential initiative focuses on library professionals and library supporters as experts and on their expertise, and on the importance of various library initiatives in communities and institutions of all types and sizes – and on the importance of communicating this value to decision-makers. In making a strong case for the value of libraries – in any political environment – it is important to state that case from the perspective of the decision-maker. So, if a legislator or administrator is focused on the importance of small businesses and their effect on the community, for example, the strategy is to prepare a statement illustrating how libraries support small businesses within their community – and how they could be even more effective with supportive legislation, funding or other appropriate action. Our stories – combined with data –can be framed to align our vision with other visions – always within the framework of our values.
- Is ALA prepared for the current administration?
Our initiative this year has focused on building new and different strong story and data combinations to support the advocacy work of the association and of members across the country on behalf of libraries and their communities – whatever the environment or issue. Like other organizations across the country, we are refining and strengthening our message to meet new challenges. As professionals, we share some common values; we also work in very different contexts and will individually need to take different approaches to acting on our core values and on behalf of our libraries. Individually, we are in very different work situations and political and decision-making environments. Our work over the past months in pulling together stories and data will purposefully support members working in very different situations.
While I don’t think that anyone in the country can say they were prepared for how this specific situation played out, my goal from the spring of 2016 – no matter the outcome – was to prepare content that illustrated what we do in different ways to match the fall 2016 national agenda. Gathering data from the last few years included scanning content from many library settings and it was clear as always but even more so - that libraries are a significant infrastructure in this country and in the lives of their constituents and that they are already involved in many of the national issues such as supporting the economy, veterans, providing avenues for getting people back to work – to name just a few areas. These services and resources are long-standing in our profession. Rather than suggesting new ways and new things for us to do, we stated – with specific examples and data - what we are already doing and what we can continue to do.
- Why didn’t the association oppose candidate rhetoric before the election?
As a 501(c)3 organization, ALA is legally prohibited from making any statements or taking any action “in support of or opposition to” a candidate for public office, during an election year. The election year begins on January 1 of the year in which the election is held and concludes with the election. Throughout the election year, however, ALA did continue to advocate strongly for education for an informed electorate, for the role of libraries in facilitating an election process accessible to all (such as supporting registration and acting as polling places). ALA also continued to make available resources to support our members.
- Why does responding seem to take so much time?
At the most basic level, our response was clear: reiterate our unwavering support for our values, articulate our vision and champion our causes, the causes of libraries and librarianship. In addition, we sought and continue to seek to highlight the significant work that library professionals do every single day. We work, however, with a large and complex team of members and staff to make things happen. Is this ideal? No, and while it may not be the fastest process, it reinforces the view that none of us knows everything and that our collective voice is the strongest. Ultimately, one of the strengths of an association is that it brings people of widely differing perspectives, background and aspirations together and provides the mechanisms for debate and decision.
- What were the issues surrounding the press releases and rescinding the original content?
ALA practices have varied in the past – and there were strong, multiple opinions and options available in this instance: rescind, respond, reissue, do nothing. Our individual member recommendations covered varied and often conflicting perspectives. After considering all options and their ramifications, I have decided to remove both press releases, save member comments and have requested and continue to request that individuals re-comment or post their original comments to the American Libraries statement. I have also asked ALA staff to find a way to save and display the original comments so that all opinions and comments will be available. When that happens, we will update this Q&A with a link to that content.
- Where do we go from here?
First, a sincere thank you to those who took time and thought to express their opinions, both those who supported the original posts and those who disagreed. Having all opinions heard is essential to our work – and, again, at the heart of our beliefs. I especially appreciate those who offered both leadership and management options as well as links to ideas and examples from other entities – all of whom were struggling with and continue to struggle with this new environment. I also appreciate those who offered humor - not to denigrate what other said or the situation - but instead to provide a way to cope with our new reality and illustrate the ongoing struggle we have and the importance of facing it and continuing to push our agenda forward. With our content and our commitment to our vision and values, we will assertively and aggressively speak out both in support of libraries and the services they provide to their communities, and in opposition to rhetoric, legislation, regulation or nominations that would threaten all types and sizes of libraries, library services and the lives and civil liberties of all library staff and all library constituents.