[Written for our 90th birthday in 2014]
At the meeting of the ALA Executive Board on September 30, 1924, it was voted to authorize ALA Secretary Carl Milam to employ a librarian. He described in the 1925 report to the membership assembled at the Seattle conference (attendance 1066 – about 15% of the membership) that the ALA Headquarters received inquiries on such topics as buildings, book selection, establishing libraries, budgets, and publicity on a daily basis.
The 1927 report of the Secretary of the American Library Association (still Mr. Milam) was presented through the eyes of a visitor to the headquarters in the offices at 86 E. Randolph, just north of the former Chicago Public Library, now the Cultural Center. The librarian, Miss English, reported her recent questions: preparing for an addition to a library building, advice to a library trustee on increasing circulation, library statistics, budgets, and about the Library War Service in 1919. Some questions she answered herself and others she researched for colleagues in other ALA offices to answer. Thus, the purpose of the library was then, as it is now, to provide information needed by ALA staff as they carry out the work of the Association and to provide information to members and others who contact ALA with questions about librarians, librarianship, and ALA programs.
The types of questions have been remarkably stable. How we answer the questions, though, has changed—and keeps changing. Before the arrival of the Internet in the mid-1990s, the ALA Headquarters Library and Information Center (as it was called for a time) answered upwards of 25,000 questions a year, all by phone or mail. We now answer “only” about 3,500 a year, overwhelmingly with email—but often linking to web pages we have prepared.
Our questions come from our colleagues on the ALA staff, from members, from publishers, from authors, and from “unidentified”—including the general public. For ALA staff and officers, we frequently assist with historical research using the published record, seeking out when and why a particular activity or policy began. For practitioners, we provide links to current resources needed to help with the problem at hand. For inquiries from the general public, we answer when the question is about libraries and their work, of course. For out of scope questions (e.g., what is the temperature on Mars?) and the exceptions to our service mission (extensive background research for graduate projects, compilation of extensive bibliographies, requests for information connected with contests, or completion of school or work assignments), we encourage people to visit their local library—whether public, school, or campus—to tap into the enormous expertise we know is available among our members and other library workers.
As we answer a question, we consider whether it is a "one-off", unlikely to be asked again. Or more commonly, whether it is a variant to questions we have answered for others. For these, we prepare web content for others to access. As the number of library-prepared fact sheets and pathfinders has expanded, our questions have dropped off, allowing us to spend more time on the questions not readily answered with these online resources.
- ALA Library Fact Sheets and Resource Guides. In their original format, ALA Library Fact Sheets were one- or two-page sheets mailed to some percentage of those 25,000 inquirers or, later, delivered by fax-on-demand. Some Fact Sheets are just that, fact sheets, some are annotated bibliographies or webliographies, and others quick guides answering a common question.
Our popular fact sheets? See how these compare with the questions reported by Mr. Milam and Miss English!
- Topics A-Z. The ALA website is a rich resource, and we frequently pull from the work of several other ALA offices and divisions as we answer questions. Putting these "pathfinders" online provides us with a space to collect additional information on a topic and answer subsequent questions more quickly, but also gives visitors to the site a one-stop overview. Here is the current list of the most frequently sought pathfinders:
In Miss English’s day, the library was poorly funded and hardly well-rounded. Indeed, there is evidence in our older materials that our predecessors had to beg their colleagues for copies of key items, such as the A.L.A. Bulletin (former name of American Libraries), as various issues bear the signatures of those ALA staff who once had them. Today, the ALA Library has about 10,000 monographs, subscribes to some 150 periodicals, and adds about 350 volumes a year, both paper and digital, and monographic and serial. The scope of the collection is limited to librarianship, association management, and general management, with a few special collections. With the exception of ALA publications, the ALA Library is not a library of record, but a working collection that supports the information needs of the headquarters staff, plus the materials needed to answer the questions received.
We make extensive use of OCLC’s WorldCat and its riches. We create bibliographies in OCLC WorldCat, where these lists enable us to do two things: we can capture a reference to a book we think might be useful to someone in the field, but which has limited reference value in our own collection; and we can refer to the list on Fact Sheets, the A-Z pages, and in emailed answers. We have a Delicious account, where we capture news stories and web pages on the topics we track as we come across them.
The ALA Library also works closely with the staff at the ALA Archives, housed at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. We are the link between the staff at the Archives who take in archival material from ALA’s divisions, round tables, offices, and officers and the staff here who prepare material for inclusion either in the traditional paper archives, or the new digital repository, ALAIR. ALAIR is barely a year old, just beginning to walk, but we are expecting great things. We already love the digitized images and the blog posts our ALA Archives colleagues prepare using our materials.
Here's to the next 90 years!