My ALA Journey

Working together, we can change the world

June 1, 2017

Keith Michael Fiels

When I first came to the American Library Association (ALA) 15 years ago, people thought I was—to put it mildly—demented.

Here’s an organization with:

  • 57,000 members, representing an incredibly wide range of backgrounds, communities served, types of libraries, and interests
  • a new president every year
  • an Executive Board
  • a 185-member Council
  • 11 divisions (each with its own board)
  • 20 round tables
  • 56 state and regional chapters
  • membership in 96 countries
  • 1,266 online communities
  • 1,272 discussion lists
  • 2,210 active committees including … a committee on committees!

And did I mention that if you gather 100 members in a room, you are going to have 200 opinions?

Looking back, moving forward

This is my last column as executive director.

My journey with ALA began 40 years ago, when I climbed into a beat-up Chevy Vega and drove to Chicago for my first ALA conference. As any new conferencegoer knows, it was overwhelming. I found the job I’d come looking for, and in the process, I also discovered the difference between a job and a career. In the years that followed, the people I met through ALA mentored me, challenged me, and helped get me through tough times—while teaching me how I, in turn, could mentor, challenge, and support others. The projects I worked on helped me understand leadership and teamwork in new ways and stretched my horizons.

I always say that ALA is not 57,000 members; it’s the dozen or so people you discover out there who share your particular brand of insanity. They are the colleagues who share your passions and aspirations, continuously sharpen your thinking, and serve as a support network throughout your career.

I also discovered that going to an ALA or division conference is the best way to refresh not only your spirit but also your creativity. If you attend an ALA conference and can’t come back with three ideas that help you provide better service back home (and make you look like a genius), you are definitely spending too much time in the cocktail lounge!

There’s always a lot of discussion about the cost of dues, conference registration, and hotel rooms. Until I became ALA executive director, I paid much of the cost of attending conference out of pocket. What I discovered over the years is that, like any business, you need to invest in yourself. If you do, you’ll find—as I did—that the money invested in ALA membership and conference attendance directly results in professional advancement, promotion, and increased earnings that will more than repay the money you spend. That’s a fact.

Changing the world

When we talk about ALA membership, we talk about “supporting you—and changing the world.” So now let’s talk now about that “changing the world” part:

From my international work, I know the respect with which ALA and our system of libraries are held throughout the world. Our libraries, free and open to all, are something that others everywhere aspire to. Our positions on intellectual freedom, privacy, and access to information for all are inspirations to the rest of the world. These are not platitudes; they are values and realities we live every day.

Here in the US, the ALA Washington Office has led a determined and growing group of advocates who have helped create federal library legislation and increase federal funding through the Library Services Act, Library Services and Construction Act, and today’s Library Services and Technology Act. They helped create the Institute of Museum and Library Services, federal E-Rate funding, and helped include school libraries in the Every Student Succeeds Act and libraries of all types in labor, agriculture, and other federal programs. We have made this happen.

Our work to protect reader privacy and the freedom to read freely is so widely known that ALA is virtually synonymous with freedom of expression and libraries are virtually synonymous with democracy. Our support of literacy and lifelong learning has helped make the library one of the most respected, trusted, and beloved institutions.

Our contributions as ALA members make this possible, ensuring that our children—and their children—will have access to libraries in the future. It also ensures that these libraries will be as good as they can be in a changing world and rapidly evolving information landscape.

Overcoming challenges

It’s true that because the organization has grown from the ground up by members coming together to share interests and goals and forming hundreds of communities of practice, ALA’s structure can be a challenge. Sure, the organization can be maddeningly slow at times. There are always strong opinions and many people who need to be engaged in making decisions. Say what you will about the process, the record of policy positions we have established as an Association over the years is something we can all be proud of.

During my years at ALA, I have been honored to work with a succession of great leaders to create the Office for Library Advocacy; grow our scholarship programs; transform our publishing program; create a new division for trustees, Friends, and foundations; establish a new Center for the Future of Libraries; launch the Libraries Transform public awareness campaign; and build a strong planned-giving program to help guarantee a vibrant future. In the process, we have weathered the worst recession since the Great Depression, one that many associations did not survive.

I’m optimistic about the future of libraries, and I’m optimistic about the future of ALA. I firmly believe that people and communities will need libraries, and that libraries will need an ALA as much in 100 years as they did 100 years ago. But this depends on us. We are not victims of the future, after all; we can and must shape the future.

Today, with much of what we believe in and have worked so hard to build now under attack, we need to stand together more than ever. We cannot passively wait for others to do the job.

Despite all our many differences as individual members, we have shown time and time again that if we work together we can accomplish truly great things.

So, here’s to greatness ahead.

Here’s to us.