Four days before I became ALA executive director, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the first case of coronavirus in the US. By my third week, we were in a worldwide pandemic. Less than a month later, one of my closest friends called to say she was having trouble breathing and was considering a visit to the emergency room. Later that evening, she was intubated, placed on a ventilator in an induced coma for seven weeks, and hospitalized for another five months of recovery. Today, a year after her brush with death, she is alive but utterly changed.
My friend is a well-respected educational consultant and author of half a dozen books. In a phone call shortly after she returned home, I was delighted to learn that, though she was still weak and had limited mobility, she was finishing a book she had been working on before her illness. “I’m writing for a different reason now,” she said. “I used to think of my books as a complement to my teaching and consulting. Now they may be the primary way I reach people.”
Ginni Rometty, IBM’s first female CEO, once memorably said, “The only way you survive is you continuously transform into something else.”
I’ve thought about that a lot lately—as I watch my friend struggle with neuropathy to complete her book on deadline, as I watch many libraries reopen, and as I watch ALA members and staff work toward increasing funding for libraries. For example, with the American Rescue Plan Act, ALA’s Public Policy and Advocacy Office successfully helped secure billions for libraries. And now the fight is under way for the Build America’s Libraries Act, which would provide $5 billion for long-term improvements to library facilities.
Whether on a personal, institutional, or policy level, the pandemic has repeatedly shown us that a return to normal is neither possible nor a worthy goal. The normal that some may long for was not just, equitable, or inclusive. Yet it is clear that any real national recovery is dependent on these tenets. If survival necessitates transformation, transformation requires accountability. There must be a means of identifying not just that we’ve changed, but what we have changed into and what that change will mean or do for others.
This past year, ALA has committed to its own evolution. We stood up against racism and racialized violence, redoubled our pledge for sustainability, and declared broadband access a human right. These change-management efforts are visible at every level of ALA: in the self-governance practices of the Forward Together initiative; in reevaluating the operating agreement for organizational alignment and excellence; and in developing a strategic plan to create the membership and revenue growth necessary to protect the right to read, ensure information access and equity, and effectively advocate for libraries of every type.
Make no mistake, ALA’s transformation will require greater accountability: as the single-largest driver of racial diversity in the field through its Spectrum Scholarship Program; in its library-based human rights activism through and beyond the Social Responsibilities Round Table and Rainbow Round Table; and through member groups advocating for services to the poor, people with disabilities, unhoused individuals, and those incarcerated, detained, or reentering. A true transformation for ALA will require that it consider itself as much a movement as an association.
In a speech delivered almost 20 years ago, Vartan Gregorian, former New York Public Library chief and president of the Carnegie Corporation when he died in April, said, “Libraries have shown remarkable resilience … and a remarkable ability to transform themselves to meet changing needs…. Libraries are the mirror held up to the face of humankind.” And we are changed.