What does it mean to be a leader? How can relationships help our careers? And how do we create inclusive libraries amid a culture of burnout?
These were the questions that guided the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) President’s Program at the American Library Association’s 2023 Annual Conference and Exhibition in Chicago on June 26. ASLC President Amy Koester, learning experiences manager at Skokie (Ill.) Public Library, moderated “Leading with Your Hands and Your Heart: A Conversation about Leading from Wherever You Are.” The panel discussion covered the nature of leadership, why collaboration is important, and how library workers can stay energized in the current climate of book-banning.
“There are people who walk boldly into leadership, and there are some who are dragged kicking and screaming, and that’s my experience,” said Linda Sue Park, Newberry Medal–winning author of A Single Shard (2001) and founder of publishing imprint Allida Books. “I think of myself as an activist worker bee—I’m not the queen.”
“For many of us who are from marginalized communities, we don’t ever get a day off from thinking about our marginalization,” Park added. “For those of you who want to be allies or accomplices, move that to the top of your mind.”
Ellen Oh, CEO of We Need Diverse Books, a nonprofit dedicated to changing the publishing industry, said her elementary school teachers saw her as a troublemaker growing up.
“I saw myself as a problem solver,” Oh said. “As I got older, I never got rid of the problem-solving aspect of my life. I guess that’s why I became a lawyer.”
For Ling Hwey Jeng, professor and director of the School of Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, leadership isn’t necessarily a role—it’s a competency.
“[It’s] someone who can exercise positive influence over others,” said Jeng. “You don’t have to be visible.”
Koester noted that relationships with others are crucial in library work and asked the panelists about their successful collaborations.
“It started with a small group of us, and it just ballooned into this huge network of people,” Oh said of the growth of We Need Diverse Books, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary next year. The organization, which has expanded to include internships, mentorship, and book lists, has been inundated with librarian volunteers. “We actually had to turn many people away,” Oh said.
For Park, who had never worked in publishing prior to starting Allida Books, relying on the experts around her was critical.
“Our society for so long has valued innovation and individual accomplishment…. It works in some ways but leads us to vicious mediocrity,” Park said. “We don’t have to make it up ourselves every single time. I want to find someone who is really good at [something], and I want to partner with them.”
As an author, Park sees librarians and educators as primary collaborators. “Ninety-five percent of my readers come to my books through an adult gatekeeper…. It’s somebody like you who book-talks them,” she said. “Without you all, my work is meaningless.”
Jeng said it is key that these collaborations are a two-way street. “It took me a long, long time to realize that a healthy, satisfactory relationship is one where I could contribute to that relationships and my contributions are reciprocated,” she said. “We want that visibility, we want that equity, we want the acknowledgement. It’s very important that we do not diminish our own contributions.”
How do leaders make sure their libraries stay inclusive during these contentious times of book-banning? “I have not seen this kind of book banning [in my life],” said Park. “I have not seen teachers and librarians afraid to lose their jobs.”
Park stressed the importance of contacting one’s networks for their success stories. “We have to reach out to each other and say, ‘How did you do it?’” she said. “And maybe we need to run someone for school board.”
For Oh, it’s paramount that librarians don’t lose sight that they are someone’s safe space.
“When I was in middle school, the school library was my sanctuary. I had some mean girl problems,” Oh said. “The library isn’t just books, it’s that space where kids come because maybe their home life isn’t as safe as they want it to be…. It’s the only space where they can catch a breath.”
“In all the rhetoric about book bans,” Oh said, “remember the spaces.”