Speaking Up

PLA Day One: being courageous, setting boundaries, and building better boards

March 24, 2022

Photo: Kinser Studios

The last time the Public Library Association (PLA) convened a conference was a little more than two years ago in Nashville, Tennessee. Signage at the convention center had urged people to wash their hands, and late-night host Samantha Bee had joked about how the president was handling the emerging threat. But few at that time could foresee the lockdown and world-changing effects that came next.

At the March 23 Opening Session of PLA 2022 in Portland, Oregon, PLA President and Richland (S.C.) Library Executive Director Melanie Huggins addressed a masked and gleeful crowd and acknowledged these “rough last two years.”

“We have navigated challenges and risks in our personal and professional lives, but you made it a priority to be here,” said Huggins. “We want you to return to your communities energized and inspired.”

During Day One sessions of PLA 2022, an underlying theme of advocacy emerged—from speaking up for what’s right to advocating for personal boundaries to creating boards capable of advocating for the library.

Making trouble

Luvvie Ajayi Jones introduced herself as a professional troublemaker. It’s the title of her latest book (Professional Troublemaker: The Fear-Fighter Manual, out this month), but it’s also the trait that the bestselling author, public speaker, and podcast host said she’s had since she was a young child.

“I was the kid who got in trouble for her mouth. Not because I was being disrespectful,” Jones told attendees at the Opening Session. “I usually got in trouble for defending myself.”

As an adult, Jones sees “the disrupters” as people who elevate their environments.

“We live in a world that is deeply unjust,” she said. Evoking “the late, great John Lewis,” she petitioned the crowd to make good trouble wherever they go—whether that’s confronting an uncle at the dinner table for saying something inappropriate, pushing back on bad ideas in workplace meetings, or having tough conversations with friends.

“The things that are happening around you at the table are absolutely your business,” said Jones. “The impact we can have on the world starts with the rooms that we are in.”

Jones addressed the fear that often causes people to stay silent about important things. To abate this fear, she suggested that attendees ask themselves three questions in tough scenarios—“Do I mean it? Can I defend it? Can I say it thoughtfully?”—as well as what she refers to as the bonus question: “Will my silence convict me?”

“I have had a lifetime of pushing past my fear,” she said. “I think we make choices to be courageous. Courage is a habit that we built.”

In her talk, Jones praised library workers, noting that they have acted as frontline workers during the pandemic and are facing an unprecedented swell of book-banning efforts and pressure to revise history.

“My first email address I ever got was when I signed up at Harold Washington Library in Chicago,” Jones said. “The way you are showing up for people, the way you are able to do the things that are difficult, changes lives.”

Protection through boundaries

“Outreach work is very different from branch-level work,” said Rachel Beckman, librarian at Sno-Isle Libraries in Washington State, at the outset of “Clear and Kind: Building Boundaries in Outreach Work.” Outreach, she said, often puts library workers in a more intimate setting—for example, after-school programs, senior care facilities, or at someone’s door for home delivery—and sometimes boundaries can be difficult.

To that point, Beckman and Kate Morgan, adult services librarian at King County (Wash.) Library System, hope that those who do outreach work will see why personal and team boundaries can help protect staffers from burnout or injury, protect the library from liability or misusing resources, and ensure more equitable services for patrons.

“Clear boundaries preserve your integrity,” said Morgan. “The library staff role is different from a caregiver, from a medical aide, from their family, from their friends.” Consequently, not delineating boundaries, she said, has the potential to lead to assumptions, ableism, and inequitable treatment.

“We might look at disability status, cognition status, health status … [and] when we start from a deficit-based thinking, we create a setup that relies on bias and stereotypes about what [people] can and cannot do,” said Morgan. “I want you to think about the difference between ‘I’ll do that for you’ and ‘Oh, do you need some help?’”

How can outreach librarians maintain healthy boundaries? Beckman and Morgan had several suggestions, including written policies for programs and partnerships, staying in one’s staff role, avoiding physical contact with patrons, not giving out personal contact information, not giving or receiving gifts, and not entering a patron’s home when making deliveries.

“Setting up consistent services and boundaries is kind,” said Morgan. “Consistency helps us create trust.”

Beckman pointed out that boundaries can be hard to take into consideration when serving youth who have experienced trauma or may not have many stable, influential adults in their lives.

“You are not their parent, you are not their teacher, you are not their social worker, but you can be their best librarian,” she said.

Beckman and Morgan agreed that, ultimately, boundaries aren’t about controlling other people’s behavior. “They’re about you,” Morgan said.

Getting outcomes from your board

At the start of “How to Build a Better Board,” Morgan Miller shared headlines from across the country that she spotted over the past few weeks: boards moving to ban books from their libraries’ shelves, trustees openly clashing with library staff members, and boards espousing policy and ideological beliefs different from their libraries’ missions.

“Our hope today is that we can share some ideas with you to take to your board so it doesn’t get to this point,” said Miller, executive director at Cecil County (Md.) Public Library (CCPL).

Miller shared theory and research from Paula Singer, vice president at consulting firm Segal, about what makes effective board governance: people, practices, and policies.

With regard to people, for instance, boards should include a diverse group of individuals with skills and experience that fit a selection criteria. Practices should emphasize how the group documents meetings, communicates, and solves problems, as well as orienting new members and providing ongoing educational development. Finally, the policies component refers to compliance and disclosure, such as rules dictated by state library law or a code of ethics. When applied together with positive group dynamics, a board can expect outcomes.

Further, Maryland State Library partnered with the Institute of Library and Museum Services to study the characteristics of effective boards. The six characteristics are: contextual, strategic, political, educational, interpersonal, and analytical.

Contextual covers the culture, norms, and ethics that should be followed by a library board. For example, “how we’re not going to let fear or our personal beliefs affect policies,” Miller said. Educational means “setting aside time to learn,” she added, noting that she will often share articles or case studies with her board to introduce discussions and conducts an annual board assessment to see what topics members want to know more about. And to fulfill the interpersonal aspect, Miller brings her board members to events such as legislative sessions and fundraisers.

These characteristics, she said, assist a board in fulfilling its responsibilities, which includes advocating for the library by enhancing its standing in the community.

“At least 50% of my job as library director is with the board,” said Miller. “This is time well spent.”


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