Library Leadership

49. An Interview with Wanda Brown: American Library Association President, 2019-2020

What a pleasure it was having the opportunity to talk with Wanda Brown.

2019-2020 American Library Association President. She is the Director of Library Services at the C.G. O’Kelly Library at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina. She’s been an ALA member for over 30 years, and held multiple positions within many divisions of the organization, including governance in the Black Caucus which recognized her in 2015 with their Award for Excellence. She shared with me her vision for her presidential year, how all of us can lead from any position, some secrets for success, and what she’s seeing out in the field that is inspiring her. Tune in for this motivating message.


This podcast is brought to you by the School of Library and Information Management from Emporia State University, where library leaders are created, with program sites in Las Vegas, Nevada; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Denver, Colorado; Salt Lake City, Utah; Portland, Oregon; Boise, Idaho; and Emporia and Overland Park, Kansas.


This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast, where we talk about libraries, and leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights into the profession.

On today’s show, what a pleasure it was having the opportunity to talk with Wanda Brown, our 2019-2020 American Library Association President. She is the director of Library Services at the C. G. O’Kelly Library at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina.

She’s been an ALA member for over thirty years, and held multiple positions within many divisions of the organization, including governance and the Black Caucus which recognized her in 2015 with their Award for Excellence. 

She shared with me her vision for her presidential year, how all of us can lead from any position, some secrets for success, and what she’s seeing out in the field that is inspiring her. It’s a motivating message I hope we’ll tune in for. Enjoy the show.

Welcome to the show, Wanda.

Wanda Brown:

Thank you, Adriane, it’s a pleasure to be here with you this morning.


Question #1: I always admire people who are willing to step into leadership roles. ALA President is an important position. Thank you for all you’re doing. Can you share with us what helped you to decide to run for ALA President? 01:50 

Wanda Brown:

Well, the request to consider running actually came from a colleague at a local university here, from a person I know fairly well, and have served on various committees with. So, when she first asked me I said, Let me think about that. I went to one of my mentors and I said, What do you think about this?

She said, Well, you might as well—of course, we know that your name is just a name in the hat, right? At that point you don’t know whether your name is actually going to be selected as a candidate or not. So, you’re just agreeing to be considered at first. So, that was it.


Question #2: Wow, and then you put your name in the hat, and went for it. Which is just really exciting because it is such a big role. So, I know that you might have some words of wisdom for others. Library Leadership is both rewarding and challenging, and for librarians interested in this, what would you say to them about how to get started? 02:55 

Wanda Brown:

I think first of all, you can lead from anywhere. You don’t have to be in a leadership position to actually lead. I always tell people to start leading from where you are. And, one way to do that is to gain a reputation for always following through and committing to, and then delivering. I tell my staff here that the cameras are rolling all the time on us, and we don’t realize it sometimes. But, there’s always somebody looking to you as a leader, to them.

They’re always looking to you to see the example you’re setting, seeing how you’re handling something. So, I tell people to get the leader mindset and keep it with you all the time. Then if you know you really have this dream to be a leader then prepare yourself. Take trainings, sit and listen, observe how you carry yourself, how you interact with others, how you progress to handle a situation or a project that is given to you. So, you have to be mindful of everything.

Then, you want to ask for the opportunity. I’ve worked with a lot of people who have stepped up and just said, You know, my plan in life is to do X, how about giving me the opportunity to—because if you create a plan for yourself, you know what’s needed to get there. You may need this many years working at this level. It may mean that you might have to ask the supervisor for the opportunity to gain that kind of experience.

It might start out small by supervising a group of students. It can lead to anything. But, I tell people to get started—I start where I am, and I start by delivering, and having a reputation that people want to follow me. Because I am delivering.


Question #3: That’s fantastic. I really like your message of, We are all leaders, essentially in libraries and we just have to have a plan and then ask for opportunities to get involved. Great advice. Do you have any secrets for success? 05:12 

Wanda Brown:

Well, I really don’t have any specific ones. But, I did read a book by Skip Prichard on The Book of Mistakes. He outlines some of these so I have incorporated this into my message. He talks a lot about writing your own story. I think so many times people are unhappy because they’re living inside of someone else’s story, right? 

So, if you want to be happy, and I’m equating success with happiness. Because success for one might be a different success for another. If you know what it is you want to have in life and then you decide to go for that. I think one secret would be to choose the right people to be in the network with you. We have to surround ourselves with people who have a similar vision.

This is a message I try to get across to my grandson all the time. If you want to go some place, surround yourself with people who are also trying to go some place. Because it helps you, it helps push you there. 

And, I talked about it a minute ago, about delivering. When you want to be successful, then people have to be able to depend upon you because you have delivered, because you have stepped up, and out. Yes, I can count on her, I can count on him – they’re going to deliver. 

Then another thing I think that’s important is to learn from our failures. And, to not think of every criticism we get as a personal attack on who we are. But, just maybe there’s something for me to learn. And then continuing to learn, continuing to develop, continuing to invest in yourself so that you are the absolute best version of you. And, that you bring that best version of you wherever you are, whenever you’re at.

Then if you want to be successful—I talked about it a second ago, that plan. You’ve got to have a plan for where you want to go. You just can’t bounce around. You’ve got to know, This is what it takes for me to get there. And, if you’re not sure, then prepare yourself for anything. 

Which means – I say to people, When you’re right out of library school you really may not be clear about what you want to do. On your first job, ask for the opportunity to get introduced to a lot of things. Then if you’re observant you’ll probably figure, You know I really enjoy this area. This, I think, is the area that I’d like to progress and grow in, and learn more about. Those would be my secrets to success. Hope I didn’t go on too long there.


Question #4: Not at all, those are great. You mentioned surrounding yourself with people going where you want to go, and none of us do things alone in the library world. We’re surrounded by people all the time. I know that you like the benefits of partnering. Can you talk about that in libraries? 08:22 

Wanda Brown:

I personally think that partnerships are what we need in our profession to be successful. And, I think that the more we engage with partners, or people who have similar thoughts and similar visions as ours, the broader our outreach efforts become. So, one of the things I’ve been talking about on my Presidential Tour is—I think that within a community if we, the library, is truly seen as the heart of the community. That heart beats at the public library, at the school library, at the academic institutions. Well, who’s pulling all those heartbeats together? Because it takes us all working together to move that community forward.

So, I think that partnerships allow us to invest in areas within our communities that need us to take a look at them. They need us to help them. When we partner, as opposed to me being over here crying to myself, I can have a community of people who have agreed that this particular issue is important to our community. And we’re going to combine our effort, and expand our reach, our voice, and expand our profession’s values when we do that as well.


Question #5: I know you’re traveling all over around the country speaking to groups of librarians as our ALA President. I got to hear you speak at a regional library conference not so long ago. You talked about a motto, Keep Calm and Please Take the Lead. Can you tell us what that means? 10:12 

Wanda Brown:

I think the leader sets the tone. Sometimes when we’re stressed, or when we are quick to assume, it sets the tone that others will do the same, right? In your efforts to take a lead we have to keep calm, thinking, maturing, developing, investing in ourselves by taking the lead the whole while. So, it’s like a way of saying, Ok, I’m going to calmly lead. I’m not going to be too quick to make an assumption. I’m going to calmly sit back, take a look. 

I heard a speaker once talk about how he forced himself to think not so much that it was hurtful. His example was that he was on a bus and he spoke to someone and they kind of brushed him off. He said he could have gone to all of these places in his mind, mentally, Oh, it’s the color of my skin. Oh, it’s this, or it’s that. But he said, suppose he allowed himself to think—A bad morning that person had this morning. Oh, something must have tragically happened on the way to the subway this morning. Or, he’s dreading something he has to do at work and it has so much overshadowed him that he’s not here at the moment, mentally. So by being calm and thinking about that, he allowed it not to ruin his day, but to offer excuses or offer options that somehow or another some of those options may be true.

We know as leaders that we have to take our people wherever they are on that spectrum. Having worked for a long time now, I’ve seen that there’s segments in people’s lives. There’s the young, the single, who’s talkative, who may be longer at breaks, who may be more on their phone, there may be any number of things. Then you move up a little bit, and it’s the childbearing years and they’re out of work, and they’re this—they’ve got to go to school programs. Then, there’s divorce sometimes. There’s death of parents. But there’s also that time when, now, we’re taking off to take care of parents. 

That’s why I say as a leader we must be calmly sitting back watching and knowing where those around us are on that spectrum. How can we meet them there, but how can we also help them to the next part, to the next step? That’s where the calmness, I think, comes in.


Question #6: That’s good having that perspective. too. I know that you’re traveling a lot around the country as President of the American Library Association. I wonder from your perspective what are you seeing out there in terms of challenges, or things that you’re finding really inspiring as you talk to other librarians? It must be a really interesting thing to see. 13:39 

Wanda Brown:

It really, really is. You know what I’m seeing though? I am amazed at the level of true commitment that I think the people who work within this profession bring to the table. And it’s not only librarians, it’s library workers. 

I’ve been amazed at the number of people who come up to me after I speak and they say, You know, I was hired just because I had a college degree and now I’m managing this library. I heard stories where people were leaving keys under the rock so that members of their community could come in on a Saturday when they normally weren’t open, but they trusted them to lock it up and leave. I just heard so many wonderful stories that it has given me a great appreciation for the profession that I’m in.

People who know me know I love the work that I do. They know this about me. But, I have a greater appreciation for how people have taken that freedom in our profession to be what our communities need. So you say, that person didn’t even go to library school, but they have somehow or another, just by working in the library they have come to grips with—What does it mean for the people in my community to be successful?

So, what I have admired the most is just being able to see and feel that when I walk into a room the people there care about the work they do. They care about the communities they serve. 


Question #7: What are your goals for your ALA presidential year? 15:24

Wanda Brown:

I have a couple of initiatives. One of course, was I am recording stories of how people found their way into ALA. There’s a lot of people that I’ve met. Some people say, Well, the conferences are held so far away, I’m in a small library and I can’t necessarily make it. Down in Texas people said, Well, cost of our association membership, state membership is so enormous that I really can’t afford both.

So, just hearing stories like that is what I wanted to capture and bring back because I feel like those stories will help us, ALA, be able to have an association that meets all the needs of its members. So that’s one thing, capturing that story. 

But the other thing, and this is near and dear to me personally—I want to make sure that when I talk about collaborations across the communities, that I’m talking specifically about a pipeline to prisons, of African American, and Hispanics boys. Most of our communities have this. They may not realize it. If I keep telling this story from state to state, to state—maybe somebody in that state, in that city, in that town might say, You know, let me take a look at those numbers. Maybe there’s some programming we can put on in our libraries. 

I have three. The third one is…you noticed that ALA just hired a new executive director. They’re changing locations. They’re moving to a different part of Chicago than they’ve lived in before, as an association. So, there’s a lot of change. I wanted to lead the staff through a change management strategy session. So they can become, I guess, introduced and buy into a central vision. A vision for all of them so that they’re not thirteen individual umbrellas, but there’s one big umbrella that has thirteen, I’m going to say, Little knobs on it, as opposed to thirteen umbrellas under one. Does that make sense?


Question #8: Yeah. And, I think I speak for all of us when I say we are so pleased and grateful that you are doing this work. It’s so important. What can all of us out in the field do to make your term a success? 18:09 

Wanda Brown:

I think you continue doing what you’re doing. But, if you hear me – like I just said, if you hear that story? If you would just think about it in terms of the schools in your area, in terms of the neighborhoods where you live in. If you can just allow yourself to at least have that conversation to say, Well, you know, the current ALA President is interested in us looking at our community. What are the pitfalls? What’s keeping our community from thriving?

Now you may be a community that is already thriving. And if you are, what are your secrets? Maybe you’d like to share them with the rest of us. That’s what I think. If you hear the story, and you share the story, and you give it thought. And, you can also send me your story. Your story about how you found your way to ALA. 


Question #9: Will do. Anything else you’d like to share? 19:05 

Wanda Brown:

No, I think I’ve talked a lot already. [laughter]


Question #10: You’re doing great. I know that you already mentioned one book earlier in the interview, but do you have another favorite book, or resource you’d like to share about leadership, and why? 19:20 

Wanda Brown:

Not really. I’m one of those people that if somebody will flash something on Linkedin, or somewhere that talks a little bit about leadership, I’m going to go there and scan that article, look at that. Because, that’s how I keep a fresh perspective. 

The other thing I like to do is observe great leaders in action. How did they handle that? How was their approach to that? So, no, I’m sorry I don’t have another one. The book that I’m looking at now is a book about little small changes and how you make changes, small increments at a time. One of my staff members gave it to me. It’s called, One Small Step Can Change a Life. She brought it to me because she knows that I keep trying to make changes both personally here, and within our organization. It’s called the Kaizen Way, and it’s by Robert Maurer.


Question #11: And I think another resource we might want to mention is just the ALA website. It’s such a rich source of information for all of us in the field. 20:27

Wanda Brown:

I think that’s ALA’s biggest opportunity. After visiting a lot of small and rural states, well, they’re not necessarily small, but rural in the sense that wherever they hosted their conference it was fairly rural, and people had to drive in. Those are the same people who need to rely upon the ALA website, ALA webinars, ALA seminars, ALA regional and state things so they can stay abreast, too. Everybody can’t afford to fly to Chicago and be gone for a week, Because they’re only two of us. We shut down for a week, our community has no access. So, there’s a lot of opportunities for ALA.


Question #12: Sure, sure, and those resources are so important, especially in some of our rural areas. Wanda, in closing, what does being a librarian mean to you, personally? 21:23

Wanda Brown:

I think it has meant different things along the way, but it all hinges around providing access. When I started, I started in cataloging in the ’70’s, in the late ’70’s I started out. It was all about making sure that we had the collection that the users’ needed. So, then it was all about what we had. 

We know now that down through the years we’re more about opportunities we give to people, trainings that we give to people, advice we give to people, guidance we give to people, spaces we allow people to work in. So, when I saw this I thought, I’m a change agent. I’m just changing life for people and hopefully, I’m changing them for the better.

I’m allowing them to become the people that they want to. I’m giving them what they need to be successful. I think the bottom line to any librarian now is that, We’re just here to make sure you have what you need to be successful, and no matter what that is, we’re here to help you.


That’s marvelous. Thank you so much for your leadership at the helm of our professional organization for the nation. It’s a big role and I know that it takes a good person to be at the helm and I appreciate all that you do. Thank you for talking with me today.

Wanda Brown:

And, thank you for having me on your show.


It’s been a pleasure.

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Adriane Herrick Juarez. Our producer is Nate Vineyard. More episodes can be found at, where you can now subscribe to have new shows delivered right into your email inbox. You can also find the show on Apple iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you for listening. We’ll see you next time.

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