Over the last year, we’ve all been dealing with a lot. Everyone in libraries has pulled together to make so much possible during unprecedented times. This makes me particularly grateful for this discussion with Ramiro Salazar, Director of the San Antonio Public Library and immediate Past-President of the Public Library Association.
During his PLA Presidency our profession saw an e-Book embargo from a major publisher, a global pandemic, and a great deal of reckoning surrounding race. He has been quoted as saying, “time and time again, libraries have demonstrated resiliency during times of crisis.” His thoughts on these topics and handling extraordinary change are something we all can use as we continue to move into the future.
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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.
Over the last year we’ve all been dealing with a lot. Everyone in libraries has pulled together to make so much possible through unprecedented times. This makes me particularly grateful for this discussion with Ramiro Salazar, Director of the San Antonio Public Library and immediate past president of the Public Library Association.
During his PLA Presidency, our profession saw an eBook embargo from a major publisher, a global pandemic, and a great deal of reckoning surrounding race. He has been quoted as saying, Time, and time again, libraries have demonstrated resiliency during times of crisis. His thoughts on these topics and handling extraordinary change are something we all can use as we continue to move into the future. Enjoy the show. Ramiro, welcome to the show.
I appreciate the opportunity to talk to you today about what’s happening in the library community.
I’m so glad you’re here. And, I wanted to speak with you about leadership in unprecedented times. You’ve recently finished a year as president of the Public Library Association, a year in which we saw unprecedented changes and challenges.
Question #1: You’ve been quoted as saying, Time and again, libraries have demonstrated resiliency during times of crisis. I couldn’t agree more. Will you share your thoughts with us about this? 02:19
Well, thank you, again. First of all, it was an honor to serve as president of the Public Library Association. It gave me an opportunity to look at libraries from a broader perspective, the national landscape. And it just so happened that during my term we encountered a number of challenges.
True to my expectation, libraries rose to the occasion, not only adapted to the challenges, but responded as well. I’m so proud of public libraries throughout the country and how they responded, how they adapted to continue to advance their mission of serving the community. Certainly not in the normal way because when the pandemic hit in mid-March, when public institutions and agencies started to close, including businesses, we had to shutter, ‘we’ meaning public libraries, had to shutter our doors.
It created a situation that needed a quick response, with innovation and creativity, public libraries demonstrated that throughout the country, by pivoting to serving communities primarily on line, and through facilitating access to digital resources.
So, I’m very proud of how public libraries adapted. I think it’s part of libraries’ DNA to adapt and be innovative in the way of continuing to respond to the needs of the community that we serve. So again, it was an honor and it gave me an opportunity to witness first hand what libraries were doing to respond to a crisis.
Question #2: Absolutely, so many incredible libraries and librarians meeting the needs at this time. Among the many items you dealt with during your PLA Presidency, was Macmillan’s decision to embargo new eBook titles for libraries. There was a successful resolution to that, and can you tell us how that came about through coordinated leadership, and how it might inform future actions of libraries? 04:47
There’s been a lot of work done under the leadership of the larger umbrella, the American Library Association. As most of us know, the Public Library Association is a division of the American Library Association. So, under the leadership of the American Library Association, for a number of years there has been a working group that has been working with publishers to address the challenges of libraries offering eBooks.
As most of us know, it costs more for libraries to provide access to eBooks. When Macmillan decided to embargo new eBook titles for sixty days, and limit the number of eBook titles to libraries of just one, just one copy, regardless of the size of libraries, that created red flags, not only red flags, but it created a sense of urgency of having to respond.
PLA, I’m proud to say, took a leadership role in pushing back against Macmillan. Thirdly, we partnered with ALA’s Washington office who oversees legislation, as well as commerce, and the publishing industry as it relates to the impact on libraries.
So, we partnered with the ALA office, with the Urban Libraries Council, and with state library agencies to push back against Macmillan. One, because we felt it was unjustified. That it was potentially sending to other publishers, This is a way to move forward in terms of trying to get a larger market share. I believe that Macmillan was misinformed. The fact that the CEO was no longer the CEO of Macmillan, I think, indicates that perhaps the leaders of Macmillan were not totally onboard with that decision.
So, the decision was reversed, as you know. But, I think it was because of the work of the library community. Again, not only PLA, but the ALA Washington Office, the Urban Libraries Council, and state library agencies that joined together to push back. We started a campaign, #eBooksForAll to draw attention to Macmillan’s ill-advised decision. We felt it was counterproductive, that it was punitive in practice. Eventually Macmillan realized that they were taking the wrong path on this issue.
We continue to stay vigilant. There is an eBook working group under ALA, created by ALA, that continues to monitor and work on the eBook publishing trends in the future. In fact, there will be a webinar in another couple of weeks, I believe, that provides an update on what’s happening, and how do we prepare, and how do we continue to pushback and protect these interests of public libraries from publishers that may want to take a similar tactic as Macmillan.
There are no immediate indications that other publishers are planning to do something like that, but we want to be proactive to make sure we’re prepared, and that we discourage—that we work with publishers as partners to address our respective issues. That’s really the primary goal.
Question #3: And the past year also saw a great deal of discussion about race in our nation. What have you been seeing out in our professional organizations in regard to this? 09:30
Since public libraries were established and became an important role in our communities, they have always been the most democratic public institution, from my perspective. We’re free, free to access, and we can qualify free, because nothing is free obviously. If it’s a municipal library, then the municipality generally pays for it, if it’s a district, the taxpayers of that district. But, the doors are open, and they’re free, and everybody’s welcome.
I’m very proud that public libraries have served as a beacon for democracy and have invited the entire community, regardless of color, age, ethnicity, gender preference, to our libraries. So, I believe public libraries have been a model of how you defend social issues and how you advance social justice.
My advice to public libraries, and many have already done that in terms of creating either strategic initiatives, strategic plans, have established either an office of diversity or equity.
For us, in the City of San Antonio, because the San Antonio Public Library is a municipal department, we partner with the city’s Office of Equity to make sure we have in place strategies, tactics, and practices that advance social justice.
There’s an ongoing conversation, even now, nationally, public libraries, Urban Libraries Council, for example is one entity, of course the Public Library Association. PLA, is another. And, the Black Lives Matter movement really brought attention to the issue and the fact that libraries need to continue to advance social justice through its practices, both operationally, and through its service efforts. Many public libraries have adopted statements one, acknowledging that Black Lives Matters, and their commitment to social justice to fight back against discrimation, racism, and to create environments that are inclusive, that are blind to ethnicity, color, age, gender, sexual orientation.
I’m very proud of the work of public libraries because I really believe we have been leading the effort in this regard. The Black Lives Matter movement actually brought this into greater focus, and emphasized what libraries are doing in that regard, and what we need to continue to do. It’s not enough to say, Okay, we already have, it’s already in our strategic plan that we will fight for equity. That we will institute, not only new practices. but reevaluate practices that we had in place.
For example, not too long ago public libraries were addressing fines as a barrier, so that’s part of equity. Many, many public libraries, including the San Antonio Public Library started to eliminate fines because we’ve recognized that that’s a barrier. It’s important for public libraries to look at, not only the operations, again but its practices and its service efforts from an equity lens. It speaks also to social justice.
That has been an important action in my libraries, also one that has been able to eliminate fines, and we’re so grateful to be able to offer that service. We’re also grateful, right now, to be able to provide any service. COVID-19 has been a crisis the likes of which we had not seen in modern times. It disrupted libraries across the nation.
Question #4: During your tenure as PLA President, how do you see librarians rising to the occasion during the pandemic? 14:06
If I may, I’ll speak to several aspects of COVID-19. The first aspect is how libraries responded, and I’ll talk briefly. I may repeat some of the things I said earlier, but I think it’s important to reemphasize how public libraries respond, and continue to respond. Then I would like to speak a little about, not only the impact during the last six, seven, eight months, but then what’s the impact toward the future. What is COVID-19 doing, or has done, and will continue to do to impact how we operate, and how we deliver services?
So, first the response. Initially when we, meaning public libraries, had to shutter our doors, we turned to online programming, facility access to digital content, eBooks, and Wi-Fi. By the way, the COVID-19 really brought to the attention the digital divide. The fact that there are many households that do not have access to high-speed internet.
When people were losing jobs and could no longer afford to pay their mortgage, or their rent, and food, and so on, getting assistance often means going online. But they didn’t have access to Wi-Fi or to public computers. That was even more challenging for them. So, libraries responded again, providing access to digital content, and access to Wi-Fi. Meaning libraries extended their Wi-Fi signal and invited people to come to the parking lot, asking them to be safe, to practice physical distancing, and so on, but in an effort to facilitate access to Wi-Fi.
So, public libraries responded. Right now many public libraries are getting ready to go to the next phase of reopening. The next phase is when libraries will be inviting people to come in. Some libraries have already done this, one, or two months ago. Other libraries, especially urban libraries, are just getting ready to get to that phase where we will actually have people coming inside our buildings.
For the most part, around June, most public libraries started to offer curb-side service where there was no contact between the library patron and the library employee, either by having library staff deliver items to their cars, kind of like a drive-through, or leaving library materials in the place where they could be picked up. Of course, there would be procedures for checking out and for reserving the items and so on.
So, that’s kind of phase two of responding to COVID-19. Now phase three where we are right now, in my perspective, many libraries are contemplating, and getting ready to get into phase three.
So, that’s the response. What about the impact? Obviously COVID-19 has impacted all of us in a very significant and in some cases, very dramatic way, both at home and at work. Many of our employees, basically the majority, about 90% of our employees were working remotely early on. Some of them have started reporting to their locations to get ready for phase three of our reopening. So, it’s impacted people and individuals in a very significant way. I didn’t want to get into that because that’s a story by itself, in terms of the psyche and the challenges of working from home.
The impact for libraries, we had to learn how to do online programming. We had to learn how to operate in a virtual environment, how to conduct meetings, team meetings, how to participate in webinars, how to have the appropriate equipment, the appropriate lighting, appropriate workspace. That’s been something very new to all of us. Speaking for myself, I’ve been reporting to my office all along because I felt I could be more productive here, and I have the resources that I needed to operate virtually, and to lead the library system virtually and connect with our respective teams. But, I had to learn how to provide better lighting, because we have to be professional as well. And if we participate in webinars, we want to be professional.
So it’s created an opportunity for the development of new skill sets, and for the library, as an organization to develop training opportunities for our team members so they can be more effective in a virtual environment. So that’s an impact.
In terms of services, as Library Director you probably got this feedback often as well, many folks would tell me, I prefer the physical book, the print book. There’s something about it, I like the smell, I like the feel. Well, during all this time when we couldn’t provide access to physical items, I believe that those folks had to turn to eBooks. I believe that many of those users have been converted now, to eBook users. So, that will probably have an impact on how we develop our collections in the future. I think folks who did not favor eBooks have gotten comfortable with eBooks and perhaps now prefer eBooks because they’re more readily available, they’re quicker to obtain, you don’t have to worry about returning the items back. So, that’s what I think, that’s just me thinking without doing any research. That’s what I predict.
That said, I believe that our way of serving the public will continue to be different for at least another year, minimum. This virus will be with us. There’s a fear of a second wave. I’m hopeful that we can open our doors. We’re planning on inviting people in for access to public computers, because again, the digital divide, digital inclusion is something that is very important.
We are adapting. People often mention the new normal. Well, it’s not a normal, it’s a new reality. It’s not a new normal. From my perspective, it’s a new reality for all of us. We are anticipating big changes in how we serve our community, how we deliver programs, even using our collections, and browsing our collections that will have to be managed with physical distancing, continuing to wear masks, that’s a big change for all of us. It’s going to be around for at least another eighteen months, from my perspective. I’m not an expert, but that’s what I’m predicting.
So many changes, and so many adaptations, which makes me extra appreciative of your time this past year as PLA President, leading the way in thinking through so many of these things and talking about it and guiding our organizations. So, thank you for your service, it’s really been an incredible year, Ramiro. I mean, it really has.
Question #5: But I would ask, what advice you might give to anyone personally navigating through this rapid and hectic change right now. It’s really something. 22:53
I’m going to get pretty personal. I’m very concerned about the impact on our emotional health. Yesterday I was listening to a report, it was not a podcast. It was a radio news report about how marriages are being impacted by COVID-19. There’s been a rash of divorces. I understand why, because the dynamics at home have changed for many. You talk about husband and wife, they have the family, their kids were going to school. The parents, maybe both of them, worked. They were going to the workplace. They interacted with their fellow workers. That provided a different kind of dynamic, and that’s changed now. Kids are having to stay at home, for the most part, because of distance learning. Some are going back to school, I understand that.
Child care has been a challenge. Having a husband and wife work together in the same space has been challenging from just talking to not only library employees, but friends. So, I’m worried about that impact on our employees, and how we as an organization can help. So, I’ve been talking to our organizational health unit to look at things we can offer to support our employees to manage, not only their work lives, but their personal lives as well.
I believe COVID-19 will continue to impact them in a very profound way, and we need to help them deal with that adaptation. Not only in the workplace, but at home. I think we, as an organization, have a responsibility to help our employees navigate this new reality and deal with some of the issues that are an outcome of that new reality.
The advice for public libraries is sensitivity to the mindset of your workforce, of your employees, to put into place programs that support them from different perspectives.
Question #6: Absolutely. I am so appreciative that you support your employees at the San Antonio Public Library. What makes you most proud as director of that organization? 25:41
I’m proud that I’ve been able to adapt, and that I’ve been able to maintain a moral compass as to our purpose. Not only as an organization that serves the public, and many communities, but also as an organization that serves our employees as well.
I’ve always tried to maintain a perspective to our team, our employees and to stay connected. I’ve been doing weekly videos that I share with our entire organization. We have 115 employees. It’s important for leaders to stay connected with their employees and to figure out ways of finding an effective way to stay connected. I’ve received positive feedback about the videos. And, I’ve adapted. I’ve seen myself adapt to a place where there’s a higher sensitivity to the employee as an individual.
I guess I’m proud of the way that I’ve adapted throughout my career and with the focus on not only the library as an organization but the library as a place for employees as well.
Absolutely. And let’s give a big shout out to San Antonio Public Library. Hi, San Antonio. I hope you’re listening, and thank you for sharing your director with us for a whole year. He did great work and we’re so proud of all the accomplishments. We appreciate you all.
Question #7: In closing, what do libraries mean to you, personally? 27:28
If I may, when I first decided to go to college my career was to be a social worker. I wanted to be a social worker. I wanted to help people. So, I started down that career track, but my undergraduate degree is in Sociology and Psychology, preparing for moving onto a Masters in Social Work. Well, circumstances decided that I should pursue a Masters in Library Science so, that’s another story. But the point is that I landed on libraries, selecting, or deciding to be a librarian because while the path to being a social worker was redirected, we help people. The work that we do is so important to our communities from different levels, from different perspectives, from helping bridge the digital divide to helping students perform better in school by providing resources for them, providing programs that inspire them. From serving seniors, providing programs that bring attention to social issues, racism, Black Lives Matter, all the things that we do, resources, programs, and what we stand for, and the fact that we welcome everybody, we are helping people.
I’m very proud of the fact that I’ve landed to being a library director, or a librarian for over forty years. This is where I belong, and I feel proud of the work that we do because it’s a service that is extremely important to our communities, and we impact communities in a very, very and significant way.
Absolutely, I couldn’t state it better myself. Ramiro, it has been incredible to talk to you today. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on these unprecedented times we’re going through. It helps to have these conversations so that we’re all working together to make things better, and to help our communities, as you say.
Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this podcast, thank you.
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 https://libraryleadershippodcast.com/, 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.