Welcome to Library Leadership Podcast as we talk with Jim Neal, 2017-2018 President of the American Library Association. He is University Librarian Emeritus at Columbia University where his responsibilities included the Columbia Center for Digital Research and Scholarship, the Copyright Advisory Office, and the Center for Human Rights Documentation and Research. He has a long history of ALA involvement leading to his presidency; has participated on numerous international, national, and state professional committees; and is an active member of IFLA (the International Federation of Library Associations). He is a speaker, consultant, and published author in the areas of scholarly communication, intellectual property, digital library programs, and library cooperation.

On this show, Jim Neal shares his vision for ways in which libraries can gain support through demonstrating the positive difference they make in the communities they serve and documenting their impact. He provides information on a new American Library Association initiative to develop a Policy Corps of experienced leaders dedicated to advocacy and political engagement. He has witnessed positive movement on the ground during his presidential tenure, as libraries reach beyond boundaries to provide service. His insights on the important skills librarians must develop to be strong leaders and advocates in the profession will inspire you. Thank you for tuning in to this important conversation.


Adriane Herrick Juarez: 

Today on Library Leadership Podcast we’re featuring the President of the American Library Association, Jim Neal. He provides information on a new national initiative to develop a Policy Corps of experienced library leaders, dedicated to advocacy and political engagement that will benefit libraries across the country. Also, he gives insights on the important skills and values librarians must develop to be strong leaders in the profession. Thank you for tuning in to this important conversation. 

Jim, welcome to the show. We know you’re busy so let’s get right to it.

Question #1: What are the greatest challenges libraries are facing today and what can we do about it?  00:48

Jim Neal: 

How do we demonstrate the continuing value and relevance of libraries and library workers in the communities that we serve? How can we develop a richer conversation to demonstrate the innovation and the services that we’re providing, and what a difference we make in our communities? How do we develop what has come to be called, Measures that Matter to document that investment and that impact, and to grow in response to community needs? To demonstrate that we are not only supporting the people in our community, but we’re contributing to its economic development or sustaining its culture, we’re helping individuals who are making important transitions in their lives—whether those be new immigrants in our communities, people who are looking for work, homeless—we have a range of responsibilities and roles and we just need to find a better way to talk about it, to communicate it, and to measure it.

We also are seeing a pretty extraordinary conversation going on at the national level that involves libraries as well. Many of our core values are at risk. The things that we care about, issues around equity diversity and inclusion, issues of social justice, issues of open access to information, the importance of government information in a democracy, concerns about the future of privacy, the future of fair use and copyright protections for libraries— libraries find themselves in many ways, in a political challenge trying to advocate and support continuing funding for the work of libraries, IMLS, and other important programs, but also to understand and work more aggressively and successfully on important policy areas that we care about. I would say those are two of the messages that I’ve heard pretty consistently as I’ve talked with members and I’ve visited libraries around the country.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: 

Question #2: And in response to that, I know you’ve put out a call for library leaders to apply for an ALA Policy Corps which will be a political activism and advocacy group for libraries. Can you tell me about that?  03:00

Jim Neal:

Sure, libraries all across the country and their supporters, friends, and trustees, have been extremely active and successful in building support for libraries at the local level. We have called upon them over the course of this last year to begin to meet at the local district level with their representatives in Washington to argue and support the funding that we need, which is so important at the federal level.

We’ve built a growing capacity for advocacy across the field. The one area that I felt we needed to focus on was a group of advocates who we are calling the ALA Policy Corps who would combine two things. They would have a very, very deep understanding of a particular policy area and be committed to continuing to monitor it and to grow an understanding of its complexities. And also have the ability—I sometimes call it chutzpah, to be very active at the national level, representing the library community in that policy area.

We need individuals who can testify on panels before congressional committees. We need individuals who can be interviewed by the national press. We need individuals who can sit down at the table with key policy partners in these areas and work with those partners and those coalitions on key initiatives around those policy areas. We find that a number of individuals who have carried out those roles and responsibilities are retiring and we need to commit over the next five years to build that new cohort of policy experts who can work in these venues on behalf of libraries.

Therefore the Policy Corps, which has now been initiated—we are accepting applications through November 4th and hopefully, we’ll have a great first group of individuals. We’re hoping for 10 to 12. We’ve far exceeded that in terms of the number of applications we’ve received already. We will learn from this first year and decide whether and how to proceed to build that capacity for the American Library community.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #3: Thank you. And, do you have a vision for what kind of messages will be first coming out of the Policy Corps?  05:40

Jim Neal:

ALA often works with coalitions. In the area of copyright for example, we work with the Library Copyright Alliance. We also work very closely with a number of other partners in areas of telecommunications policy, network neutrality, issues around privacy issues, around government information. So, what we’re hoping is that when we develop this capacity, going forward—my vision is that we will be the go-to organization. That is, the legislators in Washington, the national press, the key players on the national scene will say, Libraries need to be at this table. And, we will have the spokespeople who will be able to step up and not only have the knowledge but also have the ability to be effective in those venues. That’s my vision.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #4: And, in your opinion you talk about bringing in a new cohort of leaders into the profession. What would you say the greatest skill sets, and values, and messaging that you could have those folks be versed in?  06:42

Jim Neal: 

Well, the Policy Corps is tapping into individuals who have significant library experience. That is individuals who are early to mid-career and have worked in libraries for at least five years. But, I do a lot of presentations around the country looking at the future of our profession and the individuals that we need to interest in the work of libraries.

The most important thing is we need to remain committed to the diversity of the field. We organized about twenty years ago a special effort to fund the library education cost to assist with the library education cost of individuals from diverse communities, underrepresented communities. That was the Spectrum Scholarship Program which continues to have a major impact in attracting individuals to the profession—Librarians of Color in particular. But, what we’ve observed is over that twenty year period we have not seen the type of improvement in the diversity inclusion in libraries of all types. Therefore, we need to step back and take a fresh look at how we’re working in this space.

I’m going to be organizing later this year an effort to partner with individuals in high schools and in colleges to demonstrate librarianship as a desirable career choice. To try to interest individuals in librarianship before they make that decision later in their academic careers. Try to make continuing investments in scholarships and support for those individuals as they go through the library education programs. Then to work very closely with those graduates to make sure that they grow in their professional voice and continue to be participants, active participants, in the work of the Association and other professional organizations.

We need to continue to work in that area. But, in terms of other types of skills—clearly, we need individuals who have a deep subject, or deep process, or a deep technical expertise. We want individuals who have a very strong service commitment who understand what it means to assess and evaluate our work, that have communication and marketing skills that are willing to become engaged politically, see the value of collaboration and involvement in issues of social justice.

We’re providing a rich working environment for individuals. Sometimes our libraries are too bureaucratic and hierarchical and don’t provide rich project and program opportunities for young professionals. We need to be both focused on attracting talented individuals to the field, but once we bring them into the work of libraries we need to give them space for growth, space for innovation, and space for involvement. That’s one of the challenges to library leadership going forward.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: 

Question #5: That’s an incredible challenge. And I know you’ve been traveling a lot already in your first three months as ALA president. What are you seeing on the ground that’s exciting you?  10:32

Jim Neal: 

Most of my career, if not all of my career, has been invested in academic libraries, particularly the larger research libraries. I felt a strong need as ALA president to get out and visit as many schools and public libraries as I could— to learn about the work that they’re doing. I have to tell you, I’ve been blown away by the level of innovation, the level of quality, and the communication with the community.

The work that’s being done, particularly in support of community needs—reaching beyond the provision of access to information, which continues to be a core responsibility and commitment. But also, being really innovative in the types of services that are being provided—moving beyond the walls of the library to be in the classrooms, to be in the work areas in the community, in the government offices.

Libraries and librarians are being very successful in reaching beyond their traditional bounds of service and their traditional bounds of geography. That’s very exciting—very important. We all have a lot to learn from the work that’s going on in public and school libraries.

Having said that, I’m deeply concerned about the status of school libraries around the country. We’re seeing too many school libraries which have been closed. We’ve seen too many school libraries for which the professional staffing has been reduced or eliminated. We’ve seen the budgets of those school libraries eroded in their inability to build collections and to provide technology for their kids. We have seen school libraries which are not working in partnership with classroom teachers. It’s an area of great concern because school libraries are so foundational to our work across the library community.

I often talk about the ecology of libraries. The ability of public libraries and academic libraries to be effective will depend on children having access to great school libraries and great school librarians. So, it’s an issue. We need to give continuing priority and attention to the prospects and conditions in our school libraries around the U.S.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: 

Question #6: Certainly. You alluded earlier to librarians needing skills such as community building, marketing, social justice, working in the political realm. We’re all learning and adapting as we go. Do you have any specific tools that you would recommend librarians have at their fingertips to help them with this process or even a favorite book on leadership?  13:14

Jim Neal: 

It’s very important that librarians—library workers network with each other. We have a tremendous amount of information and experience and expertise that sharing experience needs to continue to be emphasized. I see lots of librarians on the web, on Facebook and other social media venues exchanging a lot of ideas and a lot of information. Visiting other libraries can also be a very powerful and positive way to grow in understanding, and stretch your thinking about what’s going on.

The literature continues to be very important. The magazines, the journals, the books that are being published— they provide rich resources and rich documentation of what’s going on. There’s lots of webinars out. They’re not only those provided by our professional associations but a lot of other fields that help people grow in their understanding and their ability and their skills. Attendance at conferences, whether it be state conferences or national conferences, gives us an opportunity to be educated and most importantly, to network with other individuals.

There is a commitment to learning, if you will, a commitment to professional growth that needs to be embedded early in our career. That so much defines what it means to be a professional. That’s one of the important ways to keep up, to grow in understanding and to be able to borrow and share. That’s a critical part of our success as librarians.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: 

Question #7: I know that so many of us come into the profession wanting to make a difference. Can you share something with us that personally led you into this field and what libraries mean to you?   15:22

Jim Neal: 

So many of us are working in other spaces. I was doing a PhD in Russian history at Columbia University and ultimately decided that was not what I saw as my career choice. I discovered this thing in the Butler Library at Columbia called the School of Library Service. This was in 1972. I actually did not know that people went to graduate school to become a librarian. I’ve worked with many great librarians in my undergraduate and graduate years but that was a real extraordinary learning experience for me.

I made the transition in two months. Within two semesters I was out in the field working as a librarian. What I observed in myself was an ability to maintain my academic, my scholarly, and research interests—but to combine that with a real commitment to the communities in which I was working, a service to the students and faculty in my case.

I always reached beyond the borders of the library in which I was working to become involved in campus initiatives, campus committees, and task forces. Always raising my hand when somebody needed help on campus. By 1976 I had discovered the American Library Association, and have now been to eight-four consecutive ALA conferences and Mid-winters. I’ve always seen that professional opportunity and that professional voice that ALA enables as so critical to my success, my self-worth, my commitment, and by my positioning, if you will, as well as a library professional. I’ve always been very committed to having a professional life and voice beyond the job responsibilities of my work.

You asked earlier about books. I’ve always been very interested in the work of Clayton Christensen. I know that there is some debate about his commentaries on leadership but I view the importance of innovation as so critical to the success of libraries and librarians. He, more than any other writer today, has given me some really good guidance and good thinking around how social, political, economic, technological change encourages us to think differently about what we are, how we are perceived and understood by the communities we serve and by how we do it. I find his work to be really powerful.

The other book that I found to be really helpful was focused on the higher education communities by Damon Williams called, Strategic Diversity Leadership. It’s all about how to activate change and transformation in the higher education community. It has important lessons that extend well beyond just colleges and universities. It just demonstrates that in order to have high-quality education, to promote economic development, leadership capacity, social justice—diversity is important, but it’s central to our work as leaders in whatever field we find ourselves working in. I’ve always tried to embrace that. It’s one of my core values, and I’m glad to be working in a field which also gives such high importance to diversity, inclusion and social justice.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #8: Definitely. In closing, do you have any advice for executive directors that are adapting and learning to face and overcome today’s challenges in libraries?  19:46

Jim Neal: 

It’s important that library leaders have a clear sense of mission. Why did you get into this field? It’s good to constantly reflect on that. It’s important to have a self-vision. What do you want to accomplish? Where are you going, if you will? Don’t depend on that base of knowledge that we entered the field with. But, maintain an ongoing commitment to improvement – personal, and organizational improvement.

Have a strong professional voice. Do participate in the community and in the work of the field. Leaders help their organizations set a direction. They have a particular role in hiring and developing really great people in that organization. They have a primary responsibility for getting the resources from their funders and from outside organizations.

Leaders ask hard questions and get the organization to think and debate about the importance of innovation. Having done that, the best thing a leader can do is get out of the way and let the great people advance the direction. Invest the resources and get the work of the library done. I see that as part of my, what I call, leadership philosophy.

Adriane Herrick Juarez: 

Question #9: Excellent advice, thank you for being on the show today. We appreciate all your service to the American Library Association and to libraries across our nation. We will be watching as you move forward. Good luck with the rest of your presidential year. It’s been great talking to you today.  21:32

Jim Neal: 

OK, thank you very much. Bye Bye now.

This is Adrian Herrick Juarez, to hear more episodes from inspiring leaders check out our website at libraryleadershippodcast.com. Thank you for listening. We’ll see you next time.