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We’re Stronger Together: A Conversation with ALA President Emily Drabinski

by on July 21, 2023

In this interview, Emily Drabinski, ALA President, speaks with Doug Crane, director of the Palm Beach County (FL) Public Library about her headshot of emily drabinski ala president - smiling, glasses, light blue backgroundcurrent term as ALA President, her background as an academic librarian with over two decades of experience, her involvement with the American Library Association (ALA) at a national level, and plans for her presidential year.

Doug Crane: Please share your background and how you became involved with ALA at a national level.

Emily Drabinski: I’ve been an academic librarian in New York City for 22 years. I joined ALA in 2002 when I had just finished library school, because it took this bold position against the Patriot Act. I was excited to be part of a profession that takes difficult stances in difficult political moments. And we definitely are in one of those right now. So I was interested in using some of my skills as a connector of people to work inside the association that I think can be valuable in this moment. My involvement at ALA was primarily in my division home, ACRL, which is common for most people. I was on a number of its committees and have been editing the book reviews for our journal for the last three years. I served one term as ALA Council and that was a really interesting experience. I saw how the sausage gets made a little bit, in terms of what kind of a national presence ALA has, which I think is really important.

DC: Why did you want to become a librarian?

ED: It was by accident. I grew up in Boise, Idaho and moved to New York City for college. I wanted to be a writer in New York which is I think every Idaho queer kid’s dream. I was working in magazines and wasn’t having success. My jobs were writing small amounts of copy for stories about why smoothies are the top trend this summer. I was stuck reviewing pillows for a men’s lifestyle website and it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. My last job was as a fact checker at Lucky magazine, which was a magazine about shopping where I checked prices for handbags. I just wasn’t happy there. I was getting in trouble for making mistakes about handbag prices and soon realized that if I was going to get in trouble I wanted to get in trouble for work that matters. A friend suggested that I apply for a job at the library. They were hiring at New York Public so I applied and got the job. They said I could move to a different contract title that paid more money if I agreed to go to library school. I was like, okay I’ll try it, and started school. Right at my very first class I was like, this is mind-blowing, I love it. I enjoy connecting people to resources so that they can live full lives while getting paid to do that. It’s just amazing. I feel lucky every day that I landed here, even on those days when I’m troubleshooting a copy card machine that isn’t accepting five dollar bills. I like solving that kind of problem.

DC: What inspired you to run for ALA president?

ED: Honestly I was like, why not? I come out of both libraries and the labor movement, I have been active in workplace unions, including being on strike and locked out, and really learned a lot about organizing people through those experiences. I look at ALA as a really well organized institution for librarians, library workers and libraries. So I thought if I could sort of step into a national role there I could do organizing work that I think is really necessary.

I put my name in the hat at the time when my library returned from COVID. At the beginning with the slow in-person return, everything I was seeing and hearing from library workers was that the pandemic was really tough for us. Especially in the public libraries where people were having to solve problems as the world was sort of collapsing around them. Problems like figuring out Wi-Fi, figuring out Broadband, figuring out homework help, and how do we meet the needs of our communities. I thought it would be good to run for president as someone who’s library worker focused, because I think that’s something the field really needs right now.

DC: What do you plan to focus on for your presidential year?

ED: Past Presidents say you plan and then the year happens. My plan is to focus on bringing to completion projects that Past Presidents Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada and Patty Wong worked on. For a long time, ALA has had sustainability as a priority. We have a round table, we have a council committee, and we have sustainability now as a core value. So will be focused on tying up those loose ends so that we can have national climate strategy for libraries coming from ALA to guide people in managing through environmental crises. Also it will include ways that we as institutions can contribute to reversing some of those climate change trends.

As stated earlier, another focus is on library workers. Under Lessa, we began work to think about new ways to use the ALA-Allied Professional Association. We asked how can we fund it and staff it in ways that can help it work better and more on behalf of library workers. So that working group that she started, I’ll be hoping to wrap up its work during my Presidential year. That way we have a sustainable and structural approach to assisting library workers with the issues. This includes everything from up-to-date certification programs, to resources on how to start a union or organize one that already exists.

Of course the intellectual freedom issues persist, so that will be another focus. I am among only a handful of queer presidents of the Association, and I am really open about that. So trying to bring awareness to LGBTQ+ library issues both for library workers who are queer, but also the communities we serve.

Mostly I’m just a super collaborative person so I’m looking forward to working with all of the divisions on projects that I can assist with at the national level. For example, that means finding out what work AASL wants to do and seeing if I can connect that to the priorities of ALA. I think of my style as radically collaborative, so we’ll see what comes up from that.

DC: What trends do you see in the profession that you think ALA should take a bigger lead on?

ED: I think ALA takes the lead on a lot of things that maybe people don’t see very comprehensively. We are definitely taking the lead around censorship and free speech issues. That is is crucial. We are also working on technological changes. There’s a lot of interest in what the impact of AI will be on libraries. That’s something we need to think about. Also, there the problem of consolidation on the vendor side and figuring out ways to keep materials affordable for libraries. We need to work with them to help us make library materials more affordable. Finally, I go anywhere that library workers are organizing, unionizing, or advocating for themselves. I think ALA can do a lot to support those efforts mostly through the Allied Professional Association.

DC: Please recommend a book or two that you think every librarian should read.

ED: There’s a book called “Sorting Things Out” by Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Starr. It’s about the politics of classification. It’s what we do as librarians. Our core function is to take a mass of materials that’s a big jumble and organize it so people can access it. The book is not a library book, but I think really interesting on the politics of that organizing work.

And then there’s another called “Knowledge Justice: Disrupting Library and Information Studies through Critical Race Theory.” It’s an edited collection about race in the field and it’s really smart and available Open Access, from MIT press by Sophia Leung and Jorge Lopez-McKnight.

DC: To wrap up is there any other topic you want to share for the interview?

ED: We live in a highly politicized moment in library history that’s a little intense, certainly for me as I’m on the receiving end of a lot of really intense stuff, but I think it’s really important for us to stick together. We must remember that the vast majority of people agree with us. People love libraries. They are beloved institutions in almost all of our communities. We’re stronger when we stand together in defense of those institutions.