The past year is bound to be remembered as one of the most tumultuous in the 144-year history of ALA. In both internal and external matters, the organization found itself at the center of dramatic change. Internally, it hired a new executive director, Tracie D. Hall, and released a proposal for a far-reaching overhaul of its governance, titled Forward Together. Externally, it was deeply involved in key social concerns: an increasingly bitter political environment, with resulting challenges to intellectual freedom and divisions over the flow of information in society; growing frustration over lack of progress in confronting racism and social injustices; and to top it all off, the COVID-19 pandemic.
The person who led ALA through this difficult time was Wanda Kay Brown, director of library services for the C.G. O’Kelly Library at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina. Brown’s term as ALA president began in June 2019 and ended in June 2020, when she was succeeded by Julius C. Jefferson Jr. She recently took time from her busy schedule to talk about ALA, the library profession, and her presidential year. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
DAVE SHUMAKER: Wanda, thank you for taking time for this conversation. To start with, after such a challenging year as ALA president, have you had a chance to decompress since your term ended?
WANDA KAY BROWN: Yes, some. We’ve been extremely busy preparing for back-to-school, but I’ve had a chance to come down a little bit. Our university will be opening in-person, so we’re preparing library spaces for social distancing as much as we can: rearranging furniture, removing chairs, putting up signage, and making it as ready as we can for social distancing.
SHUMAKER: Before we get into questions about the present and future of librarianship, I’d like to ask how you were drawn into the profession and what led you to stay in it?
BROWN: As I look back over my career path, I see a complete circle. I started as a student assistant in this very library that I’m director of now. I worked here throughout my undergraduate career, while pursuing a degree in secondary education. I did my student teaching in a small town outside Winston-Salem, and it was not a welcoming and rewarding experience—not because of the students, but because of some of the other teachers. So I began to question whether I wanted to teach. As graduation approached, I began looking for a job in Winston-Salem, because I didn’t want to go to a small-town environment like the one I grew up in. When I met with the employment counselor and told her I had worked as a student library assistant, she encouraged me to apply for a library opening at Wake Forest University. It was a 1-year funded job, but at the end of the year, I was hired on permanently. By the end of the second year, I thought, “I kind of like this. I’ll go to library school.” So I enrolled while I continued to work full-time. I stayed at Wake Forest for almost 40 years and had six or seven different positions during that time.
When I made the decision to come here, I was serving as associate dean. I felt it was an opportunity to “come home” and to make a difference in the lives of students whose experiences I could easily relate to. Many of our students are first-generation college students, and I was a first-generation college student. I’ve had a wonderful journey, because I love what I do. I love that we librarians have the capability to influence the lives of other people and help them be successful. I love that we help create lifelong learners. That’s what has kept me here.
SHUMAKER: Let’s go on to some current issues in the profession. When you ran for president of ALA, you articulated four themes of concern. The first was education. You’ve just spoken about the importance of librarians in education, so let’s go further with that. How are we doing, as a profession?
BROWN: I think we’re doing a wonderful job, in that we’re adapting our services to meet an ever-changing environment, no matter what that student or patron looks like. We talk about instilling the love of learning and opportunities that librarians have to work collaboratively, to come together with others to do that. For example, my county, Forsyth County, is number three in the U.S. of counties where a child born in poverty is likely to die in poverty. So what can we do about that? The key is education. We have to surround the child, from an early age, with the love of learning. We must recognize that not everyone is the same, but there’s joy for everyone in learning every day. So I want public libraries and school libraries to come together to embrace not just the “talented tenth,” but those who are at greatest risk, the students sitting at the back of the classroom. The story of my grandson has been heavy on my mind, and I’ve told his story in all of my travels, in North Carolina and as ALA president. His school focused on behavior, conforming, not being in trouble. He needed something extra, but their approach was, “medicate him or get him out.” What we should be doing is instilling the love of learning—recognizing that everyone can’t be the same, but everyone can have the joy of learning.
SHUMAKER: Has the COVID-19 pandemic increased the needs of at-risk community members?
BROWN: Absolutely, and I can give you a story about that. When the schools in Forsyth County shut down and went online, the local cable company provided free access for students. But I know someone who was ineligible for the free access, because they had been delinquent in paying their bill. So their kids fell behind. The pandemic created a further divide. I have read that of 55,000 school-age kids in Forsyth County, 5,000 never logged on to the school. How can our community come together to reach those 5,000? COVID-19 has exposed the digital divide, but it’s an opportunity for us to step in and serve the at-risk members of the community.
SHUMAKER: There are so many factors that go into making distance learning work, aren’t there?
BROWN: Yes, there are. At Winston-Salem State, we mailed out laptops and hotspots to enable students to connect to distance classes. That’s one of the advantages of being at a small school: We recognize the needs and understand the community we serve. At Winston-Salem State, about 70% of our students come from low-income families, so when we went to distance learning during the spring term, we knew that access to computers and the internet would be a challenge, and we mobilized to meet that challenge. Libraries, and all institutions really, do a better job when they recognize the community of users they have and what those users need.
SHUMAKER: Let’s go to your second theme, which was inclusiveness. How would you characterize the state of the profession, and the work ALA is doing, on inclusiveness?
BROWN: I’d start with the ALA Executive Board. Currently, we have the most inclusive and diverse board we’ve ever had. But there’s still much work to be done. The problem is twofold. First, our libraries need to have staffers who reflect the communities we serve. When someone walks up to the reference desk, they need to see someone who looks like them. Second, the leadership teams need to reflect our communities too. Recruiting professionals who reflect our communities is critical, but what happens after they’re hired is just as important. When a person of color is hired, what happens afterward depends not only on the library director, but on their co-workers and even on the students or patrons. I’m amazed at the number of librarians—still!—who tell me about experiencing students coming to the reference desk who ask to speak to another person because they don’t want to interact with a person of color.
SHUMAKER: Are we providing enough opportunities to attract students into the profession?
BROWN: There are resources, and we have to make the most of the opportunities we have. Part of my orientation to the 35 or 40 student assistants we hire in a normal year is to talk to them about the profession. I tell them to consider librarianship as a profession. I tell them that librarianship has opportunities in all disciplines: in health sciences, information technology, education, history, and so many more.
SHUMAKER: Let’s turn to your third theme, intellectual freedom and information literacy. What a timely topic!
BROWN: Part of our core mission is teaching people how to make informed decisions. We’re teaching students how to verify what they see. The current political climate reinforces the need for us to do this. But I want to highlight the question about whether libraries are neutral spaces or not. We have to do our teaching in a neutral way, so that we teach people how to make informed decisions of their own. It can be hard, but we also have to speak out and act on issues. Recently, we’ve seen many libraries and other institutions issue statements supporting Black Lives Matter. What I really want to see in those statements are actions. What are you going to do differently? Are you going to hold monthly meetings? Staff trainings? What are you going to do? We have a role to play. Our words and our actions are important. Sometimes even the little things we do can make a difference. We have so many opportunities to make change, sometimes just by having conversations. But so many times, we miss those opportunities.
SHUMAKER: Your fourth and last theme was professional development. What’s your assessment of the profession’s progress in that area?
BROWN: Actually, COVID-19 has had a positive impact by making more virtual opportunities available. And professional development is vital. This is a theme I talked about constantly as ALA president. Change comes to our profession constantly. Our communities and their needs change constantly. We all should be putting ourselves out there to learn as much as we can so that we’re ready, willing, and able to meet change and not be run over by it. In fact, we can lead the change. We might open the door for change and say, “Come on, Change—I’m ready!” And we’re actually doing a better job than ever before, thanks to the virtual opportunities and by keeping costs down. When I was visiting libraries during my ALA presidential year, I visited some small, one-person libraries. Those solo librarians can’t get away to go to a conference, so the ability to provide virtual learning opportunities makes professional development accessible to them.
SHUMAKER: Before we close, I have a question about one of the themes in your farewell statement. You mention decreased funding, with the prospect of layoffs and cutbacks in library services. We don’t know all of the impacts of the pandemic, of course. But what principles do librarians need to follow to be successful in this environment?
BROWN: We have to be people-centered. Unfortunately, cutbacks are going to happen. But I think we’re ready for the post-COVID world, because we’ve already started doing some of the things we’ll need to do. For example, many of the public libraries started doing virtual storytimes. When you think about it, we should have been doing that all along. Libraries went into emergency mode, and we did an excellent job of being creative. As we come back, the challenge is, how do we navigate two worlds: the world of our staff, who may not be comfortable coming back, and the world of our students who are coming back [to campus]. What message does it send if they’re not able to access the library because the library staffers are staying at home? So we need a people-centered approach that takes into consideration the feelings and needs of staff and of students.
We talked earlier about the importance of understanding your community. At Winston-Salem State, our community is founded on in-person education, so we have to take into consideration the fact that our students have opted for the in-person experience. I even heard from students who wanted the library to be open during the shutdown, because they could not focus and study at home. I was sorry to have to tell them we could not be open. I’ve been torn between the need for staffers to stay home and the fact that people in our community need us. The library is essential; library workers are essential. So as we reopen, let’s wave our flag and let’s march on! And if we stay people-centered, we’ll be successful.
Wanda Kay Brown’s four themes: “Meet the Candidates for ALA President: Wanda Brown”
Wanda Kay Brown’s farewell statement: “A Year of Change, Loss, Hope”
Photo courtesy of ALA