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A Brief History of ALA for National Library Week 2024
by
Posted On April 9, 2024
This NewsBreak originally appeared in the April 2024 issue of Information Today with the title, “The American Library Association: Advancing Library Science and Safeguarding Information Since the 19th Century” and the subtitle, “A Brief History of ALA for National Library Week, April 7−13, 2024.”

Today, nearly 150 years after its official incorporation, the American Library Association (ALA) is the largest library association in the world, with around 50,000 members. But its conception and beginnings came after initial attempts to launch failed. In 1853, a group of 80 men met in New York for the nation’s first library conference, and they elected Seth Hastings Grant of the New York Mercantile Library as secretary. The following year, a small committee convened to organize a second meeting, but the gathering did not take place, and the library society remained a fledgling idea for more than 20 years.

In 1876, during Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition, more than a hundred librarians—mainly, but not exclusively, men—assembled for what they called a Convention of Librarians. They created a formal registry of members on Oct. 6, 1876. Notably, in attendance were Melvil Dewey—creator of the Dewey decimal shelving system—from Amherst College, Charles Cutter from the Boston Athenaeum, William Poole from the Chicago Public Library and Newberry Library, and Justin Winsor from the Boston Public Library and Harvard Library. By 1879, the organization officially incorporated as a legal entity in Massachusetts, but later, in 1909, relocated its headquarters to Chicago, where it remains today, along with a branch office in Washington, D.C., that opened in 1945 to facilitate dialogue with legislators.

Currently, there are more than 123,000 libraries in the U.S., ALA reports, but in the 1870s, fewer than 500 public libraries existed. ALA formed just as libraries as public institutions gained momentum and began proliferating with the support of public tax allocations. Initially, ALA’s founding members outlined the body’s chief mission as one that helps “enable librarians to do their present work more easily and at less expense.” Today, the professional organization defines standards for the field, raises public awareness, publishes books and other media, confers awards, sponsors scholarships, and has an established track record of promoting literacy and access to information, as well as being a tireless advocate for social justice, privacy, and intellectual freedom issues that stretch beyond the covers of a book.

EARLY LEADERSHIP

Winsor was the group’s first president from 1876 until 1885, and he was ALA’s longest-serving president. Following his tenure, Poole and Cutter each served 2-year terms. Then, from 1889 to 1890, ALA presidents began the current tradition of serving 1-year terms, with appointments decided by membership elections.

Besides the organization’s president, ALA has been supported by the work of its executive director, known as secretary prior to 1958. Executive directors are not bound to term limits, and many hold their posts for several years. Some executive directors have served the organization for decades.

CURRENT GOVERNANCE STRUCTURE

ALA has a robust organizational configuration led by its policymaking council, which comprises at least 177 representatives—100 members elected at large, along with representatives from ALA’s numerous chapters, divisions, and round tables. ALA’s executive board directs the organization’s operations, and membership consists of the immediate past president, elected officers, and eight members appointed by the council. The executive director manages the association’s day-today concerns and leads ALA’s estimated 270 employees.

Tending to issues relating to specific areas of library concerns, ALA currently has eight divisions, 19 round tables, 57 chapters, 25 affiliate organizations, and temporary “pop-up” membership initiative groups that play short-term roles to address concerns that fall outside of the scope of work happening in the divisions, round tables, chapters, and affiliate organizations. Additionally, ALA and its council have 38 volunteer-run standing committees in place to support the organization.

OFFICES

ALA created office units to address the broad concerns and interests of its members. They are advised by member committees and maintain relationships with ALA’s committees, round tables, chapters, and external affiliate groups. ALA’s offices that focus on organizational operations support are the Office of ALA Governance; the Communications, Marketing & Media Relations Office; the Development Office; and the Office for Human Resource Development and Recruitment. ALA member-focused offices are the Chapter Relations Office; the International Relations Office; the Library & Information Resource Center; the Office for Accreditation; the Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services; the Office for Intellectual Freedom; the Public Programs Office; the Publishing and Media Department; and the Public Policy and Advocacy Office.

NATIONAL OUTREACH AND ADVOCACY

Beyond serving its members and being a resource for the profession, ALA champions the rights of readers. Explicitly, the organization dutifully and tenaciously protects liberties, freedoms, and services for all readers across political lines and regardless of divisions that splinter engagement in other fields and social spheres. To facilitate its activism work, ALA established the Public Policy and Advocacy Office in 1945. It proactively researches, discusses, and engages in the areas of information policy, censorship, intellectual freedom, copyright, and privacy and surveillance legislation. When court cases emerge relating to issues of libraries, information, or communication rights, ALA files amici curiae briefs on behalf of the public to help inform lawmakers. ALA’s team consistently lobbies Congress to educate legislators on critical library and information-related issues.

In 1967, ALA established the Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) to implement policies and positions embodied in its Library Bill of Rights—the association’s central statement outlining its commitment to support and protect universal free access to libraries and collections. Today, the office leads awareness campaigns against subtle and overt forms of censorship and promotes educational outreach initiatives to educate the public on privacy, surveillance, and copyright issues.

DIVISIONS AND ROUND TABLES

Representing various types of libraries or library work, ALA hosts eight official membership divisions and 19 special-interest round tables. Members are encouraged to participate and represent library constituencies on a broad range of topics that drive the work of librarians and underpin the missions of libraries around the globe.

The divisions are:

  • American Association of School Librarians (AASL)
  • Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC)
  • Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) 
  • Core: Leadership, Infrastructure, Futures
  • Public Library Association (PLA)
  • Reference and User Services Association (RUSA)
  • United for Libraries
  • Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA)

The round tables are:

  • Coretta Scott King Book Awards
  • Ethnic & Multicultural Information Exchange
  • Film and Media
  • Games and Gaming
  • Government Documents
  • Graphic Novels and Comics
  • Intellectual Freedom
  • International Relations
  • Learning
  • Library History
  • Library Instruction
  • Library Research
  • Library Support Staff
  • Map and Geospatial Information
  • New Members
  • Rainbow
  • Retired Members
  • Social Responsibilities
  • Sustainability

Many round tables are known by their acronyms, which are not included here in order to streamline the list. Not sure which round table to join? ALA offers a quiz so you can find your perfect match.

CHAPTERS, AFFILIATES, AND MIGS

ALA recognizes member chapters from each U.S. state, as well as geographical regions in the U.S. and U.S. territories. There are 64 student chapters, grouped by corresponding accredited library schools in the U.S. The University of Michigan Student Chapter was the first official group, founded in December 1980.

In addition, ALA recognizes 27 special library professional associations as affiliates, such as the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL), the Association for Information Science and Technology (ASIS&T), the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), the Black Caucus (BCALA), the Joint Conference of Librarians of Color (JCLC, Inc.), the Medical Library Association (MLA), the Music Library Association, and REFORMA.

Membership initiative groups (MIGs) are informal, short-term groups brought together by like-minded members to communicate and organize around topical issues. A currently active MIG is the Veterans Caucus, which is creating strategies to recruit military- and veteran-affiliated people into the library field and allied professions.

CONFERENCES

Since the organization’s inception, ALA members have placed value in face-to-face meetings and securing space for its officers and members to gather and discuss issues central to librarianship and the development of the field. ALA continues this tradition and organizes several professional conferences each year.

ALA’s capstone event, known as the Annual Conference, is generally held in June and typically attracts more than 25,000 registrants. The conference focuses on presentations, programs, exhibits, and committee meetings. Occasionally, the organization has been unable to meet and did not hold its Annual Conference in 1878, 1880, 1884, and 1943−1945. In 2020 and 2021, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, ALA sponsored virtual conferences. Those events drew shy of 10,000 participants, about half of the in-person attendance in years before the pandemic. LibLearnX—formerly known as the Midwinter Meeting, established in 1908—is ALA’s second-largest conference and is generally held in January, although ALA announced that it will not be held in 2026. LibLearnX focuses on what its website calls “innovative session design concepts.”

Additionally, ALA sponsors many smaller conferences and meetings for members throughout the year at sites across the U.S. and internationally. Although primarily representing the interests of librarians in the U.S., ALA also supports nearly 1,750 international members and, in 1942, officially broadened its original 1879 charter to explicitly promote “library interests … throughout the world. ...” ALA actually has a long history of promoting international library meetings. International library conferences with joint ALA support include:

  • London, 1877—International Conference of Librarians, with 21 American attendees
  • London, 1897—International Conference of Librarians, with 94 American attendees
  • Brussels, 1910—International Conference of Librarians, with 46 American attendees
  • Edinburgh, 1927—International Conference of Librarians celebrating the 50th anniversary of the British Library Association, with 82 American attendees
  • Rome and Venice, 1929—World Library and Bibliographical Congress, at which IFLA was created, with 70 American attendees
  • Madrid, 1935—World Library and Bibliographical Congress, with 42 American attendees
  • Montreal, 1960—ALA-CLA (Canadian Library Association) joint conference, with 4,648 total attendees
  • Toronto, 2003—ALA-CLA joint conference, with 17,570 total attendees

PUBLISHING

An important function of any professional organization is to promote the dissemination of information in its given field—and in library science, ALA has been a publishing leader for more than a century. Since 1905, ALA has published Booklist, the definitive collection development advisory publication produced to help librarians navigate new publications and subscriptions. Adapting to the internet age, in 1990, ALA created Booklist Online to provide access to a digital archive of Booklist, and it has also grown to include access to webinars and podcasts.

In 1907, ALA launched ALA Bulletin, which has since evolved into American Libraries, the official magazine of the association. It is written to inform readers of developments and issues in the library profession. Providing librarians and library school students with industry-specific texts and textbooks, ALA’s publishing arms ALA Editions and ALA Neal-Schuman promote the dissemination and documentation of best practices that support professional development across the field.

AWARDS, SCHOLARSHIPS, AND GRANTS

To encourage and recognize excellence across the field, ALA hosts numerous award programs. Award categories include a wide selection of achievement honors, advocacy prizes, and architectural accolades, as well as recognition for contributions and advancement in service to youth or underserved populations; advancements in library technologies, special collections, or social advocacy; and strides in intellectual freedom. Outside of honoring the work of members and allied professionals, ALA recognizes the impact and importance of authors, illustrators, and educators with its awards. Top publishing-related accolades include the Randolph Caldecott Medal for children’s book illustrators, the Coretta Scott King Book Awards for Black authors and illustrators of children’s and young adult books, the John Newbery Medal for authors of children’s books, the Pura Belpré Award for Latinx authors and illustrators of children’s and young adult books, and the Stonewall Book Awards for authors writing about LGBTQ+ experiences.

ALA’s highest accolade is Honorary Membership, which the organization confers on living people who have contributed to the field in an outstanding way that has advanced library service. In 2023, ALA honored musician Dolly Parton for her “longstanding support and commitment to inspiring a love of books and reading.” Parton’s Imagination Library initiative distributes books monthly to children younger than 5. It recently reached the milestone of more than 200 million books shared worldwide.

Paying it forward and enabling dreams, ALA administers more than 30 different scholarship funds. Many scholarship programs support library school students, and some focus on supporting the studies of students in distinct subfields such as public service, youth librarianship, and school librarianship, as well as programs intended to support the pursuits of BIPOC students and disabled students. ALA scholarship programs also empower mid-career librarians who seek opportunities to learn specific library-focused skills, such as fundraising for libraries and intellectual property and copyright research.

ALA generously awards numerous grants to support the work of members to help them make meaningful contributions in library services and operations. Grant awards include travel stipends, sponsorship for professional development programs, awards to support the creation of libguides and indexes, and academic research of library organizational history.

DOCUMENTING ALA

In 1973, ALA and the University of Illinois−Urbana-Champaign partnered to establish the ALA Archive. Its contents are open to researchers and include the organization’s official records, publications, correspondence, photographs, and members’ papers. Similarly, ALA’s Institutional Repository (ALAIR) of digital publications is growing and is managed by the ALA Archive’s host university. ALA’s output and organizational history provide a look at the professional society’s legacy as well as snapshots into developments in the library and information science fields spanning more than 150 years. In addition to preserving records of the past, the repository is a mechanism to archive current and future proceedings.


Patti Gibbons is a Chicago-based librarian and freelance writer. Her email address is pattigibbons216@gmail.com.



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