By: Diane Stirling
The idea that access to libraries–and to the information, materials, and guidance available therein is a right community members should be guaranteed–is a platform that has taken Barbara Stripling to all corners of the United States and around the world.
An assistant professor of practice at the School of Information Studies, Stripling, who also is the 2013-2014 president of the American Library Association (ALA), has spent much of the past nine months assuring that the conversations about libraries are focused on their high value and their positive, productive futures.
Given that many public and school libraries have been facing heavy community scrutiny and dire challenges to their value, funding, and even existence, much of Stripling’s ALA focus has been on advocating their worth through her leadership theme, “Libraries Change Lives.”
Many types of libraries face the potential of cutbacks, and worse, she said. “Where we’re seeing the most danger right now is in the school library world–and there are school libraries that have been shut across the country, largely because of testing pressures and budget pressures. Public libraries are not as threatened, but we’re turning the conversation from, ‘Do we need libraries [given that] so much information available is online?’ to a conversation about ‘What are libraries going to look like?”
Striping attributes the turnabout of perspective to the attention captured by “libraries doing transformative things in their communities,” she added. “Libraries are becoming community centers, and their focus is very definitely not so much on the library but on the community, developing the library to serve the needs of the community, and empowering community members to accomplish whatever it is that they want to do,” she continued. “There’s a huge surge in learning commons, where you have open spaces as opportunities for people to work in small and large groups to accomplish something; flexible space, learning space where people are directing their own learning.”
Another transforming trend is that libraries are “providing the spaces and the tools and the guidance for people to create,” resulting in an increase in community facilities, such as a video production center for teens; a small business development center; and a micropublishing suite in spaces at the library, Stripling added. “It’s a switch. Instead of just consuming information that’s available, we’re providing spaces for them to create information.”
In her extensive ALA travels, Stripling has observed how librarians far and wide have engaged these challenges and are embracing what the future might create. “I’ve just been overwhelmed at the positive attitude of librarians across the country. They’re excited about the future, they’re making plans, and they are actively engaged in integrating technology and changing their libraries. It’s pretty exciting,” Stripling enthused.
Declaration for Libraries
To promote wide discussion on the issue, Stripling and an ALA advisory committee developed “The Declaration for the Right to Libraries,” a document that has been endorsed by thousands of individuals and groups. Many libraries and organizations have conducted community signing ceremonies, and the ALA plans public events in Washington D.C. soon, focused on the declaration’s tenets, as part of its national legislative agenda.
The document points out the comprehensive role libraries play in strengthening individuals, families, and communities, Stripling said. “There’s no question that libraries are the great equalizer. There’s equitable access to information, ideas, opportunities for people to discover and create; but there’s also [the idea] that libraries support our intellectual right to know, based on libraries’ support of intellectual freedom as a foundational value. We do everything we can to protect people’s right to know and their ability to express their ideas,” she explained.
Stripling also will be addressing the National Press Club, meeting with national leaders during a legislative action day, and overseeing a specially convened ALA “think tank” summit. It will gather thought leaders from diverse industries and professions to “think outside of the library world and push the thinking a little bit.” There is also a series of ALA webinars on strategic partnerships.
In international visits advancing the ALA’s mission, the group president has found wonderful communities of interest and support, she said. “I know that ALA provides a lot of support to the international library scene, so when I make trips to foreign countries, I’m really pleasantly surprised at the level of interest in activities and the appreciation for how much ALA has done and continues to do to development some of the important principles of libraries that are used internationally,” she noted. “ALA is really building an international library community, which I think is important because we share a lot of the same values.”
The ALA website provides a copy of the declaration that individuals, libraries, and organizations can sign. A video of Stripling describing the mission behind the declaration is posted online, and more information is available on her website.