Emily Drabinski has been elected President of the American Library Association (ALA). The ALA is the fifth largest trade association in the nation, and the oldest and largest library association in the world. This non-profit organization promotes libraries and library education globally, and boasts more than 57,000 members. Drabinski ran for the position because, as she says, “I want to bring organizing energy into the association so that we can be better at having each other’s backs.”
Soon after entering the professional workforce, Drabinski was toiling in the magazine business in New York City and wanted a career overhaul. She was looking for something that would allow her flexibility outside of the city if she wanted to move, and provide long-term professional relevance and security. She already had her bachelor’s in Political Science and Government from Columbia University, but she was considering different ways that she could establish a new career path by furthering her education. An acquaintance of Drabinski, and a recent iSchool graduate, told her over lunch one day that, “The best thing she could do was to go to Syracuse, and get her library degree.” And that is exactly what she did.
Drabinski enrolled in the iSchool’s online Master’s of Library and Information Science program in 2001. By staying in NYC and taking the classes online, she could double down on her real-world education by also working full-time at the New York Public Library. This was all happening at the same time as the 9/11 attacks, and Drabinski appreciatively credits her iSchool classmates and their supportiveness during that harrowing time in the city. “Being able to just go think about libraries was really wonderful for me,” she says, remembering just how challenging that period was in her life.
In order to become an academic librarian Drabinski had to have two graduate degrees. Her second master’s was in Rhetoric and Composition from Long Island University, and with this she was now qualified and motivated to get to work in her chosen career. However, the path to becoming a professional librarian was not exactly a straight line. After graduating she worked odd jobs for a little while before landing an academic librarian position at Sarah Lawrence College, then Long Island University, and now she is Interim Chief Librarian of the Graduate Center at City University of New York in Brooklyn.
Two days after the Graduate Center had to close due to the pandemic, Drabinski took over as Interim Chief Librarian. Running the library through the crisis for over two years, she realized that she thrives in these types of circumstances, and is glad to have been at the helm during the worst of it. Although the challenges were enormous at times, she learned a lot about guiding a large institution through an unusual crisis, and has grown professionally because of the experience.
Drabinski taught in the iSchool’s MSLIS program from 2017-2020. In 2018 she earned the iSchool’s Innovation Alumni Award – which recognizes a creative individual that has shown innovation in their field. This award was particularly meaningful for Drabinski. She was going through a difficult time in her life, and to receive recognition for her work, and get invited to the campus for a weekend and a football game provided a much-welcomed boost to her outlook.
Even before Drabinski’s work as adjunct professor, Dr. Rachel Ivy Clarke of the iSchool was closely following her career. Clarke says, “I first learned about Emily through reading her writing and publications, which are required reading in many LIS programs across the country and abroad (including in my own classes!).” Dr. Clarke describes the liveliness and passion that Drabinski brings to the field, and how the sessions that she presents at conferences are full of energy, and that she isn’t afraid to speak truth-to-power. With a thoughtful endorsement of Drabinski’s candidacy for the ALA Presidency, Clarke says, “This is a pivotal moment in time to organize within the library field, and we need a powerful leader to help us shape a better future for libraries. Because of her research work, her years of professional expertise, and her skill as a community organizer, Emily has the knowledge, background and experience to lead us to a better future.”
A lot of Drabinski’s extra-curricular time in her adult life has been spent organizing. She participated in labor-organizing work at Long Island University, Brooklyn for a number of years, and she says “I really believe in the power of connections that we build with each other around shared values and commitments and demands. I think we’re in a moment where the support for public institutions is in decline. COVID has made the importance of the library in every community crystal-clear.” Because of this, she sees a need to organize support for libraries and other vital public institutions that are so often coming under attack by other well-organized groups intent on subverting public goods and institutions.
As the president of the ALA, Drabinski sees an opportunity to shape the story that library workers tell about themselves. Rather than grasping at ways to appear relevant, she wants to emphasize all the ways that libraries, and those that staff them, already are essential and relevant. Drabinski aims to innovate within library systems instead of innovating around them. She says, “You could solve a lot of social problems if the locus of analysis, and the locus of your political fight – was the library.”