ALA President’s Program

ALA President’s Program
The Future of Our Profession: Educating Tomorrow’s Librarians

Sunday, January 22, 2006, 3:30-5:30 PM
Gonzalez Convention Center Theatre
Speakers: Michael Gorman, Bill Johnson, Andrei Codrescu

The program had four significant segments:

Part 1: Introductions and Bill Johnson

This important program had more than just a little schizophrenic feel to it. People obviously came to hear big name author and PBS commentator Andrei Codrescu, but his remarks had little to do with the title of the event, or with Michael Gorman’s focus on library education. That was as it should be (I’m sure no one came to hear Codrescu discuss education for librarians), but it divided the program focus quite dramatically creating an event with a marked split personality.

ALA President Michael Gorman led off by introducing his yearlong presidential focus on key issues in library education, expressing his desire to engage in a dialogue on the subject of education for librarianship.

  • Are students receiving the skills, knowledge and values they need?
  • Is the “L” in LIS receiving the attention it deserves?

Gorman stated that the captioned text from the program would be posted on the ALA website after the conference, but warned that this process takes several weeks. (I could find no information about this on the ALA website on Feb. 1 while editing this posting from my notes.)

C-SPAN’s Book-TV filmed the event for later broadcast. The president’s web page on the ALA site will post the broadcast date when it becomes available.

Note: I can’t even locate an ALA President’s Page for Gorman on the ALA site using either the Google-based search engine, or following the site’s own hierarchy. Under “ALA Governance” one is linked to Gorman’s page at California State University, Fresno, much of which (including Gorman’s list of appearances) doesn’t appear to have been updated since August, 2005. Although the page on Gorman’s Forum on Education for Librarianship has been updated more recently, it contains no information about the Codrescu event.

Gorman recognized his Presidential Advisory Committee members. He then talked about New Orleans and ALA’s decision to honor “our commitment” to hold our next conference there. According to him, this will be the first major national conference held in New Orleans since Katrina.

Gorman introduced Bill Johnson, Director of the New Orleans Public Library, who spoke for a few minutes about the library situation there. He thanked the people of San Antonio and Texas for their response to the Katrina disaster, also people in the library community for bringing the ALA convention to New Orleans. He also expressed thanks to libraries around the country that helped.

What was it [Katrina] like? It was like having a massive heart attack and then having to get up and go to work the next day, said Johnson. Initially they opened 3 libraries with 19 people.

Johnson also stressed that ALA will be the first convention coming into the city, giving the library leverage with the city authorities. However, “You won’t be the first event because we’re going to have Mardi Gras!” said Johnson. “All the bugs will be worked out then. I’d like to see you all there!”

Gorman announced several programs ALA has undertaken to aid libraries in New Orleans including the “adopt a library” program. Thanks to donors, $270,000 has been raised for the Katrina library relief fund. New Orleans conference-goers will be able to volunteer for a full day either before or after the conference to help in rebuilding efforts via the “Libraries Build Communities” program.

Next Gorman requested that the audience stand for a moment of silence honoring the passing of Gerald Hodges. Hodges joined ALA staff in 1989 and served as Director of Member Services. He will be sorely missed, said Gorman.

Finally, Gorman introduced the featured speaker, Andrei Codrescu, mentioning his role as a weekly commentator on NPR’s All Things Considered and as editor of The Exquisite Corpse. Recent efforts include a movie “Road Scholar,” and his latest book New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writings from the City, copies of which were available for purchase and signing by the author after the event.

Part 2: Andrei Codrescu

Blogger’s note: There is absolutely no way I can even pretend to do justice to Codrescu’s remarks here. I will only try to provide a small sampling of bons mots for your delectation.

Codrescu began by stating that he wished to add to what his fellow Louisianan (Bill Johnson) had told us, expressing his hope that his audience would all be in New Orleans for ALA. “If anything,” he quipped, “it will be less dangerous, since the criminals have left, gone to other places to practice their craft.”

(C. later took flack over that remark during the Q & A from someone who found it insensitive and insulting to N.O. residents. C. responded that only a small percentage of the N.O. population were criminals, just like everywhere else.)

Codrescu began, as many celebs do, by declaring his affinity for libraries and librarians. Librarians are some of his favorite people, he insisted. In his case, he backed it up by pointing to the prominent role of librarians in his published work. His work is “filled with librarians, keeping the flame of literacy flickering in these pixilated times.” In Casanova in Bohemia, an old man is a librarian. In Wakefield, the protagonist’s daughter (I think it was) is one.

C. hates repeating himself, which is why he’s not an actor. In preparing for this talk, C. had three questions he put to himself:

  1. How is a librarian better than a mouse click? A: Not much and much more. A machine doesn’t waste time thinking about the quality of the information it provides.
  2. What can library buildings do besides holding books? A: Libraries are cultural centers for those who don’t fall prey to television and video games.

    There are homeless and mentally ill people who think of libraries as their churches.

    In addition to being a poet, a social worker and a nurse, the modern librarian must maintain the library’s collections of esoteric literature.

    Libraries are useful for sheltering great numbers of people, even in a storm that rips the roof right off the poverty in our city.

    Take away the library, and what you have is a mindless shopping mall.

    Caveat: the bookshelves get in the way of things like poetry reading. This sometimes results in wine spillage.

    Libraries should promote circuses and music.

    Libraries should transform themselves into producers of culture, feeding back into Google, instead of turning people into Googleing gophers.

  3. What does Freedom to Read mean to ALA? Answer: “I became a writer because I read forbidden books.” He cited an elderly man in Romania who provided all the proscribed works of literature to the younger generation including C. He credited this “unofficial” librarian with his having become a writer.

C. referred to Section 215 of the Patriot Act, and quoted from the Library Bill of Rights.

In what was undoubtedly the most controversial aspect of his speech, C. took ALA to task for not supporting the independent libraries and librarians that are being persecuted in Cuba. When he visited Cuba he was appalled by the lack of books. “Cuba today is the Romania of my growing up,” he said. “I hope the ALA will pass a resolution condemning Castro’s regime for flagrant violations of human rights.”

All three questions resolve into one question: Do we believe we can survive in the 20th century? Can we make a difference to people who forget to read and those who are forbidden to do so?

For the rest of Codrescu’s remarks, you’ll have to wait for the transcript (parts of which at least are apparently available on the ALACOUN list archives, and elsewhere), or wait for the Book-TV broadcast. There are also postings on other blogs, such as the PLA Blog.

Part 3: Michael Gorman

Once C. concluded his talk, Gorman took the podium, and in a particularly schizophrenic moment, read his prepared remarks, which were almost completely unrelated to Codrescu’s, but instead related to the program’s announced title: “The Future of Our Profession: Educating Tomorrow’s Librarians.”

There are 3 ways in which people learn, said Gorman:

  1. by experience
  2. by listening to people who are wiser and know more than they
  3. through interaction with the human record, i.e. by reading

This is a positive and affirming profession, said G.

Historically there have been 3 main reasons for restricting access to the human record:

  1. blasphemy
  2. indecency
  3. sedition

G. spoke against these kinds of restrictions by any government.

Some questions to ponder:

  • Can we as ALA define the elements of our profession in the 21st century so that they can be passed down to future generations?
  • Are we carrying out the duty of our profession to control our professional education?
  • Is ALA sufficiently responsible in relation to its professional education, as regards accreditation, curriculum, etc.?

The stakes are high and failure cannot be contemplated, said G.

Part 4: Q&A with Gorman and Codrescu

Index cards were handed out as people entered the theater. Questions for C or G were written on the cards and passed to Gorman by ALA volunteers.

Gorman began by attempting to respond to Codrescu’s attack on ALA for not denouncing the Cuban gov’t. He talked about the dispute over the activity, and whether the individuals in question are really librarians or not.

G: Having a book in your house and lending it to another person doesn’t mean you’re a librarian.

C: ALA should make a stronger statement of solidarity with these people. Cubans have nothing to read. ALA is already involved in all kinds of politics and should condemn the Cuban gov’t.

C. thinks ALA is one of the most articulate associations in the US in defending freedom of speech and should continue to do so.

A question was asked about China. Is the situation there as extreme as in Cuba? C. said no, because they can’t control the Internet, but that we should condemn restrictions on freedom to read there also.

A question asked if these kinds of political issues should be our [i.e. ALA’s] business. Certainly it’s your business, said C.

C. listed what he described as the two main propaganda points that have come from Cuba, and that used to come from the now defunct Eastern European communist regimes:

  • High literacy rates
  • Free medical care

Both of these were false he said. Regarding free medical care, yes, it’s free but there are no machines. Basically the level of care was so low as to be non-existent, or useless. Likewise, if there is nothing available to read, literacy rates are meaningless.

A question asked if we should support people who were paid to overthrow the Cuban government. Codrescu: “I think people should overthrow ALL governments.”

Gorman: I can can see the headlines now: “Anarchist Addresses Pinko Communist Librarians.”

Gorman: This will be televised, you know.

Codrescu: Good—we’ll be retiring soon.

Another question asked about the future of printed books. C: Book technology has lasted from the 16th to the 21st centuries. But he essentially said that books will probably go away fairly soon, preserved as historically relevant objects.

C: I may be the last writer.

Someone asked if C. remembered 20 years ago speaking to the NMRT for a small sum. Everyone loved him, so he (the person who arranged for C. to speak) would like to claim responsibility for C’s later success. C. did not remember the speaking engagement, but said that 20 years ago he was just beginning to live in and write about New Orleans.

G. responded to a question about library education by stating that we need at least a 2-year LIS curriculum, maybe more. How can we overcome the financial barriers to have a vibrant profession and a stream of new librarians coming into the profession he asked? You can’t graduate from medical school without a course in anatomy, or from law school without a course in contracts, but you CAN graduate from an LIS degree program without a course in cataloging.

Asked about his latest book, New Orleans, Mon Amour, C. described himself as a dybbuk, a genie or spirit, a local genius who inhabits a place. He stated that he didn’t revisit or revise the older pieces that went into the collection.

New Orleans, he said, has never quite been an American city. First of all, the French built it. New Orleans is characterized by laissez-faire, lassitude, leisure, not efficient things. America doesn’t like New Orleans. The culture of N.O. came from poverty, said C. Do we now recreate that poverty?

A question asked: What are you currently reading? C. cited Michael Harington (according to the posts on the ALACOUN list, he was apparently referring to Donald Harington. )

Gorman said he’d just finished a wonderful book by Francis Wheen: Idiot-Proof, which in the UK was released as How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World. Wheen also wrote a biography of Karl Marx, Gorman noted. Which led to another headline: “Pinko Librarian Praises Commie Author.”

After the session was over, Codrescu signed books in the theater lobby, and then attended the President’s Reception.

4 thoughts on “ALA President’s Program”

  1. This is the most thorough and even-handed coverage of the Midwinter 2006 president’s program I’ve read anywhere to date. I wasn’t there–I had another meeting–so this is a case where something interesting went on at a conference I attended and I wanted more information about it.

    I wish ALA would broadcast their keynotes at strategic points in the conference area–hotels, exhibit floors, etc.–as I’ve seen other organizations do, but even if that happened, a good summary such as this one is still irreplaceable.

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