By GUY LAMOLINARA
The new president of the world’s largest library association celebrated the beginning of her term during a gala program at the Washington Renaissance Hotel that featured some of the nation’s best-known writers.
Roberta A. Stevens, outreach projects and partnerships officer for the Library, became the American Library Association’s president on June 29. Having writers Marie Arana, Brad Meltzer, Sharon Draper and Carmen Agra Deedy on the night’s agenda was an innovative way to kick off one of Stevens’s chief initiatives: “Our Authors, Our Advocates.” “Authors are the natural allies of libraries,” Stevens said.
Advocacy for libraries is vital at a time when many are either being closed or having to cut back on hours and staff. “We confront a perfect storm of escalating costs, shrinking financial resources, increased demands for service and surging usage,” Stevens said. “Our challenge is to keep moving forward, to build and remodel our libraries and ensure that we have them staffed with individuals who blend traditional and technological skills, anticipate change and fearlessly adapt to address those changes. To do this, we need support.”
Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, joined by his wife, Marjorie, was among the many Library staffers in attendance, as were Associate Librarian for Library Services Deanna Marcum and former Chief Operating Officer Jo Ann Jenkins, now president of the AARP Foundation. Earlier in the week, Stevens attended a Library-sponsored leadership dinner celebrating ALA’s annual meeting, where she received the Library’s Distinguished Service Award.
During her travels this past year as ALA’s president-elect, Stevens has spoken about the challenges and opportunities of becoming 21st-century libraries that incorporate new materials formats, technologies and ways of learning. “By transforming our libraries for this new era, we are leaders in a rapidly changing and increasingly global economy that depends on people getting the right information, at the right time, and getting it quickly. Libraries, freely open to all, are needed now more than ever. There is no other institution as well equipped as we are for guiding individuals in the development of skills in critical thinking, problem-solving, information literacy and technological literacy—the very skills that are the bedrock of our nation’s economic, political, social and educational success. This is our time, this is our opportunity.”
Stevens also described her other two major initiatives: “‘Why I Need My Library’ … “which is aimed at growing a new generation of library supporters and philanthropists, kids and teens,” and “Frontline Fundraising,” which will provide libraries of all types and sizes with information on how to establish a planned-giving program.
The inaugural program combined seriousness with frivolity as Stevens, her husband and the guest authors danced their way into the ballroom to the beat of “Celebration.” Confetti flew and noisemakers were in abundance as the audience cheered.
The new ALA president’s brief remarks followed those of Marie Arana, who is the veteran editor of The Washington Post’s “Book World.” Arana noted how “great it is to see so many book lovers. You hold the key to our dynamic society.” She also spoke about her immigration to the United States from Lima, Peru, at the age of 9 and how she marveled at being able to go into a library to check out any books she wanted. “It almost felt like stealing,” she said.
Brad Meltzer, whose latest book is “Heroes for My Son,” joked that when he grew up there were only two things to read in his “literate” house: The National Enquirer and The Star. It was his grandfather who introduced him to stories. He told him all about Batman and “he gave me my most important present in my life: a library card. … Thank you for saving my life and saving me from The Star and The Enquirer.”
The winner of many awards for her young people’s books, Sharon Draper acknowledged “all the librarians who have made a difference in my life.” She even remarked that she loved books so much that just “the smell of a book in my hand” was thrilling to her. Draper said she is saddened by the closing of so many libraries in America. “When I think of the loss of libraries … I am reminded of the loss of … the (Great) Library in Alexandria. Save our libraries,” she said.
Carmen Agra Deedy continued this theme when she noted that “libraries are in danger. They are our sanctum sanctorum. … When we close a library, we are doing the de-democratization of America.”
Stevens is the sixth Library of Congress staffer to preside over ALA, which was founded in 1876 and today has more than 62,000 members. The other five ALA presidents from the Library were Carol A. Nemeyer, former associate librarian for national programs (1982-1983); Lucile M. Morsche, former deputy chief assistant librarian (1957-1958); Herman H.B. Meyer (1924-1925), the Library’s chief bibliographer; and former Librarians of Congress L. Quincy Mumford (1954-1955) and Herbert Putnam (1903-1904). Stevens will take a leave of absence from the Library starting at the end of July and continuing throughout her term as president, which will end in June 2011.
“This is only the beginning of our partnership to highlight America’s creativity through its authors and the libraries who share the treasures of these talented individuals more than a billion times each year,” Stevens concluded.
Guy Lamolinara is communications officer for the Center for the Book.