Common Stacks Episode 10: Emily Drabinski on her plans for ALA

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In Episode 10 of the Common Stacks Podcast, we got the entire gang together to chat with Emily Drabinski, who just won the election for ALA President. Emily is the Interim Chief Librarian at the Mina Rees Library at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

Emily spoke about the book, The Promise of Access, which is available at your library of course, or on Amazon
Remember to join the community that we are building at Community.LibraryLever.com where we are making a space for connections, engagement, and deeper conversations. 

https://Community.LibraryLever.com

Rough Transcript for Episode 10, A Chat with Emily Drabinski

Heather:
Hello, and welcome to the Common Stacks podcast. This is the show that brings together professionals from within the library world, as well as interesting experts from other professions to engage in discussions around the issues affecting libraries and looking at the ways in which libraries are dispelling the myth of, "well, this is how it's always been done."
I'm your host, Heather Teysko. This is episode 10 and we got the entire gang together to chat with Emily Drabinski, who was recently elected ALA president starting next year. Emily is the Interim Chief Librarian at the Mina Rees Library at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. She has worked in libraries for more than 20 years in positions ranging from loose leaf legal filer to library director. She believes in building worker power as a means of transforming our workplaces communities and ourselves. She ran for president of the American Library Association because she believes our institutions school, public academic and special libraries are fundamental infrastructures of the public good. We also want to remind you that we have a community where we can talk about these kinds of ideas, and continue the conversations. Check out https://community.librarylever.com, where we are building up our community of our own creating a space for libraries and vendors alike to gather, to engage on news, to research acquisitions and network with colleagues.

Heather:
Library Lever is a new buying club launching in June of 2022. And one of the key goals is to make decisions around vendor contracts based on community feedback, so that we're doing the work that member libraries want us to do. Learn how to become a founding member at LibraryLever.com where we are transforming the way libraries are purchasing. And we're going to get right into it with my colleague, the other Heather, Heather Dreay, asking Emily about her love story with libraries.

Heather Dray:
Well, we're excited to be meeting with you today and congratulations.

Emily:
Thank you. I'm excited.

Heather Dray:
We're really looking forward to a new ALA, so really excited to have you there. I am going to leave the tough questions for Rob because I'm also a librarian and I have two things I always ask my fellow librarians. And the first question is what is your library love story?

More...

Emily:
I was thinking about that question, Heather, and to be totally honest, I don't have a library love story. I wish I could tell you that I grew up going every week with my mom to the library, checking out books, but that's not actually what happened. I was a regular user, but I didn't have a passion for it. I was a debater in high school and spent a lot of time at my university library doing research, but I really fell in love with libraries when I started working in them. I my first job in a library was at the Jefferson Market Branch at New York Public Library down on 10th street and Sixth avenue, the old women's detention center, and it looks like a castle and it has a widows walk across the main reading room. And I loved it so much and felt like I was in a movie about being a librarian. And I had all this librarian drag. I call it these voluminous skirts and I wore my hair in a big bun and felt like I was in a library movie. And that's where I really fell in love was working in libraries is where I got my, my passion for them.

Heather Dray:
That's a great love story. I have a similar one. I mean, I did go as a kid and all of that, but it really wasn't until I started working in the public library that I found myself and found my people.

Emily:
Yeah, same.

Heather Dray:
It didn't look like a castle, so I'm kind of jealous about that, but I, I totally get it. Well, you said that it made you feel like as if you were in a movie mm-hmm <affirmative> and one of the things that I love hate is the way that libraries and librarians are portrayed in, in movies, even in books. It is really hard for me to even read a book about a librarian.

Emily:
I'm in a book group that where we read 50 books on different topics. And one of the categories this year is a book about a librarian and I'm like stumped. I don't want to read anything about us. 

Heather Dray:
Isn't that crazy? But I think it's because we for me it never rings true.

Emily: Never

Heather Dray:
Never. And I have some portrayals like film betrayals, which I just get a kick out of mm-hmm <affirmative> or, or TV, I guess, portrayals. I get a kick out of like I loved Giles, and Buffy sure, of course, right. I was like, that's who I wish I was, but do you have one that you just enjoy or, or think is a great, if not life portrayal?

Emily:
There's a little known little tiny librarian role played by David Rakoff one of my favorite humorists and just a really hilarious comic writer. And he's in a Cheryl Dunye film called the Watermelon Woman, which is sort of about the disappearance of sort of evidence in the archives of African American lesbian experience. And so it's sort of a serious film but one of the scenes, although, but it's very, very funny. And one of the scenes David Rakoff plays a, a librarian and, but it's such an outsized sort of comic portrayal of the sort of nasty librarian who won't help you. That it's one of my favorite scenes. He really plays it for laughs and it's hilarious. So it's a, it's a great film, super important in sort of lesbian history. And also one of my favorite librarians,

Emily:
Woman, a watermelon woman. Yeah. I think it's on YouTube.

Heather Dray:
Well, great. Well thank you for that. Now I guess what we need to give Rob a chance to ask you some questions -

Emily:
Ask some tough questions. I'm ready. 

Heather Dray:
And I'll here. Emily, when you need a break, just raise your hand.

Emily:
Thank you.

Heather Dray:
<Laugh>

Rob:

Yeah, I think I'll start off with the hardest question that, that I can come up with. How do I keep my family from leaving their shoes at the front door? Because I can't figure out that solution, you know, we're flying to Mars, we're dig, we're digging tunnels, but -

Emily:
Do I, how are the front door then in the middle of the hallway, you know,

Rob:
But, but they spill over. Right. And then all of a sudden it looks like somewhere at like Nordstrom Rack in the shoe aisle. And there's just like shoes everywhere. And kids are fighting in the morning. I can't figure that one

Emily:
Out talking about being in a movie, just like following my kid around, picking up after him. Yep. What, what he's like allergic to putting things away. Oh yeah. I don't, I don't have a solution. Sorry.

Rob:
We're fighting right now on the, the towels on the floor and I'm not gonna fight them and it just goes right, right into the washing machine and we move on, you know, Emily, I've had an interesting experience as my career moved forward, working in publishing, working with librarians. Yeah. And it's been kind of like a social event where questioned about, Hey, what do you do? What is your job? And I say, you know, I'm, I work with librarians and I help and provide service and there's always this awkward pause and I ask what's going on and they're going, "Wow. I haven't been in, in a library since, since I was in college."  Some people say, "man, I haven't been into a library since I was in high school." Why do we run into that in our culture today? What, why do you find, or why do you think people, whether it's in the big city or I in Westchester County, where and why are people not thinking the library is the place to go and place to be?

Emily:
My baby sister, when she graduated from college, she called me and said, "you know, Emily, I made it all the way through college and I never even one time set foot in the library." And I was like, "why did you tell me that you could have just lived forever not telling me that." Very infuriating, but you know, when I think about the public library, which is an institution that I have used less than than, you know, maybe I could or, or should, but I think there's I tie that in part to the abandonment of those institutions by civic officials. So you think about the library there's a great book by Dan Green called The Promise of Access that I read this year that was about DC public library and sort of the ways that it has become sort of the only place where you can use the bathroom and wash your hands and sit down and without having to buy anything.

Emily:
And because of that, it's sort of filled with people whose only access to those sort of basic conditions of life are available at the library. And so it becomes a place that's only for that. And then it's also not funded in a way that it can be that for some people and also this, for these other people and this, for these other people and like big enough, right? And so it's, as the state funds it less, it becomes less useful to people because it can't meet your needs anymore. And as the state funds sort of social, other kinds of social structures, less, you have just a whole lot of people for whom the library is the last place of last resort. And so I think part of the reason people don't use it is because it's been made rendered kind of unusable.

Emily:
It doesn't have the things I need. It's like old and smelly. It's the, there's a leak it's not comfortable. You know, and I, I was talking about the Jefferson Market library, which was my first library job. And we didn't open the bathroom, the bathroom when I got there, the bathroom, the decision was made to close it to the public because there was, so it was like the place where all social problems got sort of resolved. And so why would I use the library if I can't even come in and use the bathroom? Those are some of the reasons I think, you know, the, if the library was sort of fully embedded in our world, I think more people would use it.

Rob:
Yeah. It's, it's definitely a tremendous benefit of our culture to have a library, a building, a facility and it's a shame that we don't take advantage of it. It should be on our calendar. Wednesday, we go to the library, let's go, let's learn something. And whether we argue it's the app world is taking our attention away. It's a shame to see that we don't participate at the library at and in the library as kind of a community function and kind of along those lines, you know, in enjoying comments, on Reddit and understanding you know, the perspective of professional advice. I hear and see a lot of comments on, should I get an MLS degree? And it's interesting. It's a great question. The, the answers are always very colorful and, and full of advice and sure. And there's interview suggestions. It's really a good place to learn. Yeah. If, if somebody walked into your office today and said, Hey, can I have some career advice? Should I get that MLS degrees? Where, what should I do? How, how would we embrace the next generation of librarians? If they would ask that question of is, is library school, the right career path.

Emily:
I'm an organizer. I take an organizing approach to these kinds of conversations. So if someone came in and ask and asked me that question, I say, "well, why do you want it? Do you want it because it'll teach you how information and knowledge is organized, and how that organizational infrastructure makes certain ways of understanding the world, or making knowledge in the world possible and forecloses other kinds of opportunities?" Because that's a really compelling question that I explored in library school, and I really loved it. I think I would ask why they wanted it. I've been so happy working in a library and the degree, you know, and we can have lots of conversations about the degree as a barrier to the field, as a ladder into the field, you know? And but I think for me, I learned a lot in library school that was worthwhile regardless of what happened in my job.

Emily:
And it also made it possible for me to work in a library and make a living wage, which is not always possible for people working at the paraprofessional or clerical level. And so, you know, you can attack that problem by eliminating the MLS, but you can also attack that problem by paying people fairly organizing in our workplaces for living, living wages for all library workers at every level. So, you know, I think there there's a tendency to try to make the field more exciting, but I just think it's, it's exciting at its base, right? Like the project of collecting and making, describing, and making accessible and preserving information for people in a community that want to sort of share information in common. Like that's, I can get jazzed about that, you know, and I think the push to sort of, well there, the app is gaining market share and like, but like we need to, we need to find ways to drive people to non-commercial places, you know?

Emily:
And that means making them big enough and robust enough that everybody can, can find a, find a home in them. And I just wanna say, you know, I didn't mean to say that like libraries are full of, you know, people who, who are homeless or without housing, it's just that like it has be become, the institution has become sort of the catchall for everybody. And like, you know, when you say, why aren't people using the library lots and lots of people are, I mean, they're full every day. It's just like, do we consider those the kinds of people that would, you know, matter to us? And I think all of us need to be in there.

Rob:
Yeah, no, absolutely. I would say the, one of the most, the best instance of me learning professionally was talking to a library director about how they manage their schedule at night and the challenges of just the building operation. You know, library libraries were stretched to open up earlier, close later, open up on the weekends, they're sharing spaces now it's really become a very difficult space to just manage from the perspective of, you know, who's cleaning the bathrooms on Thursday, mm-hmm <affirmative> and who's at this desk. And it really, isn't a common dialogue that I see coming out of the industry. Right. If, if we're talking to maybe the vendor side and the sales people, they don't realize librarians are really busy managing a building. It it's, it's vibrant, there's people moving around and there's questions flowing. And, and that ins itself is a full time job. So on top of managing you're operating a building and, and I think that needs to be explained to our community and the people that participate that this is a busy facility on campus,

Emily:
We're managing the public square, right? Like that's what we're doing.

Rob:

Yeah. Yeah. It's it's often missed and, and not taught when we look at how the industry engage libraries. They think Emily at your desk, you're waiting for my call. And then the fact that, that, that is gone out of our day for a variety of different reasons. One kind of follow up question and kind of goes to the, the MLS degree and their curriculum tied to it. I've always enjoyed working with great librarians, library directors that can manage the building, but sit down and negotiate a contract. And yeah, and just really have learned so much from great directors who can see the budget, understand it and manage it. But I don't see that getting taught anywhere in the MLS curriculum and in mentorship, as that's running a little thin, as people are leaving the building earlier, what are the areas that we can help librarians be better stewards of their budget and learn how to negotiate or interact? Because you're spending billions of dollars in this industry.

Emily:
Yeah, yeah. I think, I think you're right. I certainly didn't have that class in library school and haven't, you know, where do you learn how to do that? You kinda learn it by doing that. And there are, you know, great tools generated by our professional associations and lots of continuing education, but I think, you know how do I, you know, and I'm, I'm speaking from my perspective as a public academic librarian, but where, you know, I'm a steward of the social wage, like state funds, these are taxpayer dollars and I'm in charge of deciding how and where they're distributed in collaboration with, you know, all, of course all the other people on the team.

Emily:
We need to be sort of trained, I think in understanding that and understanding why our budgets are small and how to get 'em bigger. Right. Cause that's another, you know, that's the thing that I really wanna work on. We have to, you know, we have leadership classes that are sort of largely theoretical and not sort of, I think robustly tied enough to sort of management and labor, labor relations, that kind of conflict that we're all facing in our buildings these days. And then yeah. How to negotiate contracts of why we're put in those positions and what we're buying, you know, those kinds of things. And you know, I don't know like library school is one place to put those things, but that's just, you know, it's two years, it's 36 credits. And so that's the kind of stuff that we have to be, you know, teaching and learning together on the job, I think.

Rob:
Yeah. It'd be interesting to see if there would be a joint library degree and business degree and evolving that curriculum because libraries do spend a tremendous amount of money and whether we look at it by state publicly funded, private funded, it it's billions and billions of dollars pump into this industry, and taking that conversation of budget. If I said, "Emily, I'm gonna give you, we're gonna go down the private equity discussion. Emily. I have 5 million bucks.I wanna start a library. What would you feel would be the five most important services we can offer?" And have fun with the question think differently. Library, innovation starts with those in the building. If we could start like a private equity fund that would privatize or just infuse the library with funds to do things that didn't have a budget to it, would you buy books? 

Emily:
I mean, I don't know. I don't know, Rob, if I want private equity in the library space, you know, I think they're probably here already in w I don't totally understand, but I don't know, like the question is like, what innovative thing would I provide? And I think like, what I wanna provide is what we ought to, what we always wanna provide. We, I wanna give people a drinking fountain in a bathroom and some lights, and now that we're in the internet age, maybe a charger and a place to plug in your thing and good HVAC. So the building is like cool in the summer, warm in the winter, but also, you know, the HVAC is good enough that the air is safe. And I would want rooms to collaborate space, to collaborate space, to be by yourself space for you to have a zoom call.

Emily:
You know, I think, you know, I think of the library, especially public libraries as taking up space on behalf of the public. And so, you know, you're catching me in a moment where I'm really sort of hyper-focused on that. So what I would buy is more square footage. I I'd buy out the land of the private equity company. <Laugh>, I'd be like, get out, we're taking over your building, we're gonna fill it with the things that matter to the public. And that's, you know, books, print books, and eBooks and music and movies and tools and seeds and cake pans, and all of the things that I think if we share them in common we'd have a better world.

Rob:
Yeah. It's a, it's a conversation to me about space. Yeah. And how the library has really lost space, right.

Emily:
Everywhere. Yeah.

Rob:
When I grew up, so my mom was a librarian. She still is, you don't give up that card. And I remember walking into these buildings and it took me time to go up and down through the stacks, to the corners of the building. Yeah. And now it's a different feeling when you walk into campus. Yeah. You go into that building because you're now a floor or a level or, or a wing and it's a space change. That's such a, a culture change for me. And, and I like that answer of, of adding more space - it's really, it's really, you know, when, when we saw the coffee shops and the Starbucks and, and just the socialization of the space change that's, to me the story of how do we get more space in libraries, and, and hopefully that can change on campus, right. . One last question on my end, and it's really kind of about the overall industry, right. We're really dealing with maybe five or six companies that really control the space. Yeah. And we're, we see it as a, kind of a startup knocking on doors. And either we get no answer or some answer where and how does the market consolidation stop? Is, is that a, a conversation worth having, or do we just have to accept businesses, just going, continue to get so big in this space that the five will become four and then three,

Emily:
I mean, you have to have the conversation, but like I'm sitting here in my individual library and I'm not sure how I would impact the, the problem. Right. Like, it's, it's not clear to me what I can do about it, cuz I'm just like trying to like, you know, do the urgent things on my plate. So I think the convers, this is why we have to connect our library conversations to like bigger kinds of social conversations. So I'm absolutely concerned about the consolidation in the industry and what that means for profit extraction from our institutions. And so how do we, how do we push back on that? And I, you know, I don't have like the answer, but I think it will take lots and lots of sort of small forms of resistance to sort of reclaim some of the space that is, should be owned by library.

Emily:
So one of my favorite books is it's a 1954 hagiography of HW Wilson, the inventor of the database index. And it's as relevant today as it was then in its discussion of the difficulty of cooperation among people who have jobs besides that. Right. So, you know, why did we, why did we have to get firms like HW Wilson to do sort out database indexing for us? And I think, you know, it's because the there's a high cost to collaboration and cooperation and most of the time we're not willing to pay it. And so what, what kinds of cooperative infrastructures can we set up that would sort of take inner library loan, which is like, can you even believe it works? Like it's magic? You know, it's not magic. It's like decades and decades of hard work on behalf of resource by resource sharing librarians to develop systems that will allow us to share across a whole bunch of different libraries and library types.

Emily:
And it's incredible, but what if we had that same kind of infrastructure for the kinds of like indexing services that we all rely on or, you know, those kinds of the, the library services platform, cause you don't wanna talk to anybody in a library these days who doesn't have like something to say eye rolling about how challenging it is to implement Alma and how trapped we feel in this big company and like unable to get out of it. And so we need to be working harder at providing solutions to one another, for those kinds of binds that we're all finding ourselves in and like, how do we move beyond just frustration? You know? And I do believe like the problem here is profit in addressing that need for profit and the exploding sort of size of it as the, as the sort of field consolidates. Like I, yeah, we, we can't just say nothing, but what do we do? That's effective as a, an open question, I guess

Rob:
It is, it's a challenge and you know, three quick things, one Marshall breeding does a great job of showing kind of these infographics of all the consolidations of the space. And that has to get more attention on it cuz it really shows how it's really become margin and profit to my prior call to this was an ill presentation. So <laugh>, we're still talking about it. There's still solutions out there. 

Emily:
I love rules

Rob:

That they're still putting money and thought into that. Oh yeah. And finally the lighthouse is still in the Bronx.

Emily:
I know

Rob:
If you it's, it's not, I don't know if it's a residential building. I think it was a storage building. I got invited to the HW Wilson building years ago. It's long been gone, but if you drive up the highway, you do see on the top, you still see the lighthouse at the top.

Emily:
I spent six months as an indexer for the social science index in the basement there when I was just fresh outta library school. And it was a wild place fish on Fridays cup of coffee for 25 cents. The cafeteria was like $1.25 for lunch. It was like from another time, it was very cool.

Rob:
Yeah. I could remember feeling overwhelmed by the abundance of wood paneling. And, and it just like when you open the door, you're like, there's no shortage of wood paneling in, in any of that.

Emily:
For sure. They asked me in my interview, if I could be quiet.

I was like, yeah, I can be quiet. <Laugh> so that's important here.

Rob:

It is very interesting to see how the business is evolved and these companies are still -

Are part of our lives and, and for better or for worse, they're still there. So thank you. Those were, were good answers and, and I appreciate your time. Thank you.

Heather:

And I'm just gonna hop in here because I heard on one of your podcasts, you talked about like the capitalization of not capitalism with knowledge, right. And this idea that with profit mm-hmm <affirmative> and yet, and when I worked for a consortium in California, I built an ebook platform that was an open source kind of thing, because I was like, why are libraries giving all their money to private equity companies? Like we should be able to figure this out. And so I guess that's long been a, that's been a thing of mine for 15 years of around eBooks mm-hmm <affirmative> and I just wonder how, how can we, well, this is a bigger question, but like what, what services should libraries do you think be outsourcing to private companies and where can we actually collaborate for, to create services without having to rely on private companies? Like that's like such a long discussion, but I'd be,

Emily:
That's like this huge, that's a huge question, Heather, and I'd be interested in what you built, you know, and like how that happened and were you able to get buy-in and I think there's like a tendency to buy a thing off the shelf, cuz it's easier than trying to think through the work of cooperating with others. It's just like, you know what, you know, I have like a list of 55 problems I have to solve today and that one is sticky and will take so much time and let me just buy a solution. You know, I came to this conversation from a call on like a visioning session that was being run by a, you know, a private firm that was outsourced, you know, they, they contracted out the process of like generating ideas from the community and it's like, I get it. And also it's a shame, you know, why don't we have those? Why don't we use those, those skills skills, cuz we all have them, you know, and as libraries we're organizers. And so what kinds of ways can we leverage our skills as organizers of things as like organizers of information, but also organizers of calendars? I mean I think, well I, a decade as an instruction librarian, all I did all day was like get the calendars together. And you're telling me that like, I, I mean I could do it if I had the room in space, but 

Heather:
I have long thought that there should be a database that you could easily make. Just like a little bit of coding where librarians can upload what they, what their talent is and how many hours a week they think they can give towards it. Like just as volunteers and you could connect. So if you are somebody in California and you want help building whatever kind of widget yeah. You could like just go on there and search and then you could like get people together because see that's organizing and -

Emily:
Organizing exactly Heather, but it's very hard to do. It is. It's very hard to do like to get somebody to do something on behalf of a public good or a, a, a collective good that an outcome that is not maybe directly benefiting them. But's for a bigger community. We don't have a lot of practice thinking and acting in those ways. And so we gotta produce those opportunities for each other, which is sort of part of why I wanted to run for president. Because I think there's a chance that we could do that within the association.

Heather:

Cool. Then the one final question, because I know we're at time here from they came from Reddit is a public librarian. Who's talking about children that they work with in the public library that are behind preschool age children behind socially, cognitively and emotionally because of the pandemic not ready to attend kindergarten, falling behind as an adult, as a falling behind as a result. Do you have any plans to have any kind of initiative to address that issue?

Emily:
I mean, I don't work in that space and I don't wanna speak as if I do or as if I know. And so my, you know, initiative there is to really do a ton of listening to the people who really are dealing with the most urgent problems that we're facing, especially post pandemic and that school librarians and public librarians. And so I'm in the academic space and that's where I've been all my whole life and there's plenty on the ground that we need to pick up and move forward. But I think there's no nothing more urgent right now than dealing, you know, with what school librarians and public librarians who work with children are dealing with. And so, you know, my initiative is just to spend as much time as possible listening and amplifying what people with the, that expertise say that we need.

Heather:
Gotcha. Awesome. Well look at that. We are at time -

Emily:
Amazing.

Heather:
Amazing. Thank you so much for, for taking the time to chat with us, Emily and congratulations again, and we're excited to see what you do.

Emily:
Fantastic. Thanks so much for the invitation. Nice to see you Rob and nice to meet you Heather and Heather have a great afternoon.

Heather:
Nice to see you. All right, bye. Thanks Emily. See, bye bye.

Heather:
Thanks to Emily for taking the time out of her very busy schedule to share a little bit more about how she sees libraries and her priorities and how we can all work together to improve all of these common spaces. Thank you for listening. Make sure you subscribe. So you never miss an episode and leave a rating where you're listening to this. If you like the show and also remember to join our brand new community where you can grow with us and engage in these discussions, networking and engaging conversations that will move libraries forward. Check out the show notes at LibraryLever.com for the link. And we will talk with you again very, very soon. Thanks for listening.

About the author 

Heather Teysko

Heather Teysko is head of community and engagement for Library Lever, and she loves running the Common Stacks Podcast. She's been in Library Land for close to 20 years, with a career that has focused on technology and ebooks. She is also passionate about history, having built a website on Colonial American history in 1998 that got to #1 on Yahoo (when that was a thing) has been podcasting on Tudor England since 2009, and her podcast The Renaissance English History Podcast has a social following of over 50,000 people. She has published several books including Sideways and Backwards: a Novel of Time Travel and Self Discovery, which was negatively compared to Outlander in several Amazon reviews, despite the fact that it is set in a completely different time period, but the comparison still feels like an honor.
You can follow her on twitter @teysko.

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