A few weeks ago I finally got around to doing my good citizen duty and filled out my ALA election ballot.
I am an enthusiastic election junkie. If there’s an election, I will do hours of research on the candidates and the issues at hand. I will arrive with a cheat sheet to fill out both pages of the ballot, including the dozens of candidates in judicial races–even the ones who are running uncontested. And even if my chosen candidate doesn’t win, the point is to engage in the process and have a say in who I believe will best represent us, because every one of us is a stakeholder in our communities, whether in a congressional district or a body like the ALA Council.
However, I must admit to feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information on the ALA ballot for 79 Councilor-at-Large candidates on one page. It was pretty daunting.
We were asked to choose a maximum of 38 candidates for Councilors-at-Large (around 48% of the initial crop) so there was much research and analysis to be done. Biographies provided some potential useful data points, such as current position, city, state, type of library, division affiliations, ALA activities, and length of membership in ALA.
I also considered what my own values were going into this and what values I was looking for in candidates: values like commitment to diversity and inclusion; to personal learning and serving underserved communities; and to ensuring everyone has a voice and a seat at the table.
Voting Smarter… With Data!
As I was going down the ballot, a number of questions started forming in my mind: things like gender breakdown of candidates, how many different areas of specialty were represented, how many were in administration or management, and the overall length of duration candidates had been members of ALA.
Fortunately, I had a spreadsheet that could answer those questions.
After doing some qualitative analysis and coding, I was able to break down some of the response data into a number of categories. Based on positions listed in each bio, I identified eight broad career areas: Faculty, Information Technology, Management, Public Services, Reference, School, Subject Librarian, and Technical Services.
Additionally, I identified whether candidates were in management or administration, as well as how many years they had been an ALA member. I also assigned each candidate to a geographical area using the regions and divisions of the United States (as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau).
Finally, I identified whether each candidate could be considered diverse based on whether they self-identified as, for example, non-white, LGBTQ, neurodivergent, or disabled.
Note: One thing I do want to stress is that the following is an exploration of how I parsed the data from candidate biographies to make decisions about for whom to ultimately cast my 38 votes. I was limited to what candidates reported in their bios about things like ethnicity and sexual orientation.
Overall, candidates were overwhelming female, at nearly two-to-one (fig. 1). This is consistent with measures of gender in librarianship, which have found that women account for 79% of all librarians (at least as of 2017).
There was also a relatively even split between managers and non-managers, the latter being just slightly larger (fig. 2):
However, when we look at the breakdown by gender, we see that while the number of female vs. male managers is relatively even, the number of female non-managers is significantly higher (fig. 3). Again, this finding is consistent with literature on gender representation in management and suggests that we still have a ways to go in having more women library directors and managers.
I also looked at how many candidates identified as a non-white member of an ethnic minority or LGBTQ. While this was based on self-reporting, it still suggests that about two-thirds of candidates are white and heterosexual (fig. 4). When we break that out into how many of each are in some type of managerial role, the disparities widen even more (fig. 5).
Again, while the number of diverse vs. non-diverse candidates who are non-managers is closer to equal, there were over twice as many non-diverse managers in this data set. And the ratio of diverse vs. non-diverse managers was an even 2:3.
I will discuss the importance of this towards the end of this post, but suffice to say that it appears indicative of lingering cultural attitudes towards race in librarianship.
Length of ALA Membership
Another area I looked at was how long each candidate had been a member of ALA (fig. 6). I broke down the durations into six segments, focusing on where each candidate is at in their career (or at least how established they are in ALA).
We see that the majority of candidates come from a set of individuals who aren’t necessarily new members but are still relatively early in their careers (or at least as members of ALA). While I did not analyze how active each candidate has been in ALA to date (in terms of committee memberships, etc.), there is a correlation between how long individuals have been ALA members and how many are running for ALA Council.
For me, this was an important consideration because, while more established members bring experience and institutional knowledge to the table, newer members bring fresh perspectives that can lead to positive changes overall in the organization. Ideally, newer and established members should work together and learn from each other to make the Council a more representative and fairer body.
The next area I looked at was representation by career area from the job titles candidates listed in their biographies (fig. 7), the categorization based on titles that included words like “director,” “manager,” “head,” or “dean.”
This element was important to consider because it is critical that those in management and those who carry out the day-to-day work on the library floor (and in technical services) be represented at the table.
About fifty percent (49.4%, n=39) of the candidates were either in public service or management, while 13 were faculty at a college or university. If I were to hazard an interpretation, it would seem that librarians who are public-facing or who are decision makers seem to be drawn to leadership roles such as the ALA Council, while those who primarily work behind the scenes tend are less inclined to participate. Of course this is a relatively small sample size, so making any generalizations from this is pretty shaky.
One final area I looked at was where each candidate was located in the United States (fig. 8). This aspect seemed important since different regions of the country face different challenges and issues, and it is important that there be parity in representation. For instance, the relative affluence of the Northeastern states will affect libraries and users very differently as supposed to libraries and users in more Southern states.
Again, these regions are those used by the U.S. Census Bureau to track demographics throughout the country.
Unsurprisingly, states on the Atlantic Coast had the highest representation, followed by the eastern Midwest and those along the West Coast. If we look more broadly at geographic region, we see a pretty stark divide between the eastern and western half of the country (fig. 9).
The South and Northeast each make up about 32% of the total number of candidates on the ballot, while the Midwest and West only make up 20% and 16%, respectively. However, if we look at the population distribution of each region, we see some very different percentages (fig. 10).
If we compare the figures from these charts side by side (fig. 11), we see that some regions (West, South) are under-represented, some are relatively equal in representation (Midwest), and others are over-represented (Northeast). It’s unclear what’s going on here. Could it be that libraries in places like the Northeast have readier access to resources and funds and thus have more staff who are able to run for Council, while librarians in Southern states could be more active due to the needs of their users. More research would be needed though to make
And if we look at the actual distribution of candidates throughout the U.S. (the image below links to a larger version), we do see that there are larger clumps in the Eastern states and less clumping further the west we go, with candidates there coming from more urban areas.
Where Is This Going?
So what did all of this data mean for how it shaped my choices for whom to vote in this election? For one, it suggested that the makeup of this crop of candidates looks to be pretty non-diverse (i.e., white, heterosexual, and cisgendered), with the majority of the candidates coming from the Eastern part of the country.
We also see that candidates are predominantly coming from urban areas, especially in the Western states where they appear to be clustered around cities. This suggests that smaller and rural libraries may not necessarily be well represented, and their needs may go unheard within the broader library community. That’s speculation of course, but it is striking to see how how few pins there are in the Western half of the map above. Are librarians in this part of the country not able to participate as readily in committees? Do they lack time/resources to run for and join the Council?
However, it’s important to stress that these observations are drawn from only the data and that reality is much more nuanced. Not every white person is ambivalent about diversity and inclusion. But the data does suggest that we may be missing critical voices and perspectives at the top that could make our profession safer, more welcoming, and more diverse.
What this meant for me as I faced the ballot a few weeks ago is that I had to do quite a bit of spreadsheet finagling to come up with a set of 38 candidates who I felt 1) were best qualified, and 2) represented each category outlined above (gender, diversity, duration of ALA membership, career area, managerial status, and geographic distribution).
Frankly, we are facing a critical time in our profession for putting our actions where our stated values in terms of a commitment to inclusion and diversity. People are feeling alienated from how ALA is run, meaning that there is a disconnect between what individuals are experiencing and reporting and how leadership ultimately responds.
And the racist incident at Midwinter in January with April Hathcock indicates that our profession is still unfriendly and unwelcoming towards minorities and people of color. April wrote in a blog post that “ALA just isn’t a safe space in our profession for me. And I’m not the only one.”
We have to do better than this, and it has to start with leadership. The Council is one (but not the only) way of getting there. Can it be fixed? Not sure, and I’m probably not the best person to approach that question.