ALA Presidential Candidate Interview: Jim Neal [Series]

Editor’s Note: In order to learn more about the candidates for President of the American Library Association, HLS asked the candidates a few questions about topics relevant to students and early career librarians. Read on to hear what they have to say!

Jim Neal served as the Vice President for Information Services and University Librarian at Columbia University during 2001-2014, providing leadership for university academic computing and a system of twenty-two libraries. Previously, he served as the Dean of University Libraries at Indiana University and Johns Hopkins University, and held administrative positions in the libraries at Penn State, Notre Dame, and the City University of New York. Neal is a frequent speaker at national and international conferences, consultant and published author, with focuses in the areas of scholarly communication, intellectual property, digital library programs, and library cooperation. Read his full biography here.

1. In your opinion, what is the greatest challenge that LIS students face? How would you encourage/implement solutions to this problem as president of ALA?

Students in LIS programs represent the future health and vitality of our profession.  They bring fresh ideas and experiences, diverse backgrounds, provocative and challenging issues, and new voices to our professional debates. I have taught classes and courses in LIS programs throughout my career as a librarian, most recently at Pratt and Simmons.  I observe that finding a professional assignment, making the successful move from classroom to career, is the most important challenge facing LIS students today.  I see too many students engaged in extended and unsuccessful job searches.   I observe too many students compromising on first assignments that don’t utilize their extraordinary expertise and talents, and that don’t provide exciting and satisfying job experiences. I understand the frustration.

At one point early in my career, I was out of work for nearly a year, trying to get interviews that would lead to an offer.  As ALA president, I would encourage and implement several strategies to address this problem.  First, we need a healthy library economy, one in which librarians are recognized and celebrated for the value they bring to a community, and in which strong financial support for libraries is in place.  This leads to jobs and career advancement for librarians.  Second, we need new professionals who are well prepared by their library school programs to be successful in their first jobs, and who know how to present themselves effectively in writing and in interview settings. Third, we need a formal mentoring program bringing library school students together with professionals in the field, learning and growing together.  Advocacy, training and mentoring would be the pillars of my work to address the employment challenges.

2.  According to the ALA Searchable Database of Accredited Library and Information Science programs, there are 59 ALA accredited programs in the US, Canada and Puerto Rico. What, in your opinion, is the value of ALA accreditation? What changes, if any, do you think should be made to the accreditation process? How will you work with ALISE (The Association For Library and Information Science Education) to revise the accreditation process?

Throughout my career as a librarian and my work in the American Library Association, I have been heavily involved in the accreditation process, as a member of the ALA Council and Executive Board.  Accreditation for me is all about peer-review, academic freedom, collegiality, academic quality and student achievement.  It establishes the context in which norms and quality are sustained, where innovation can thrive, where the profession has confidence that students will be challenged in their work and successful in their careers.  I recently served on a joint ALA/ALISE task force that took a hard look at the status of accreditation.  We established two working groups. One is focused on the context for accreditation in the future, that is what will library professional jobs look like and how should accreditation support this vision, leading to a new set of standards. The second is looking at needed improvements in the accreditation process, making it effective and shared between the practitioner and academic communities.

3.  What’s your take on the shift at some programs away from the word ‘library’ as an identifier? What does the change from ‘library’ to ‘information science’ signify?

The move to redefine programs to embrace or substitute the terminology information is a reflection of the evolution of our work in libraries, the wider professional opportunities open to graduates, and the changing credentials and research interests of the faculty.  It has translated into library degree programs being absorbed into larger academic schools, and a wide array of new degree and certificate programs coexisting with the LIS.  Librarians have always been information professionals.  But the explosion of technology, the increasing importance of informatics and big data, the changing expectations and needs of the communities we serve through libraries, have all led to fresh thinking about what we are and how we describe our preparation and our work.  The key for me is our continuing commitment to a set of core values as librarians or other information professionals:  equitable access to information, intellectual freedom, privacy, social responsibility, service, professionalism, learning, the public good, and diversity and inclusion.

4.  Other than joining ALA and getting involved, what advice do you have for new professionals entering the field of library and information science?

ALA has a very important role in helping us to be more effective library professionals.  With a clear sense of mission…why did we join this profession?  A self vision…what do we want to accomplish?  A base of knowledge…what tools will enable us to be effective?  Strategic positioning…what will be our career path?  Commitment to continuous improvement…how will we grow and advance?  And a powerful professional voice…how will we serve the profession?  All librarians must take seriously the importance of the professional voice, those qualities and activities that allow a job to become a career, the teaching, the conference presentations, the writing, the consulting, the mentoring, and the service to the profession.  It also fundamental to become involved in the communities that we serve, to be out of the library, and part of the debates and conversations about our collective future and the social, economic and political challenges we are facing.

5.  Just for fun: what is the last book you read?

I always have three books going at once, a professional work, a historical or biographical work, and a work of fiction or classic. My last professional book was John Palfrey’s BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google.  My last history/biography was Ronald Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton (inspired by the Broadway show). And my last work of fiction was Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies.


Thank you so much for talking with us Jim!

Readers, don’t forget to vote! Polls are open from March 15-April 22 and all ALA members are eligible to vote. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s