Why It's So Difficult to Be Executive Director of ALA

American Libraries, September 1997 | Go to article overview

Why It's So Difficult to Be Executive Director of ALA


AFTER THREE TEMPESTUOUS YEARS, ALA'S RECENTLY DEPARTED MANAGER REFLECTS ON HER TRIUMPHS AND THE TOLL THEY TOOK

"I am a catalyst for change, that's what I do," Elizabeth Martinez said on one of several occasions that American Libraries tried to convince her to do an interview about her three years as executive director of ALA "for the record."

On her hasty July 31 departure - 15 days before schedule-no interview had taken place. Martinez said she was reluctant to speak spontaneously and on tape because of the distress she felt over many aspects of her tenure. Her glorious beginning and the adoption of her ALA Goal 2000 agenda had disintegrated into a bitter resignation last July (AL, Aug. 1996, p. 46), followed by public squabbling over compensation inducements the Executive Board had used to convince her to complete her three-year contract. Martinez finally agreed to supply written answers to written questions, but later consented to discuss some clarifications by phone August 7. Here is what she had to say, edited for length. - L.K.

AL: What makes being executive director of ALA such a difficult job?

EM: ALA is a microcosm of greater societal and global changes that are occurring. It's a dynamic, organic, evolving institution. One fraction of ALA is responding to the changing environment in the same way that many in control of major societal agencies, fearful of losing power, are reacting: through retrenchment, personal attacks, rumors, innuendoes, personal agendas, grandstanding, and other negative actions.

Another large group in ALA is trying desperately to engage everyone in decision making, consensus building, organizational-capacity building, and seeking to maintain the historical leadership of the Association.

At the same time, other members are disassociating themselves and looking elsewhere for professional development and national leadership. A longtime ALA observer, a prominent and respected national leader, told me he thought ALA suffered from "democracy run amok."

This evolving situation creates many organizational conflicts of interest: It's a moving target between member interests, staff interests, national interests, and professional interests, each with personal and organizational agendas. It's a political game that requires an inordinate amount of time and energy spent on getting agreement or consensus among many conflicting groups. Decisions and actions are challenged on individual, not necessarily organizational, interests.

Many public institutions are in a similar state. There is great conflict between principles that are core to an institution and societal dynamics that may not be in sync with these principles at this volatile time. I have experienced conditions when a good principle becomes an extremist position or is used to justify a negative action.

AL: What has been the most satisfying positive part of the job?

EM: I am proud to have developed a national association agenda that positions ALA for the 21st century. I am proud of ALA Goal 2000, the creation of the Office for Information Technology Policy that was ready for universal service and successful in getting over $2.3 billion in telecommunications discount rates for libraries and schools, the expansion and agenda for the Washington Office, the CDA Supreme Court decision for freedom on the Internet, the Fund for America's Libraries, and the Spectrum Initiative.

I am also very proud of the role that ALA played in the formation of the Gates Library Foundation, which will connect public libraries in low-income communities throughout the nation to the Internet and train librarians in technology and electronic resources, which was our proposal to Bill Gates in March 1996. I was honored to represent ALA at the national level with government, foundations, corporations, and the public.

The new ideas, programs, and projects that ALA developed during my three years expanded ALA's reach. …

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