Interview with Courtney Young, American Library Association Immediate Past President, the youngest President the ALA had in the last 80+ years.
Courtney Young graduated with MS in Library Science from Simmons College in August 1997 and began first librarian position in September 1, 1997. After being a librarian for 16 years, Courtney was inaugurated as ALA President in 2014. She was and still is the youngest librarian to be elected as ALA President, proving that newer librarians can have the skills, leadership and capabilities of leading a large library association such as the ALA which has more than 55,000 members in the USA and internationally.
We would like to hear your advice for librarians wishing to move up as leaders. What do you think are the key elements to succeed?
I think it’s key to remember there is no one way to do this. There are multiple paths to leadership. What works for one person might not work for another. Someone looking to take on a leadership role also needs to be supported in taking that decision. You may want to say yes, but you need the support of your supervisor and family to take on these added responsibilities.
I think the combination of interest, willingness to work hard and take risks, valuing collaboration while also being self-motivated and able to work independently, and a good sense of humor have all been important elements for me. Patience is also key, but not in a “wait your turn” kind of way. You need to understand something before you can effectively jump in and make change, and with some things that might take a little longer than you originally thought it would. Also change is not a solitary act, so others might need some time, help, and support to get to where you want everyone to be.
Why age is not necessarily a main factor in librarianship leadership?
Even librarian leaders with a lot of experience sometimes find themselves in situations where their years of experience were not enough for them to be successful in a library system or organization. It is important to keep in mind we all bring a variety of experiences to the work we do. That diversity of thought, experience, education, etc. are all valuable and important. Sometimes not having a particular type of experience is what is needed and the organization benefits from that new perspective. Remember, being a leader means continuous learning. As the profession and thus the role of librarians and library employees has changed, it has become important for more people to do things that look like leadership. I believe we are recruiting a talented group of people to this profession across generations, and we need all of them to be leaders. Age does not always equal ability.
What are your views on the value of joint work and collaboration?
I think collaboration is very important. It is how a lot of the work we do in libraries gets done. We collaborate with our colleagues, vendors, publishers, and our library users. In professional associations we accomplish so much of our work through collaboration. As I mentioned in the first question, I think the give and take involved in collaboration is important. You must be open and flexible but have an understanding of those things that cannot change (for example defending the freedom to read or funding that may limit a project). When thinking about joint work and collaboration, I almost always assume those I’ll be working with will reflect and represent multiple viewpoints. This is not always the case, but I find that it can be the most successful and fulfilling when you have people invested in coming up with a solution or new initiative with a different take on it and are willing to compromise and keep coming back to the idea that we all want the same outcome.
In the IFLA WLIC 2016 the NPSIG is having an open session about failure. The theme is: “Failing successfully in a librarian’s career: is a setback an opportunity to grow, or just an unwelcome incident on the road to success?” What are your thoughts about failure and what would be the message to new professionals about it?
This is a great idea for a session topic. We attach a lot of stigma to failing and I think the idea of being able to fail has a lot of privilege attached to it. I wonder is there a difference between failing and making mistakes that I can learn from? When I think about failure over my life and my career, I think of it as the foundation of my learning and how I approach the world. As a kid, I failed a lot in learning how to ride a bicycle before I finally figured out how to do it so well my parents bought me the Huffy Desert Rose I really wanted. No matter what I was determined to learned how to ride and on a certain level was fearless to fall off a men’s ten speed that many times and not give up.
As a professional, I’ve had a real fear of failing. What if I never got to a point where I knew how effectively provide reference services and course-related instruction as well as my colleagues? What if taking on a new collection development responsibility I purchased the wrong books? What if someone found out that I didn’t know with one hundred percent certainty how to do something in my job?
I’ve learned that for me it’s all about perspective. I cut myself some slack and I give myself some credit for what I can do AND what I can learn. Other times they are unwelcome incidents, and it’s important to learn how to lick your wounds, dust yourself off, and move forward. I’ve had setbacks and used them as opportunities to grow. That saying “when a door closes, a window opens” is key for me. It’s not just that there’s another access point, but that window is usually made of glass and it can be easier to gauge what the next stage is truly like (is the sun shining, is it raining, windy?) with the advantage of knowing metaphorically if you need sunscreen, an umbrella, or a coat. I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the role and importance of a good professional network when it comes to failing successfully. I am fortunate to be part of a supportive and generous profession. Not only are my colleagues kind, they are honest and fair.
Have you done volunteer work during your library career? Of what kind and for how long? Do you think it helped with moving forward in your career?
I served as a committee member and then a chair in the Michigan Library Association from 1999-2002. I also served as a member of my undergraduate college’s Alumni Board from 2012-2015.
I have been a member of the American Library Association since 2002. During that time I have served as a committee member in the New Members Round Table (NMRT) and the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL). I have also served as an elected officer in NMRT. I was elected to ALA Council, the governing body of the Association, and then elected by that body to the ALA Executive Board. I absolutely believe this service allowed me to be successful in getting my current position as head of the Penn State Greater Allegeny campus library. My previous position provided me with very limited opportunities to demonstrate my ability to lead, manage, and demonstrate my understanding of the organization in a broader sense. The leadership roles and opportunities, not to mention the successes in those roles, also are what motivated me to pursue a higher level position.
What would be your suggestions for library associations about how to engage new librarians in leadership roles?
Make it clear there is room for everyone to contribute to the work of the association. Create paths and opportunities for leadership, then make it clear for new members and seasoned members how to get involved and participate in those opportunities. While there are likely some roles where someone new would not be successful, create some transparency around what type of experience a newer professional should be gaining so that they can be competitive for that aspirational role. I think it’s also important to value leadership at all levels. Some members may not be interested in serving as the president, treasurer, or chair of a particular group, but they are interested in participating in a meaningful to them way that is leadership. We need to not only appreciate that, but note its importance to the vitality of the association. Good associations recognize that new members of not monolithic. Some bring considerable experience from other industries, while others are completely new to the concept of professional associations. Recognizing and appreciating the diversity of the new member is important.
Would you share with us your views about diversity within our profession?
I have a strong record of support for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the profession. They are incredibly important to our profession. It is important for us to develop diverse and inclusive collections, programming, and staffing. I frequently note that it is an essential value for everyone working in a library or pursuing a degree in library and information science or a related field. Libraries significantly impacting their communities understand and embrace the importance of diversity creating an environment where difference is welcome.
Questions: NPSIG Leadership team