Last week, President Biden announced his intent to appoint James G. Neal to serve in one of several key roles on the National Museum and Library Services Board.
The National Museum and Library Services Board advises the agency on general policies with respect to the duties, powers, and authority of the Institute of Museum and Library Service relating to museum, library, and information services, as well as the annual selection of National Medals recipients.
Earlier this year, Neal was elected by the American Library Association (ALA) Council to honorary membership in the association, the ALA’s highest honor, during the virtual 2022 Library Learning Experience. Honorary membership was conferred in recognition of outstanding contributions of lasting importance to libraries and librarianship.
According to ALA’s press release, “Neal was nominated in recognition of significant contributions to libraries and the profession of librarianship and his accomplishments as ALA president and treasurer and a member of ALA Council. He was a member of the ALA Executive Board when the Spectrum Initiative was launched and has actively raised funds on behalf of the program, as well as advocating for the establishment of DEI as a fourth strategic priority for the association.”
The ALA Public Policy and Advocacy Office also recently awarded Neal the 2022 L. Ray Patterson Copyright Award, which “recognizes contributions of an individual or group that pursues and supports the Constitutional purpose of the U.S. Copyright Law, fair use and the public domain.” As a recognized national expert on copyright and licensing issues in higher education, Neal has represented the American library community in testimony on copyright matters before Congressional committees, was an advisor to the U.S. delegation at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) diplomatic conference on copyright and has worked on copyright policy and advisory groups for numerous universities and for professional and higher education associations.
At Columbia, Neal served as Vice President from 2001-2014. Throughout his career, he has focused his professional work in the areas of digital libraries, intellectual freedom, intellectual property, library collaboration, diversity and social justice, and library innovation. Here, Neal reflects on recent accomplishments, his lessons learned during the past several years, and his vision for the future of libraries.
Q: You’ve received numerous awards and honors recognizing your leadership and service to the profession. What makes the ALA Honorary Membership Award stand out for you?
The ALA Honorary Membership Award is a special recognition, sort of a ‘lifetime achievement award.’ It celebrates decades of professional leadership and accomplishment nationally and globally. It is an extraordinary celebration by so many colleagues who I have worked with over the years of my participation in so many professional areas and of my mentorship of so many new and mid-career professionals.
Q: A significant amount of rapid, emergency-like change happened in libraries during the past several, brought on by the pandemic. What changes are here to stay?
Over the past two years, the library community has confronted unprecedented challenges. And provided extraordinary and effective responses to the needs of its communities, with fresh thinking about access, digital collections, library spaces, staff working arrangements, information policy, and so many other areas. I was honored to serve with the REopening, Archives, Libraries, and Museums (REALM) project that I proposed to the Institute for Museum and Library Services.
I would define three themes coming out of the past two years:
The first theme might be Global Libraries Reopening and Refreshed. How do we build on the innovations and creative strategies of the past two years and not just return to the previous normal? How do we share and learn from these experiences and these new approaches to serving our communities?
The second theme might be Global Libraries As Advocates For Information Policy Change. What are the persistent and new policy issues that libraries across the world must focus on? How can we strengthen our ability to influence legislative and legal change, and participate in the political process on the local, national and global levels?
The third theme might be Global Libraries As Agents of Social Justice. Where should we effectively focus: racial justice, gender justice, health justice, environmental and climate justice, information justice, economic justice, voting justice, food and water justice, education justice, LGBTQ+ justice? Where do libraries fit into the battles for human rights?
Q: The library profession naturally requires the development of new skills and expertise to ensure adaptability and sustainability of library systems. How have your individual areas of expertise evolved and changed, even in the past 10 years? What do you envision as key skills for early-career professionals in libraries?
The last ten years have seen an expansion in our professional roles and skill requirements in libraries. These are particularly important for new professionals and for the library education programs that prepare them. Library professionals must have a strong commitment to and a deep understanding of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and of Social Justice, in the development of our collections, the implementation of our technologies, the provision of our services, the organization of our collections, the design of our physical and virtual spaces, the recruitment and development of staff, the communication with our communities, the management of libraries, and so many other areas. Library professionals must have a more sophisticated understanding of technologies, particularly new and innovative learning, research and service applications. Library professionals must have a commitment to open access, to open research, open educational resources, and data. Library professionals must advocate effectively for policies which enable us to do our work, in the areas of copyright, privacy, digital equity, library funding, government information, network neutrality, funding for education and research among many other areas. Library professionals must adopt new approaches to library collaboration, to radicalize working relationships among libraries and with other cultural organizations. Library professionals must develop the ability to attract new resources, through fundraising, grants and partnerships.
Q: Your last University role was here at Columbia, where you served as University Librarian from 2001 – 2014. Can you name a few of your most memorable achievements during your time at Columbia?
I was honored to serve as the Vice President for Information Services and University Librarian at Columbia during 2001-2014. The information technology and library teams had many important accomplishments during that period. The creative renovation and construction of library spaces. The huge expansion in access to electronic resources and curated web collections. The building of extraordinary special collections. The implementation of new technologies to improve access, and to advance online learning and digital research services. The successful raising of significant grant and endowment funds to support the work of the libraries. The implementation of a major offsite shelving facility and service. The development of new collaborations and partnerships at the university and in the wider community. The recruitment of an outstanding team of library employees. Many contributions to the work of the profession, to professional conferences, to the professional and scholarly literature. Among so many other areas of achievement.