President of the American Library Association, Native Hawaiian Lessa Kananiʻopua Pelayo-Lozada is a warrior. With politicized book bans on the rise, the nation’s librarians battle to protect intellectual freedom. Lessa works to strengthen the ALA’s commitment of keeping the nation’s libraries as safe spaces that offer everyone — regardless of their socio-economic status — free and equal access to news, information, and education. The fight is daunting, but Lessa and are all in:
We are resisters at our core. We protect all our patrons, uphold intellectual freedom, and serve our communities. Yes, the wins we see every day are a reward, but knowing that we have resisted for yet another day and continue to provide that safe space is a reward in and of itself for me, and I hope for all of you as well. — Lessa Pelayo-Lozada, American Libraries Magazine
Lessa is the first Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander to be elected president of the ALA. She is also the youngest person ever elected to that position. We are grateful that this hard-working, dedicated leader made some time to talk story with us.
Congratulations on your election to president of the American Librarians Association! For those who haven’t met you, could you please tell us a little about yourself?
I am a mixed-race, continent born and raised Native Hawaiian woman from Southern California. I’ve been in public libraries since 2007 and have worked as library page, clerk, Children’s Librarian, Teen Librarian, and now am the Adult Services Assistant Manager at the Palos Verdes Library District in Southern California.
I am the current President of the American Library Association and am a past President and Executive Director of the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association. I have also served as a board member for the Center for the Study of Multicultural Children’s Literature for the last ten years and contribute to our best books list annually.
I used to dance hula for Kaulana Ka Hale Kula ‘O Nā Pua ‘O Ka ‘Āina in Torrance, California, and am a current member of the Hawai’i’s Daughters Guild of California. My husband, Christian Lozada, and I co-authored the book Hawaiians in Los Angeles from Arcadia Press.
Where did you grow up? What high school did you grad from?
I’m born and raised in Southern California, in the cities of Torrance and Gardena. I went to Bishop Montgomery High School in Torrance.
Go Knights! Have you always wanted to be a librarian? When did you realize that being a librarian was your calling?
Originally I wanted to be an elementary school teacher, teaching either kindergarten or second grade. While I was working at Borders Books, I met a number of librarians from the Los Angeles Public Library who showed me that librarianship was a viable career path – one I thought I would follow after I would spend time teaching. After two days in the teacher credential program, however, I knew for sure that librarianship was my calling and started working as a page that same summer and have never looked back!
What made you decide to run for the ALA’s highest office?
First, as an ALA Executive Board member from 2017–2020 and chair of the Steering Committee on Organizational Effectiveness from 2018–2020, I identified the need for ALA’s structures to change and become more nimble in today’s changing world. The work I began as an EB member I hoped to finish as president, and I am happy to say that we have gotten a number of things accomplished during my year, such as modernizing the ALA bylaws which will go to a full member vote this spring.
Second, the pandemic and all the ways that library workers were showing up for their communities inspired me to run for President. As a front facing library worker, I saw all the ways that we needed ALA to show up for us, but as someone who understands the capacities of ALA, I also knew that the current structure couldn’t support the labor needs of library workers. I ran to push the envelope in working on fortifying the ALA structures that can support these needs, such as the ALA-Allied Professional Association, a companion organization to ALA. Although the process has been slow, we’ve been making progress in this realm.
What are some of the biggest challenges that librarians face today?
The biggest challenge facing libraries, library workers, and librarians today are book challenges. The unprecedented number of book challenges and the toxicity and harassment of library workers around these book challenges is creating difficult and impossible working conditions for many across the country. To help combat book bans, I encourage folks to visit uniteagainstbookbans.org and explore ways they can fight back. We can’t do this alone as library workers – we need the public to join in this fight!
One of the greatest strengths I bring are my values of kuleana and kōkua. My commitment to library workers and libraries is rooted in these two values and help me to keep perspective on the long road ahead towards being spaces of lifelong learning, education, and true inclusion when it comes to access to information and I believe allow me to communicate a specific vision that can be shared by ALA members everywhere.
I also can facilitate a great meeting and work hard to ensure all voices and necessary stakeholders are included in decision making, modeling the inclusion that I hope we all embrace.
What do you enjoy most about being a librarian?
Learning new things! Whether it is learning something through a reference interaction, learning a new song for story time, or learning another person’s story, it’s impossible to get through a day as a librarian without learning something new – and something you might not have sought out to learn on your own!
During your campaign, you received many endorsements. What does this recognition mean to you?
The number of endorsements and support I received during my campaign was a huge honor and a testament to the relationships I try to develop in doing work on behalf of the association. Even if I didn’t win the presidency, knowing that I had all of those people to do great work with in the future, and have done great work with in the past was a big win.
Can you share a bit of your current work?
Right now I am focusing most of my time on my role as ALA President which includes being the primary spokesperson for the association, chairing the Executive Board and Council, and working with ALA members and committees to figure out the path forward around book challenges.
The role of spokesperson is a big one, as it includes media interviews like the one I did for Teen Vogue as well as traveling the country and internationally doing keynote speeches and speaking on panels like I did when I visited Hawai’i for the Hawai’i Library Association Conference and Centennial Celebration!
I am also a member of the program committee for the International Indigenous Librarians Forum to be held in Honolulu this November. I hope folks will join us!
What advice can you give someone who might be consider studying library science?
Be firm in your “why” – why you want to work in libraries and what kind of impact you want to make. It can be a difficult field when book challenges, continued budget cuts, and hierarchical bureaucracies can prevent you from doing your job, but recognizing the impact you have, can, and will make on your communities can help keep you motivated.
I also always encourage folks to be open to the myriad of opportunities available in libraries. There are so many paths you can take and you don’t always know what they all are when you start in libraries, so be open to new opportunities and experiences you never thought possible. That kind of mindset helped me to become ALA President.
And a few niele questions, if you’d like to answer:
Who is your hero?
I have a lot of heroes! My grandfather and grandmother, Alcario and Mary Pelayo, are my primary heroes. They modeled and inspired me to live a life of service and leadership and supported my many, many interests growing up, even if they didn’t always understand them.
Who is your biggest supporter?
What is your proudest accomplishment?
Putting on the 2018 Joint Conference of Librarians of Color as a Steering Committee Member.
What do you enjoy doing in your down time?
Baking, exercise, hiking.
Where can readers find you online?
Mahalo nui loa, Lessa, for sharing your manaʻo with us! As an author, life-long learner, and library patron, I offer my best wishes to you for your continued success!