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Princeton Library Director Burger Discusses Her ALA Presidency

Candace Braun

Just one week after becoming president-elect of the American Library Association (ALA), Leslie Burger spoke on her new position to members of the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce. "I have been preparing for this position my entire life," said Ms. Burger at the Chamber's monthly membership meeting on Thursday, July 7.

President-elect since July 1, Ms. Burger will shadow the current ALA president over the next year, learning the ins and outs of what it means to lead the oldest and largest library organization in the United States. Established in 1876, the ALA provides leadership for the development, promotion, and improvement of library and information services and the profession of librarianship.

On her recent election, Ms. Burger told Princeton residents to not be alarmed if they see a CNN truck parked outside the library: "We will be, for a brief time, the center of the library world."

The director of the Princeton Public Library for the past five years, Ms. Burger was elected the new ALA president for the 2006-2007 term just one year after the opening of the library's new 58,000 square foot facility on Witherspoon Street, which now boasts 2,500 visitors daily. Ms. Burger helped build partnerships with community leaders to raise more than $21 million toward the campaign to build the $18 million facility, which has been dubbed "the community's living room."

The new ALA president told her audience that there are 16,500 libraries in the country: "That's more than the number of McDonald's in the U.S."

She said that one of her main goals as ALA president will be to work to keep libraries open that are currently in danger of closing: "It's very important to make sure everyone has the same access to a library that we have."

She recalled recently sitting in the library's new plaza on a Friday night at 9 p.m. and watching as many as 10 people attempt to enter the facility after closing time.

"If we were open 24 hours a day, we'd have people there 24 hours a day," she said.

While the need for libraries is great, they are often in competition with bookstores such as Borders and Barnes & Noble that have "blurred the lines between retail and libraries," said Ms. Burger.

Princeton's library has a budget that has doubled in the last six years and a facility twice as large as the original, but there are many libraries out there that don't receive that kind of support from their communities. She said that one of the jobs of the ALA is to help these libraries stay afloat, and help convince community officials to support them in any way they can.

"I think libraries are probably the most exciting places to work," said Ms. Burger, who was the director of planning and research at the Connecticut State Library and special assistant to the state librarian at the New Jersey State Library before coming to Princeton. Ms. Burger said that libraries serve as an information resource to the community, a place to meet, share together, attend programs, and to learn up-to-the-minute information on events around the country, such as the recent bombings in London.

Last Thursday, the library broadcast the news on every screen to keep the public informed on events in England, she said: "We are here to stay on top of information that goes on every minute of the day."

One of the issues that the Princeton Public Library, as well as libraries around the nation, are facing right now is trying to battle the Patriot Act, a bill that was passed post-9/11 to increase safety, but has often been criticized as infringing on citizens' rights. The act requires libraries to hand over private information on library patrons when it is requested through a subpoena, and requires the staff to stay closed-mouth about the investigation.

"Luckily we haven't been visited [by the FBI]," said Ms. Burger, adding that the library has taken its own precautions to ensure the privacy of its patrons, which include having a computer system that wipes clean each patron's record of borrowing a book as soon as the book is back in the library's possession.

"We're doing everything we can to make sure your privacy is protected," she said.

Looking to the year ahead, Ms. Burger said she has the Princeton community to thank in part for being named the new ALA president: "One of the reasons is because I work in the best library and the best community. I love my new job and I'm very excited about it."

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