ALA Card: don’t go on May term without it

            Many benefits came with my return to Wartburg as a librarian, including the opportunity to do things that I had neither money or courage for as a student. For instance, traveling abroad during May Term always seemed like an opportunity to be seized.

           Recently, I renewed my membership in the American Library Association (ALA) for the 35th consecutive year (yikes!) and had my membership card returned to me by email. This reminded me of my time on May Term in Israel when my ALA card allowed me to enter the country and continue on the trip.

            It was 1997 during the construction of the Robert and Sally Vogel Library. The contractors quite wisely said that they only wanted a couple of librarians hanging around the construction site that May Term. The college suggested that the rest of us should find something else productive to do.

            I was walking home with Dr. Fred Strickert of the Religion Department, who was my neighbor, while he was talking about his May Term class on Biblical Archeology to Israel. I told Fred that I really wished I had the opportunity to take such a class when I was a student. As a history nerd, it was on my bucket list to work at an archeological dig, and I have always wanted to visit Israel and Palestine.

            Fred thought for a moment and said, “do you have a passport and a couple hundred bucks for spending money?”

            We proposed to the powers that be that my time away from the construction site could serve the college by helping Fred guide one of his largest classes of a couple dozen students traveling abroad and teach a class on the Crusader Kingdoms of Palestine.

            This hit so many things on my list:

  • May Term trip abroad
  • Travel to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and many other historical sites in the region
  • Teach a history class
  • Teach a medieval history class
  • Teach a medieval history class with a freakin’ Crusader castle (see picture below) and the city walls of Jerusalem as classrooms!

The class and the experience were great (and a story for another time), but the point of this story is what happened when we arrived at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv.

I was no stranger to international travel, airports, and crossing national borders. I had been doing it since I was 10-years-old traveling with Duane and Mary Ellen to Europe. Israel, however, was my first experience with enhanced security. This is not a complaint; Israel having enhanced security procedures is perfectly understandable even 25 years ago.

Keep in mind this is before 9/11 when we all became used to taking off our shoes, belts, and being scanned for weapons before getting on an airplane.

Still, it was interesting to see Israeli airport security quietly and efficiently divided our groups up into small clusters of students while making sure Fred and I were not in the same group. Later, I understood that they were making sure that Fred’s and my stories about why we were in Israel were the same while separated.

My group was approached by a short, female member of Israeli security who came up to my waist but was all business and slightly menacing, which I am sure was the goal.

“Why are you in Israel?”
            “I’m here with a group of American college students to work on an archaeological dig by Tiberius.”
            “Oh, what do you do?

“I’m a college librarian.”

“Really, I find that hard to believe.”
            Now I’m beginning to get nervous and mildly irritated.

“Oh, why?”

“Librarians don’t usually lead students.”
            “They do in America.”
            “Can you prove you are a librarian? I just find your story hard to believe.”

I looked at the students in my group and one was about to confirm that I was indeed a librarian at Wartburg College when the Israeli shushed them and said it was my question to answer.

Now I was stuck. How the heck do I proved I am a librarian? The smartass in me, fueled by jetlag, thought, “bring me a dozen books and I’ll catalog them. What the hell do you want?” But the seasoned traveler in me knew not to mess around with airport security; they have no sense of humor.

I looked over to Fred’s group hoping for inspiration, but he was having his own intense conversation. The students in my group were silent and nervously shuffling their feet. What to do?

Finally, what I thought was a brilliant idea flashed across my mind. For years I just happened to carry my American Library Association (ALA) card in my billfold. Not because it did anything for me…not even discounts at the local bookstore, but I had an extra pocket in my billfold. It seemed more professional than a punch card for free doughnuts at the Waverly bakery.

“I think I have a solution.”
            I carefully pulled out my billfold so as not to alarm anybody, including this member of Israel’s best, and pulled my current ALA card out with a flourish.

“Does this help?”

She took the card and examined it for what seemed an eternity. It is nothing fancy, just a piece of cardboard that doesn’t even pretend to be an ID document, but it was the best I had for the question at hand.

Finally, she handed it back and said, “welcome to Israel, Dr. Schroeder.” My first thought was relief, and the second thought was librarians have master’s degrees in the United States, not Ph.Ds. My third thought was that it wasn’t important.

I have wondered since that day how I would have gotten out of that situation if I hadn’t thought of my ALA card. I remain uncertain how far that security guard was going to take the issue. I am still annoyed that a librarian teaching students seemed unlikely to her, but I also know now, post-9/11, that the goal is to find out that you are who you say you are.

From that day on, I have never left home without my ALA card in my billfold. I have never had to use it for anything other than ordering materials from ALA, but it is comforting to know it is there. To paraphrase the old credit card TV ad: “Your ALA Membership Card: don’t go anywhere on May Term without it.”


Author’s Crusader Kingdom lecture to the 1997 Biblical Archaeology class at Montfort Castle in Upper Galilee region of Israel (Photo: Dr. Fred Strickert)
Don’t go on May Term without it.

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