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Armadillos on Fire: Revisiting ALA’s Open Meeting Policy

Claire the Armadillo, courtesy Houston city gov.

Claire the Armadillo, courtesy Houston city gov.

Last Saturday at the LITA board meeting, board member Jason Griffey set an armadillo on fire and let it loose in the room. I watched in amazement as board members (metaphorically) leapt on chairs and screamed.

The armadillo was ALA’s open meeting policy, and the fire was Jason opening his MacBook and streaming the proceedings to the world at large.  Within minutes the fire was put out, when board members voted to request that Jason kill the streaming. Jason complied.

Several of us continued Tweeting the proceedings; there were complaints about this as well, directed to No One In Particular but obviously pointed at us. But if the membership ain’t free to write about what happens at an open meeting, we’re in gulag territory, so I played dumb. Elsewhere librarians have observed that complaining about tweeting after voting to kill the stream was disingenuous.

In general, it’s a bad idea to surprise your boss or your board. If you’re doing this routinely, you aren’t a maverick; you simply lack the skill or discipline to communicate and coordinate. To use an mnemonic the team I was on cooked up  at Squadron Officer School back in the day, Purple Oranges Don’t Cause Cancer: responsible action requires planning, organizing, delegating, coordinating, and communicating.

However, an organization that routinely streams other open meetings should not be startled when, in 2011, the camera shows up at their proceedings. Frankly, the board was not prepared for virtual participation, which in 2011 is all wrong for an organization where the “T” means technology. Streaming (thankfully) isn’t new to LITA;  LITA’s Top Technology Trends was streamed the next day, as it has been for a while, and I don’t know that anyone complained. You’re going to reply, but that’s a program! No, my friends, at Midwinter, we don’t HAVE programs, remember? TTT at Midwinter is an open meeting. Check the schedule.

Boards rely on trust relationships, and the generational disconnect between Jason’s action and the board’s reaction didn’t build that trust. But I will swear by Ranganathan that Jason wasn’t trying to pull a fast one. The board may also think I was invited just for this event–which I was not. When I realized Jason was streaming, I vaguely thought “That’s cool,” and my brain moved on.

That is exactly the response I have had in describing the incident to people:

Me: The LITA board was being streamed…

Person: Oh yeah? That’s cool…

Me: Um…

Ironically, at Sunday’s Top Technology Trends, none of the Trendsters commented on streaming as a trend, which could mean it isn’t novel enough to mention. (Or it could mean that the trends were generally a bit cerebral, save those of Monique; it was a good discussion, but I will share my own, far more sublunary trends in a day or two.)

At the meeting, the board tried to retrofit its reaction, reasoning that there was a consultant presenting copyrighted material.  But that assumes that there is some middle ground for open meetings where they are open to the people in the room but not to ALA members elsewhere. The policy does not establish or even mention such a middle ground, though it is one that has been long-assumed by some members.

On the other hand, the complaints on Twitter that the stream should have been left wide open are a bit naive about current ALA open meeting policy. I’m not defending the wording, but as it stands, meetings at conferences are open to registered attendees. You might find this absurd or restrictive, but in its time, this was part of a broad series of reforms. Well before my time, in the late 1960s, there was an “ALAgate” that had to do with… open meetings. The more things change…

Anyhoo, the Open Meeting policy has obviously been OBT (Overcome By Technology). Also, the Incident of the Armadillo Engulfed in Flames has surfaced something even more  intriguing, which is that all of that maverick-y streaming of routine work done by divisions such as ACRL, YALSA, RUSA, etc. (organizations that unlike LITA are not hemmoraging members and revenue) is technically out of compliance with ALA policy. You’ve All Been Breaking The Law!

I am not advocating cease-and-desist. In fact, based on the numbers, OBT lawbreaking appears to be key to fiduciary health; allowing for the impact of a very bad economy, the “streamers” are doing better overall than the “meatwares.”

However counterintuitive to the people who count nickels, the more you open your proceedings, the healthier your organization (which is in line with a finding from the Task Force on Electronic Meeting Participation–more about that below–that there is a correlation between the rise of member access to technology and increased attendance at ALA conferences).  If that’s the case, and we all agree that ALA is itself a higher good, then particularly after ALA’s recent fiscal troubles, it’s clear that the law needs to be brought into line with good practice.

ALA as a body needs to immediately point its wonkiest law-making committees at the “open meeting” question, and the response — which needs to happen no later than Annual 2011 — needs to be both informed by ALA values (such as our historical commitment to intellectual freedom) and by our urgent need to stop losing money.

We began to explore the definition of open meetings on the Task Force on Electronic Meeting Participation (hi Janet!), but even less than five years ago, our concern was not that streaming needed to be limited, but that ALA didn’t have the resources to make it widely available.

At the time, it seemed impossible to imagine that within five years a member could bring fairly standard personal technology to a meeting and use it to share the meeting with the world.  I think our points about Midwinter were (and are) quite valid–and perhaps prescient; I remember commenting more than once that a fiscal downturn could be a game-changer. But the comments about Midwinter also tended to distract people from other things we were saying (as Janet warned us might happen).

One warning to all is that as as rule, ALA committees tend to get focused on the idea that something needs to be made available to the entire association, BY the association, in a uniform manner. I’m all for authority control, but we need to let flowers bloom when they’re ready, and ease up on the argument that “we can’t afford it” because ALA, as an association, can’t personally put a camera in every meeting room. (And an organization where the “T” stands for technology should in theory have more than the usual number of early bloomers.)

Learning to bless a practice without mandating it would also allow ALA to become more Darwinian about its divisions.  It’s not good fiscal practice for ALA the bureaucracy to keep a division alive on artificial life support, and it’s not fair to the dues-paying members, either–it’s the equivalent of wasting taxpayer dollars on standing orders for print reference. If a division can’t evolve to meet the needs and expectations of ALA members, then we need to thank it for its years of service and send it on its way. (Incidentally, I’m not actually thinking of LITA as I write that–I’m going way back in time.)

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19 Comments

  1. libwitch wrote:

    As a due paying ALA member who also belongs to a number of sections (so dues upon dues!) who can seldom afford to attend ALA conferences (the travel alone kills me; its not the registration) I have never understood why they at least don’t stream these meetings through their website to logged in members. Perhaps its a false sense of security, but a security feature, neverless. Just because I can not afford to attend doesn’t mean I should be locked out of the evolving business…

    Friday, January 14, 2011 at 11:26 am | Permalink
  2. Lori Reed wrote:

    Hmmm our library board meetings are legally open and the door to the room literally remains open. Not only that but the press is usually there filming and tweeting. To get our own message out we have a communications specialist live-tweeting as well.

    I’m surprised that group like LITA would fall behind the times with this. I would have thought LITA would be ahead of the curve.

    Next time send Jason to the Learning Round Table. We tried to stream our meetings in the past and couldn’t get the tech to work! We would gladly stream to encourage more participation from members who cannot attend!

    Friday, January 14, 2011 at 12:06 pm | Permalink
  3. Dale wrote:

    I just want to say thanks for posting this!

    Friday, January 14, 2011 at 12:21 pm | Permalink
  4. libwitch, for the most part (and the LITA board meeting was an exception), I think it’s a case of well-meaning ALA leaders wanting to offer this level of access for everyone–but not being able to see through the logistical/cost issues–so therefore offering it to no one (except for guerrilla streaming by a handful of motivated members which is not limited to registered members). It’s actually much easier and cheaper to have a member-provided open stream than it is to deal with authentication and so forth. So then… why don’t we?

    Friday, January 14, 2011 at 1:02 pm | Permalink
  5. senorita cranky wrote:

    After many years of being active and working my way to the top of my section, I left my ALA membership behind. The lack of vision and clarity, along with the pettiness, drove me away. The break began when a publication editor claimed to the Board that electronic access to publications would *decrease* access, and my experience went downhill from there. Your post confirms that ALA does not work for its members.

    Friday, January 14, 2011 at 1:06 pm | Permalink
  6. peter brantley wrote:

    It seems to me that a lot of this is always going to be Work in Progress as communication tools advance, permitting easier real time participation and sharing. Most not for profit Board needs can be met by dividing the agenda into open and closed sessions; both may be required. Boards have a right to privacy to discuss certain kinds of budget, internal, or speculative issues. I do feel that it is useful to push towards openness, but also to make the board aware that one is so engaged.

    I remember a meeting I attended several years ago at the Hewlett Foundation (hosting party) on the use of virtual environments in education. Pre-twitter, I announced that with the permission of the multiple foundations present, I would live-blog the event. After the ensuing stunned silence, a vote was held – rather an ambiguous one. The program chair from Hewlett then intervened by saying (in so many words): “This event should be blogged; this is how we /do things/ here in the (Silicon) Valley.” We agreed people could voice an “opt-out” request for comments or statements. Of course, after the fact, most everyone appreciated an online record had been made, which is the usual case.

    And so we push ahead, day by day, month by month, year by year, towards greater transparency.

    Friday, January 14, 2011 at 1:29 pm | Permalink
  7. Nice comment, Peter. And yes, of course, there are times when boards need to close hearings. One of the old-tymey assumptions from the past is that ALA could just rely on the fact that hardly anyone attends these things. Hello world!

    Friday, January 14, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Permalink
  8. Jenny Reiswig wrote:

    I’ll echo here what I commented on Michelle Boule’s blog take on this incident.

    Personally? I think that streaming open meetings should be OK, and things like live-tweeting should be explicitly OK as well unless it’s a closed portion of a meeting. I would bet a nickel that most of the Board members would say the same if you asked them personally offline. But I can’t fault the capital-B-Board for not just rolling with it. It should have been discusse, decided and communicated before the fact. Yes, that’s bureaucracy, but that’s how formally constituted organizations work. That’s not wrong – it’s just one way for a group to work.

    IMHO, this was more akin to stepping in gum than setting an animal on fire. It should not be a big deal for the board to discuss the issue of streaming at a future meeting or conference call. Then they can communicate their decision on whether it’s OK in the future. It would be great if they could get it done before Annual.

    Friday, January 14, 2011 at 2:06 pm | Permalink
  9. Attitude is everything. Jes sayin.

    Friday, January 14, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Permalink
  10. Being a little bit of a “know your history” kind of guy, in the ALA of the ’60s/’70s there was a huge groundswell of member dissatisfaction with the “closedness” of association processes. One of many results from that disaffection was ALA’s current open meetings policy.

    What I see / hear from ALA members these days is a desire for ever more increased openness and access to ALA processes (and programs) as standard practice.

    We are now in the middle of the new r/evolution.

    These efforts at online participation really started in the ’90s as use of the www expanded. As our connectivity continues increasing and as more and more “technology” (that which people learn after their childhood) becomes “everyday” (that which people learn in their childhood) we will have new challenges.

    The trick will be to write an evolving ruleset which encourages innovation and does not enshrine the status quo, however newly achieved and shiny.

    Thanks for the flaming armadillo analogy and, believe you me, we are going to do our best to make things right.

    Naysayers, Beware.

    Friday, January 14, 2011 at 2:33 pm | Permalink
  11. Bobbi Newman wrote:

    Karen I think you covered many of my thoughts/comments/concerns about what happened and about the online stink about it.

    Something that I haven’t seen anyone mention is the idea of an open or public meeting vs a broadcast meeting. While I know for many techies public = broadcast and they are very comfortable with being ‘out there’ online it needs to be noted that for many people this is not the case. It is one thing for a conversation to be public and open for those present, it is another for that conversation to be broadcast to others who are not participating. Broadcasting a public or open conversation changes that conversation and the comfort of the participants. And rightly so.

    Friday, January 14, 2011 at 2:59 pm | Permalink
  12. Naomi Young wrote:

    I’ll leave aside the substantive comments to say the AbFab theme is now stuck in my head, with the lyric: Armadillos on fire, cruising down the road…

    Friday, January 14, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Permalink
  13. The notion of what is a “presence” is a moving target. And not just today… privacy has very specific meaning across different centuries. Definitely there was a disconnect of expectations. I like Aaron’s distinction between “technology” and “everyday.” Jason thought he was doing the latter, when the board thought he was doing the former.

    Friday, January 14, 2011 at 5:56 pm | Permalink
  14. Jennie wrote:

    Before I begin with my comment let me disclaim by saying I’m rather new to the profession. After reading this post and the comments though I’m a little disappointed. Jenny Reiswig made a comment about the Board having the opportunity to discuss streaming, and I guess I understand that (I’m on several committees too) but really this type of attitude is what fuels the fear of librarianship becoming obsolete. Many commenters’s sited that ALA has been cliquey and kind of secretive. I liken this to the view some have of librarians as key holders to all the knowledge – a traditional stuffy group of individuals that somehow feel they are above others because we know to find information and can access it. How can we expect our end user to find us relevant in a changing world if we don’t move into that world with them? Technology in particular social media has made our society more transparent, anything that doesn’t meet with that runs the risk of being labeled as out of date.

    Thursday, January 20, 2011 at 9:36 am | Permalink
  15. Dinah PHillips wrote:

    The things I learn from your blog! Ranganathan? Who knew? Thanks!

    Thursday, January 20, 2011 at 1:55 pm | Permalink
  16. sally sue wrote:

    “Within minutes the fire was put out, when board members voted to request that Jason kill the streaming. Jason complied.”

    “within minutes” is a little misleading. I watched the video and it was a full 7 minutes before anyone said anything about the camera.

    To me, the bottom line was the streaming was turned off because it was being done without the knowledge or permission of any of the other board members. Which I think is unprofessional and disrespectful. A board is a collaborative group and decisions should be made as such, not one individual acting alone.

    Thursday, January 20, 2011 at 4:31 pm | Permalink
  17. @sally sue: Opinions are like noses… everybody has one.

    Thursday, January 20, 2011 at 9:08 pm | Permalink
  18. Mary Russell wrote:

    Great summary of the issues involved in this kerfuffle, and the flaming armadillo image is wonderful. As I read about this incident I keep being struck by a question: if library organizations can’t make their information open and available to anyone who wants it then how will we convince anyone else to do so?

    Friday, January 21, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Permalink
  19. Melora wrote:

    Thanks for your post on this important topic. In 2007, as a new ACRL member, I was looking around for opportunities to participate and came across a committee on the ACRL virtual conference. Perceiving that most of the group’s meetings essentially took place online, I asked to join their listserv with read-only access and was told the list was closed. Upon further examination, I discovered that this was fairly typical–that many if not most ALA e-forums were closed despite the fact that more and more groups were doing their work online. Since I was on Council at the time, I introduced a resolution:

    REFERRED, ALA CD# 7, Resolution on Member Access to Electronic Lists of the American Library Association, which read: “That all electronic lists of the American Library Association shall henceforth be available for read-only access to all members of the Association. Closed lists may be established only for the discussion of matters affecting the privacy of individuals or institutions; and that this resolution shall be implemented on ALA servers as soon as the ALA Executive Director deems feasible,” to the Task Force on Electronic-Member Participation.

    http://bit.ly/hGJZYM

    While my resolution went nowhere, I continue to hope that ALA and its divisions will find a way to extend the spirit of the open meeting policy to electronic communications. As an organization that advocates openness, transparency and democracy, we have much to gain by practicing what we preach.

    Monday, February 14, 2011 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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