Skip to content

Ye Olde Frustrating ALA

Skip Auld, ALA Councilor and a beloved colleague, has been circulating this message to various discussion lists:

> Two years ago, many of you marked my name on the ALA Council
> ballot with the expectation that I would represent your views, values,
> and priorities. Last week I decided that, because of my higher personal
> costs associated with attending conferences, and because I have
> college-age children, I will be unable to attend conferences this year.
> With regret, I resigned my position as councilor-at-large and ALA
> Council representative to the Planning & Budget Assembly, as well as
> American Libraries Advisory Committee member.

Skip is exactly the kind of person I like working with in ALA: sensible, thoughtful, hard-working. He laughed at the idea that he might participate in the work of the association without leaving his office. But as I said to him, the capability is there. We could do this if we wanted to. However, to quote my favorite lightbulb joke (where the question is, “How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb?”), first, the lightbulb has to really want to change.

For some time there has been discussion within ALA governance about participating in ALA electronically. Quite a bit of ALA governance is predicated on a mid-20th-century model where we show up twice a year to do the “work” of the association. Most of the work seems to be on the order of a pyramid scheme, where we vote on actions developed at the conference that lead to more actions to vote on in six months. A surprising amount of ALA activity revolves around this reality, and it is this reality–show up at ALA, do work, go home, repeat–that means that most of the actual governance activity of ALA is hidden from member view, because since the committees that generate the work Council votes on must first meet so that Council has something to do, the bulk of the governance decisions takes place after most of the conference attendees have long gone home. (This is much less true for LITA and for some divisions, such as PLA.)

Not only that, to mollify those who have been insisting that ALA move from hoop skirts to comfortable slacks, ALA has developed a category of “virtual” committee member that trivializes the entire concept of participation. “Virtual” members can “participate,” but their presence does not count toward a quorum and they cannot vote on committee actions. ALA is unable to consider the idea that someone might be a vital member of a committee and not fly cross-country twice a year to attend a conference. Personally, I find the entire category of “virtual” member to belittle and demean the concept of association participation and make our association appear exceptionally backward. I am also unimpressed, though amused, by the circular reasoning that “a committee, etc., could find itself without a quorum and unable to act if all of its virtual members and some of its other members were not present at a meeting at Annual or Midwinter.” If a committee gets its work done, who cares?

At this point in the discussion, someone usually invokes the Open Meeting Rule. I don’t know how ALA can argue that its meetings are “open” when 2/3s of its members aren’t at the conferences in the first place. Additionally, the answers for opening meetings are simple–make ALA discussions more visible and invite people to observe them. (ALA is planning to implement some “virtual community” software, but we’ve had the ability to allow people to follow discussions all along, much as anyone who wants to can follow the discussion on Web4Lib. It just isn’t that big of a deal.)

And to really frost this cupcake, for years I have been asking ALA to go a step farther with participation, but I am uniformly ignored. At ALA Council, we already pay to have our live discussion transcribed, keyed into a computer, and output on a screen in almost-real-time. This expensive but worthy activity is done to enable hearing-challenged members to follow Council discussions. I have done the legwork to verify that we could go one tiny step farther, and at very little additional cost, allow these real-time discussions to be presented on the Web. The expensive, difficult work of keying them in is already happening. Going a step farther to place live transcripts online is inexpensive and easy. The objections to this have bordered on contradictorily foolish (the transcripts aren’t “reliable”–but they’re good enough for deaf members of ALA?) to laughable (if we offer Council discussion on the Web, people will stay home because they don’t have to go to ALA to sit in on the discussion–oh yeah, we DO get SRO crowds for the reading of the latest Leg Comm report).

The real reason this kind of suggestion is ignored is that, to borrow a favorite bumper sticker, it subverts the dominant paradigm. It doesn’t matter how valuable Skip is to the association, or how much work he is willing to do. If you can’t be there on terms established in the late 19th century, you don’t count. If we had the transcripts online, it would eventually occur to some that Skip, following the discussion, might be able to vote on Council actions, perhaps by phone or email. And we couldn’t have that. (Someone actually said, “but how would he get the documents?”–this, minutes after we received our first batch of Council documents by, of course, email.)

There are a few voices within ALA governance pushing for change. My guess is most of you either route around the sillier parts of ALA by participating in divisions that meet your personal or professional needs (e.g., by joining LITA, which has terrific interest groups in every imaginable tech-related area, an excellent annual Forum, and great collegiality), or by ignoring ALA altogether.

I suspect the real difference between the “Nextgen” librarians and us old codgers is that the young’uns are much less interested in ALA’s head games and can find other means of interacting without donning bustles and sleeve garters, and if I’m right, those demographics will come home to roost in the next decade. That, at least, will be grim justice.

Posted on this day, other years: