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Meredith’s New Orleans Wiki and ALA Menschlichkeit

It warmed me to watch ALA bring Meredith Farkas into the fold, encourage her to build a wiki for the New Orleans conference, let the New Orleans wiki be hosted externally, and yet be “official” (I know how hard a step that is for any organization), and in general say, Meredith, you are entitled to your kvetching, we are listening, we appreciate what you have done (even if we haven’t always recognized it in the past), and what we have to offer in turn is our willingness to grow and change. Both Meredith and ALA deserve applause for meeting in the middle.

As a long-time ALA politico, I hear a lot about what ALA “should” or “shouldn’t” do, and I’m not adverse to piling it on when I hit my frustration level. (Wind me up and get me going about the Current Reference File.) But I agree with the world-view of Leonard Kniffel’s latest editorial about John Berry’s retirement from Library Journal: Berry has stuck with ALA through thick and thin; he has always seen it as his association. Berry and I have had our own run-ins on any number of issues, but at bottom we share the same values, which include the idea that you don’t play, you can’t say.

That works in both directions: if ALA wants to be the “voice” of librarianship (I hate saying the voice of libraries–is the AMA the voice of hospitals?), it has to let us speak, as well, not just in words but in actions, such as taking a deep breath, acknowledging new trends in librarianship–what we could call the L2 Zeitgeist–and not just tolerating but encouraging the creation of a participatory wiki for the conference. That’s a lot of concession about control from an organization that has for many years been a very top-down slow-moving barge.

But knowing ALA as well as I do from the inside out, and knowing people as well as I do from the inside out, and having spent many hours in the ALA saddle, let me say This about That.

Managing an association representing 66,000 members, many of whom see their affiliation with the mother ship in terms of their work specialties, is no small beans. I am frankly tired of hearing people mutter that they could set up an association that cost a lot less and delivered a lot more.

If you can do it, then by no means let any of us stand in your way. But don’t say you can do it, chunk rocks at ALA’s butt, and then don’t follow through. “Heck with them, we’ll publish our own journal.” “Screw the publishers, we’ll publish our own book.” “ALA sucks, we’ll create our own association.” Money walks and bullshit talks. Look, stop talking about it, and do it. Or better yet, acknowledge that maybe, with every major enterprise, there’s more there than meets the eye. Good work looks effortless, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. (I certainly feel that with responses to our cuts at My Place Of Work.)

Take ALA Council. Three terms in, I know what’s wrong with Council. It needs a family systems counselor to insist on tough love. If Council III ended on Monday afternoon (instead of Wednesday), and ALA members were told they couldn’t hold meetings prior to the previous Friday (with key exceptions for a few top committees), we’d absorb the change and deal with it. We’d get resolutions in advance of the conference, we’d show up for a final lick and polish, and we’d take action and go home with everyone else. Instead, Council yammers and yammers about how its members, if they are decent librarians, should give up a week of their time to wait around for the partially-digested random thoughts we call our Council 3 agenda (this is primarily from one Councilor, but he does consistently get reelected), or alternatively, and more popularly, ALA, which has been frozen at the same level of member support for a decade, should dredge up money to support travel costs for Councilors–even though staying at ALA through Wednesday burdens the association, as well, which must keep staff and logistics support for Council and provide conference facilities for Council’s post-conference bloviations.

Both “solutions” rely on reluctance to change, an internal lack of discipline, and a general “L1” failure of imagination. Some get it–Michael Golrick truly gets it–and some don’t.

But I earned the right to gripe. I am entitled to push on this issue because I know Council from the inside out, from the many, many hours I’ve contributed to governing ALA. Frankly, ALA dues are bupkas (this discussion elicits the Jewish half of my heritage, perhaps because I can hear my father’s scorn about kibitzers who kvetch but don’t pull their weight, oy vey). I was taken to task for my 3-latte model in support of the dues increase, but even I, facing a reversal of fortune at MPOW (and frankly even before reversals of fortune earning below local market rate and certainly well below what I deliver to my job) can’t begrudge ALA ten more dollars next year for everything I get from this association, which includes the right to kvetch, kibitz, backseat-drive, second-guess, and mock, but also the responsibility–and as a manager and change agent, I see that too as a gift–to pitch in to do the nitty-gritty work of ALA.

You don’t have to serve on Council to get the right to say. You don’t even have to serve on a committee or interest group, even though you will make some great friends that way if you do. Pay your dues, vote in the elections, and read American Libraries (and for that matter, Library Journal). More is great, but citizenship, voting, and awareness form the basic level of participation in any democratic enterprise, and you will have done well ifyou go this far. But at least walk that far with us.

Yes, I had to step down as LITA Councilor because I can’t justify either the organizational or personal funds required to stay at ALA for a week, and I cannot devote myself to Council with the full attention that position needs. But I am still co-chairing a LITA Interest Group, I’m still working with the LITA Blog, I’m still helping to pull together a program for New Orleans, I’m still presenting at New Orleans, I’m still renewing my ALA dues, and I’m still voting in the upcoming election. I just rolled off the Web Advisory Committee–where ALA members help ALA improve its website, remember the website that sucked so badly?–and have just agreed to serve (virtually) on a committee about virtual participation. I’ve been an ALA member since 1991, and I guarantee that when life improves for me, I’ll ramp up my participation to match what I personally feel I get from the association.

To quote our incoming ALA president and Blogger in Chief Leslie Burger, “Become the change you want to see.” Do it outside of ALA, do it inside ALA, but just do it.

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