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State Associations and all that

Once again there is a flurry of discussion about the LibraryLand practice of charging speakers to speak, and it has become bundled up in another discussion, the role of state library associations [n.b. corrected Freudian slip].

I’ve worked for some great folks, but Bob was the best. I worked for Bob when I ran a special library for the EPA. Bob was an engineer, not a librarian, and he technically wasn’t my boss, since he was a real Fed and I was a contractor, except my real boss was a potato-head working for a lowest-bid contractor two states away, and I don’t work for potato-heads; so for all intents and purposes I worked for Bob.

In addition to being brainy, witty, and hugely empathetic, Bob was very supportive of the library, But one thing I adored about him were the questions he asked… such as “I went to my public library and I tried to use the computer, but it was so hard. Why are catalogs so hard to use?” Or, “You mean you went on a public mailing list and found a conference roommate you’ve never met? Do you think engineers do this?” (Bob asked quite a few rhetorical questions.)

It was interesting to see LibraryLand through Bob’s eyes. I’m sure we seemed quaint.

I don’t even have a good transition for that anecdote, so I’ll leap right in and say that we’re experiencing a generational disconnect on how we serve one another, and it’s driven by many things, including technology. But it’s not just a case of “them young’uns don’t want to pay their dues.” Often, those young’uns are already paying dues, such as pulling together courses such as “Five Weeks to a Social Library,”

I’ve done best with state associations when I focused on specific issues such as intellectual freedom or helping to establish or revive gay and lesbian task organizations. I’ve chaired two IF committees, both, I felt, very effectively. But the second time left a sour taste in my mouth–not the committee, but the aftermath. I was told the IF committee was moribund, so with the help of a dy-no-mite committee, I revved it up. We did a joint awareness project with the local ACLU; we helped a newspaper do an excellent four-part series on the Patriot Act; we established the state’s intellectual freedom award (despite the complaint from one higher-up that we had Too Many Awards–oh yes, that was the real problem in California: far too many people being recognized for their efforts).

Our thanks? After my term, the state association politicos proposed dissolving the IFC (along with other units in the state association). Only a threatened melt-down from IFC members (including me) stopped that from happening.

If you didn’t know better, you might think some folks had an issue with the committee doing too well.

When I listen to people talking about their frustration with trying to “work from within,” I tap the rage (yes–rage) I felt when “they” proposed dissolving the IFC. Because what I sense most from comments by Janie, Sarah, and others is the feeling that they played along by the rules, tried to work from within, did everything they could, and were still shat upon by They Who Must Be Obeyed.

To the extent state associations will survive over the next ten to twenty years, it will require this much:

* Some state associations will need to stop pretending to be membership-oriented statewide ALA affiliates and will have to become what they really are: PACs for public libraries.

* Some state associations will need to recognize that this is not your mother’s LibraryLand. There are enough opportunities to shine without attending state conferences. If they want to put on a top-notch regional conference, they’re going to have to treat their speakers well–at least well enough to comp registration and offer even a tiny perk. Someone like Michele Boule has a national reputation and is speaking at her local state conference as a courtesy. Get a grip: you aren’t doing her any favors.

* Some people need to step aside and let new ideas prevail. You can’t afford to pay speakers? Let’s see that budget for printing and mailing newsletters. Let’s see that budget, period. We’ll help.

* As for the state association cliques that are like high school “mean girls”… well, actually, I’m glad these cliques exist. Better they should think they are important at this level and leave the rest of us alone.

Then there are some state associations who putter along quite nicely, serving as good regional institutes for collegiality, activism, or other important functions. This will sound crazy, but I miss the New York Library Association legislative committee meetings (which I “liaised” to from IFC). Such a passionate bunch of freedom-lovers I never did meet. At the time, I recall thinking the state conference was a twee lame, but our gatherings had an earnest crunchy do-goodness I learned to miss.

So, no, I do not think state associations have “outlived their usefulness.” I have been to dozens of state association meetings, and yes, they are largely oriented to public libraries, and yes, they do need to be thinking about their role in LibraryLand. It’s clear that state associations can’t simply assume things will function the way they did in 1967 or even 1997. I do see the importance of PACs, and regional conferences, and advocacy. The question is, does everyone else?

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