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ALA: What is to be done?

[slightly revised and expanded from first post a few hours ago.] Everyone grumbles about ALA at some point or another. “The conference event planner sucks.” (Actually, the event planner hates me. This conference it stopped acknowledging me altogether.) “The conference is in the wrong location.” (Memo to ALA: Orlando is hot in late June, and at least for now, Philadelphia is cold in the winter.) “I asked ALA to do X and they were slow.” Ya think? Two months after joining ACRL, I finally got an email acknowledging the crisp green cash I had sent their way; they burbled that I was their newest member. Funny, because at that point they weren’t my newest association. [N.b. See follow-up post with excellent response from ACRL.]

But for most ALA members, ALA just is what it is. They attend conferences, or they don’t; they pay their dues and focus on other things (and good on them, too). The reality is that in an organization with 66,000+ members, most members aren’t concerned about some of the nuances we politicos fret over. So take all that into consideration in this discussion.

The membership roll is huge and conference attendance is bullish. By all accounts the American Library Association has never been healthier. Two conferences a year, a magazine every month, publications galore, and so many committees we are limited in the cities we can stay in because we need so many hotels with conference rooms.

If this were 1957, I’d say we were in for a good fifty-year run. But it’s 2007, and the question is, what kind of ALA do we want for the next fifty years? My suggestions below are just a beginning… but are based on years of discussions with other members.

What is impractical

In talking to members who are frustrated with ALA, I sometimes hear suggestions I believe to be impractical or even problematic, assuming we’re all agreed in the value of a single national association representing tens of thousands of librarians. Here are some of these suggestions:

Lower ALA dues. However, ALA dues are not high to begin with, compared to other similar organizations. I paid almost twice as much in one state association.

Let members join the divisions without joining ALA. That’s just a variation on the dues theme. It sounds fine until you learn that the reason you can belong to a national assocation for library technology professionals for $60 is that the association relies on the services supplied by the mother ship, ALA, from the building itself to IT, HR and training.

Charge less for conference registration. Again, for what we get (and who wouldn’t want the chance to go to Orlando in late June!), the registration fees are about as low as they can be.

“Make” Council stop taking useless positions. I hear this one a lot. I agree that there are positions Council takes that are less than useful. But some of those “social” positions (real or potential) are on behalf of librarianship. For example, I’d like to see ALA get forceful about libraries that do not offer domestic partnership benefits. The real issue is that Council has very little accountability overall because it meets essentially in secret, doing most of its work after the conference has ended. For an organization committed to sunshine, our own practices can be a little skeezy.

Let’s just build our own association, and we’ll be great… really great. ALA may be a ponderous, awkward behemoth, but any organization reflecting such a diverse profession will be a bit bulky. It’s the nature of organizations that size. If we built a 66,000-member association, it would look an awful lot like ALA. I think it’s more the case that we want to bend and flex ALA to make it less of a mid-1950s institution and more reflective of current practices in organizations and the world at large.

Realistic Areas for Change

Electronic participation. We do way too much work face-to-face (in a strange emulation of much library work, which is also pregnant with many, many meetings). Allow people to participate in formal decision-making electronically. If Executive Board can make decisions by phone call, then committees can vote by email. Set up policies and procedures for participating electronically with a heterogeneous set of tools; it’s possible to have better transparency with online meetings (how many meeting minutes read like Book-a-Minute classics?). Stop talking about it, stop having five-year plans, stop being so scared of the Luddites, and just fricking DO it.

The ghastly website. Hire people from outside and get it done right. If that means the IMIS system has to be rethought, do that as well. It’s not a huge association, so it’s odd that so much revolves around that funky old crap. In any event, the website design needs adult supervision with a measure of benevolent dictatorship thrown in to boot. Right now it’s a ghastly embarassment for a society of information professionals — ugly and hard to use. Changing the website design will mean changing ALA, because it is a product of ALA’s own structure, but that can be done.

Reduce ALA’s carbon footprint. This includes electronic participation, but also means things like committing ALA to paper-limited conferences, supporting electronic conferences, offering electronic membership meetings, giving preference to green activities, etc. Require joint conferences from divisions. Allow (encourage!) e-participation from panelists and speakers (as opposed to LITA’s agonized handwringing about how librarians will get “confused” if there’s a chat screen up while Top Tech Trendsters are talking).

Make ALA Council transparent, accountable, and ‘greener.” Put Council’s schedule on ALA’s schedule; force Council to begin its work before it meets in person; run council’s near-real-time live transcripts (which we all pay to produce for the hearing-challenged and broadcast on huge screens within the chambers during Council sessions) on the web in real-time. (The oft-cited excuse that the quality isn’t perfect fails on two counts: first, if it’s good enough for the hearing-challenged, it’s good enough for everyone else; second, thanks to television, we’re in a culture that is aware and tolerant of the tics and flubs of real-time close-captioning.) Enable e-participation from councilors who cannot attend all or part of the conference. Force ALA’s committees to do work prior to the conference, so that Council doesn’t have to wait until the day after the conference to begin its real work — a situation which contributes to Council’s lack of accountability.

Review ALA’s budget and financial strategy and tell the members what it all means. I’m not sure ALA is on the wrong road with its money, but it is a good time to clarify how it is earned and spent. People do not realize how much conferences and publications drive ALA revenue… and how little thinking goes into changing that structure.

Scale back the committee/member group structure, and strive for ZPG. Part of the conference cost is driven by how many meeting rooms ALA requires. Force committee accountability… no more registered rooms with one or two people showing up and drifting away. This means changing how people qualify coming to conference — many organizations look for participation (which explains quite a bit of the committee redundancy) — so this issue is hugely political.

Make conferences greener and more lithe. Create more ad-hoc, short-notice program slots for ALA conferences. Consider lifting the ban on “programs” at Midwinter, or consider holding virtual Midwinter conferences; in any event, think hard about an association that requires tens of thousands of people to fly cross-country for short meetings twice a year (in part because of the committee/meeting structure that is based on face-to-face communication for “real” work). It’s not that I don’t love to see my friends — to a great extent, conferences are about seeing my friends — but for an organization that has repeatedly committed at least on paper to the values of environmentalism (you really should read that Policy manual…), we sure do like our airplanes. (Library-related travel completely trashed my carbon footprint, when I measured it last year.)

Eliminate paper balloting for ALA elections. And shorten the voting period. No ALA member needs to be without email. We spend a lot of money, and waste paper, on a few “information will-nots.”

Rethink ALA Publishing. Right now it’s seriously balkanized, oldfashioned, and not producing revenue. All these divisions have publishing arms, none of them run well (because publishing is not their forte, and that’s not to fault them at all). Follow the money. Think about consolidating all publications, and think about how to e-publish.

How to effect change

The short answer is to take over ALA governance. (The other short answer is RTFM: log in, and read the ALA Handbook of Organization end-to-end. It’s not publicly available because ALA couldn’t figure out how to separate its email-based directory of VIPs from the other documents… which just baffles me; if I had a more current version of Adobe, I’d split the file myself. The Handbook includes the policy manual and other key documents.)

Council elects an Executive Board, which theoretically runs ALA, but delegates to the Executive Director of ALA, currently Keith Fiels (a good guy, but he also isn’t going to steer ALA anywhere EB isn’t taking it — and that’s correct behavior). Council nominates and elects EB. With a majority on Council, you theoretically have control of ALA (since you can elect the EB). There are just under 200 Councilors, so elect a slate of 100 Councilors and you have a majority. Yet it’s not that simple, either, because as the ALA website notes, “Council, the governing body of ALA [is] comprised of 183 members: 100 elected at large; 53 by chapters; 11 by divisions; 7 by roundtables; and 12 members of the Executive Board.” It’s not impossible that a slate couldn’t include chapter, divisional, or roundtable candidates, but it would require more effort, and since not all Councilors are elected at the same time, you can’t just run 100 at-large candidates. More likely than electing Councilors from chapters and divisions is first, to build a reform Council over several years, and second, that a strong Council EB slate would pick up additional votes outside the original reform slate.

But you want more than elect a Council: you want to change the bylaws, which were last significantly revised during the reform era of the early 1970s; you want to ensure the chapters and divisions are on board, because even with a majority vote, if they aren’t on board they will just stalemate you until your slate’s term is up; you want to seed key ALA committees with members who will be on board with the slate’s core values; and you want to grab the hearts and minds of the ALA membership, and ensure that the library press are on board with you.


This short list only addresses changing EB, the Bylaws, and some committees.

Year 1: Run an ALA presidential candidate who will be the president during the “action year,” and run a slate of Councilors committed to the slate’s governance issues. Start probing and parsing key ALA committees, such as Organization, Committees, and Bylaws.

Year 2: run the member who will be the president-elect. Run another Council slate. Focus on having a clear majority on Council. Rewrite Bylaws and Policy as needed.

Year 3: run another president and another Council slate. Solidify presence, clean up Bylaws changes.

That’s it. It’s not forever, because nothing is forever. But if you want to change ALA — either for the reasons I suggested, or others — that’s the way to do it.

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