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The ALA Conference Meeting Life Cycle

For decades (if not longer), the ALA conference meeting schedule has remained unchanged. For six months the pupae lie dormant. The week prior to the conference, they begin wiggling in their pupal cases, responding to the faint clarion call of hotel room reservations and vendor cocktail parties. The ALA creatures emerge all at once, and before their wings are even dry they are in flight, driven by instinct toward their new homes.

Then, for the next week, they do what is known as the work of the association.

If you talk to some of these creatures — and I have been one — they will tell you how busy they are. Busy, busy, busy! So busy, in fact, that they will take pains to tell you that they don’t go to exhibits or even most programs. Sometimes they are double- and triple-scheduled, and will show up mid-meeting with a triumphant air. Whew, amazing, you managed to attend two meetings at the same time at opposite ends of the city! Applause, followed by a quick recap of the last three hours. Ad infinitum.

But what is that work to date? It is, as Jane at Wandering Eyre points out, the sort of stuff that much of the rest of the information-privileged world now resolves between conferences. Because the rest of the world understands that meetings are for the most part about administrivia, which can be handled via email and so forth, with a quick face-to-face to wrap things up, while conferences are about human networking, personal growth, and vendor SWAG.

I gripe a lot about ALA Council, and certainly it is fertile territory for criticism. But one reason ALA Council meets as late as it does, with its last, longest, and most productive meeting held a full day after everyone has gone home (and forgive me if you have heard this from me before) is that its meeting schedule is in part a function of every other major meeting in ALA. For the most part, Council is waiting for committees, and boards, and task forces to finish their work.

Not only is a lot of this work completed in real-time at the conference, a lot of it is started at the conference, and some of it has the bitter taint of make-work. When I was last on Council, one Roundtable was particularly egregious about churning out “resolutions” that put ALA on record for positions that were nominally important but completely insignificant as presented in these hastily-composed first drafts. All of these needed to be reviewed by the resolutions chair, placed on Council agenda, mulled over at Council Forum, and duly considered and voted on.

ALA: how it puts the “fun” in dysfunctional!

The only way to understand what I’m describing is to experience it. At ALA Midwinter, pick a division, ALA-level committee, Executive Board meeting, session of the Intellectual Freedom Committee, or some other top-level group; sit through as much of it as you can. Then — keeping in mind that Midwinter exists as a “meeting,” and strictly speaking, does not even offer programs — ask yourself how much of what you hear could have been accomplished without flying cross-country for half a week — or at least, having done that, sitting in a room for several long hours.

I’m a little tired from a marathon-writing day, but I feel there is something here to be worked into Aaron Dobb’s evolving wiki on changing ALA. I keep wondering if we should continue waiting for ALA to approve virtual meetings or just hold one and then push the issue legislatively.

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