Skip to content

Educating LITA

I don’t know which is the greater task: to decentralise a top-heavy civilization or to prevent an ancient civilization from becoming centralised and top-heavy. In both cases the core of the problem is to discover what constitutes a good civilization, then proclaim it to the people and help them to erect it.”

Over on Pattern Recognition, Jason Griffey shares some frustration with LITA’s powers-that-be over their reaction to the recent successes of BIGWIG, the blogging-and-related-stuff interest group. Fellow BIGWIG’er and LITA Top Trendster Karen Coombs echoes her concerns.

Meanwhile, in other corners, I have heard rumblings that BIGWIG should become a LITA committee. Why, I asked? Because, I was told, it acts like a committee: coordinating across LITA groups, launching initiatives, etc.

I have some suggestions for LITA.

BIGWIG is doing a great job; be careful not to turn them off. Yes, a little more LITA branding would be helpful. But librarians are finding LITA through BIGWIG, not vice versa: BIGWIG, not LITA, is the lure.

I was less concerned with the message you were trying to deliver — which is that you’d like to hitch LITA’s wagon to BIGWIG’s star, a wise move on your behalf — as the way it was delivered, with a perfunctory “good job” followed by a list of transgressions. Folks, these are volunteers. There are really only two words you can ever say to good volunteers: thank you. Anything else you say — advice, suggestions, whatever — better sound like “thank you” as well.

As for the notion that LITA “acts like a committee,” we only wish LITA committees acted like this IG. It’s 2007 and LITA is just barely scratching the idea of online education; it took Herculean, multi-year efforts to pull one publication out of a decade-long serious funk; and the word-of-mouth about some committee meetings — well, I would have turned in my twinkly LITA necklace for good had I been there.

As for turning BIGWIG into a committee, this is a profoundly misguided idea. You observe that BIGWIG is effective, that they accomplish a lot, that they garner attention and attract members, that they know how to collaborate and communicate. But that’s because BIGWIG isn’t a committee; it’s an entrepreneurial meritocracy of self-selected, highly-motivated librarians. BIGWIG isn’t effective because of its charge or its chosen activities; it’s effective because of who’s in it and how they do what they do. You can’t bottle that and turn it into a committee.

As Joe Janes observed on our innovation panel at ALA, committees, as a rule, are short on initiative and change-making, and for many reasons, some specific to the organization that births them. (This is not to say that committees are never useful: at best, the characteristics of committees — small-c conservative, small-d democratic, focused on a specific task — make them excellent incubators for some purposes, such as book awards or analyzing issues. But I agree with Joe Janes that people, not committees, are the source of innovation.)

Divisional committees — which unlike interest groups, are not self-formed but are filled with the anointed and appointed — tend to be overpopulated with chair-warmers who are there to put the committee on their c.v. (or who need a committee to justify conference funding), leaving the grunt work to an overworked few who scrap big dreams to do the best they can with one or two people rowing the boat. (Again, there are notable exceptions, but every ALA newcomer has had the startling experience of attending a “meeting” for a committee that was clearly little more than a trip visa so its members could attend ALA.) This is hardly conducive to excellence, let alone innovation.

I know this goes to the heart of one of our most cherished institutional beliefs — that for every action, there must be an equal and opposite committee — but please, for the sake of LITA, BIGWIG, and librarianship writ large, do not kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

It may well be that some initiatives of BIGWIG can be broken out into new activities. But be careful in assuming that a Committee on Recording All LITA Sessions will henceforth Record All LITA Sessions, and will not simply meet twice a year so its members can discuss how they might, in some remote decade, go about doing this, and who will ultimately launch this activity just about the time the rest of us are beaming conference sessions from chips in our foreheads.

Better yet, piggyback on BIGWIG’s think-tank-style leadership and ability to improvise and experiment, and simply advise LITA units they should record sessions whenever possible and point out that it’s not much harder than plugging a $50 mike on an iPod. Ask Joe Fisher: he recorded the innovation session without muss or fuss.

LITA, I’ve been there. Fifteen years ago, the Internet Room Steering Committee had similar problems. We subverted the committee paradigm; we too were a meritocracy; and we too stuck in a few craws. But we never could have done what we did through the traditional committee structure (in fact, I am pretty sure that we formed as we did because the committee structure served our project so poorly).

It is absolutely true that someday BIGWIG’s rocket will fizzle back to earth. That is to be expected. But funneling it into an existing structure that serves innovation poorly if at all won’t stop this from happening, any more than pressing a flower keeps it fresh in the vase. What matters is that they are effective here and now.

Instead, let BIGWIG be BIGWIG, and learn from its example. For at bottom, we have a classic example of an organization thinking it needs to remold a new, upstart group in its own image, when it is the organization that needs to change. The question is not how LITA can take what BIGWIG is doing and funnel it into the traditional LITA way of doing things. The question is how LITA can adapt how it does things to encourage more BIGWIGs.

Posted on this day, other years: