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Virtual Participation in ALA: A Civil Disobedience Approach

In terms of changing ALA, particularly in the area of virtual participation, I am personally committed to working along multiple tracks:

  • Supporting others who want to work inside the belly of the beast: that would include my strong, hearty endorsement of ALA Council candidates Aaron Dobbs and Chris Harris
  • Participating as a member of the ALA Task Force on Electronic Meeting Participation
  • Writing and speaking about the advantages to ALA to lead change in the area of virtual participation
  • Advocating civil disobedience, by encouraging ALA committees and other functional units to ignore ALA policy that prohibits units from voting between conferences, requires voting members to attend face-to-face meetings, and ignores virtual members in establishing quorums

I see these as complementary methods. It’s important that we get enough ALA reformers to understand the workings of Council. Personally, after three terms on Council I feel far too familiar with ALA’s plumbing and think I should run for Council only when we get a critical mass together to run as a slate, vote in our own Executive Board, and expeditiously change the organization.

As for the Task Force, this is the fourth time I’ve served on a unit dedicated to changing ALA in the area of electronic participation. My contribution so far has to been to draft a survey; the task force appears to be on hold for now. How ironic if we did the bulk of our work at conferences. I’m starting to worry this is a pyramid scheme: in the end, we’ll make recommendations that lead to the creation of another task force.

The writing and speaking is self-evident. It is the civil disobedience I have yet to posit as a parallel strategy.

In March, 2004, my partner and I were married at San Francisco City Hall. Several months later our marriage was invalidated, and it may be a long while before we see same-sex marriage legalized in California. But this civil disobedience changed many attitudes — not the least of which, our own. We went from seeing ourselves as outside the institution as people who could indeed marry. In that sense, civil disobedience appears to change the outer world but in truth, may be most useful for changing those who rebel.

My recommendation is that ALA units come out of the closet and into the streets. For committees, openly recruit “virtual” members and make it clear their participation counts; announce pending votes and conduct them electronically, by email, chat, Second Life, whatever works; make it a record of the minutes that quorums were established using virtual members; conduct ALA business as you do in real life. I would ask that electronic activities have plenty of strong sunshine — votes announced in public venues, archives and forums open to ALA members — to demonstrate that the most “open” meeting is the one that truly everyone can attend, whether or not they can spend thousands of dollars to fly cross-country.

This will probably ensure I never again chair a committee (particularly one superficially devoted to changing ALA on e-participation, though if I’m smart I’ll start to refuse those assignments), but if I were to be appointed chair of a unit, I would be ostentatious about conducting work online; I would insist on it. My goals would include getting most or all of the busy-work out of the way so the ALA conference could be about the things we can’t do electronically as well as we can face-to-face: network with colleagues, attend programs (and un-programs), explore vendor exhibits, see product demonstrations, attend great speaking programs, catch up with people we haven’t seen in a while, have some fine nibblies in an interesting location, and just enjoy being en masse in our librarian self-hood.

I’m hoping we get more, not less, of these opportunities, not just through massive f2f conferences but also through more online opportunities. As for our strictly-virtual colleagues, it would not surprise me if the loose ties created through their participation led them to find ways to attend face-to-face and virtual conferences.

ALA is afraid that if policy changes, and we loses the midwinter meeting as it now functions, it will lose revenue. But this syllogism is false, because it assumes that ALA policy is protecting us from change. My take on change is that it happens whether you wish it to or not, and the thin cardboard of an ALA “rule” isn’t going to protect ALA from the future. We can choose to shape change, or be driven by it. Whether ALA as an organization is around in thirty years depends on the road we take. A national association that meets two times a year, with one meeting dedicated to “conducting business” (you can’t even conduct a program at Midwinter), had best be reconsidering its route.

The weird part is ALA is convinced it can “save” its twice-year conference schema through policy enforcement, but in reality, the policy gets in the way of what we most need in our fractured society: a way to connect with one another. Eventually library directors will ask, “why do you need to attend a meeting twice a year? Why can’t you conduct work the way the rest of us do?” What will the answer be?

Of course, many ALA units un-ostentatiously conduct work online. They have to. ALA “rules” are designed to prop up the Midwinter conference because it’s a revenue source — there is no other rational reason — but it doesn’t mean those “rules” actually lead to best practices.

In fact, the weakness of ALA’s rules is most evident on Council itself, whose agenda is overwhelmed with hastily-written resolutions on whatever topics seemed urgent the month prior to ALA, while conversely, key issues happen in LibraryLand in between conferences and Council — the governing body of ALA — is unable to comment. Like having a one-year presidency (and yes, I understand the economic reasons for this), it enforces the ALA permanent bureaucracy as the real government of ALA. I don’t begrudge them all the work they do, but you should be aware how little say we the membership have in our organization, and how much that is a byproduct of our rules.

In any event, if you chair or sit on an ALA unit, I suggest you follow the slogan of a previous ALA president — “be the change you want to see in the world” — and engage in some ostentatious civil disobedience. Once the spluttering dies down, someone may someday thank you for saving ALA.

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