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Why virtual participation in ALA must be legalized, not decriminalized

Four or five years back I attended a “meeting” at an ALA conference where by the time my friend and I showed up, five minutes after start time, the meeting had been adjourned. The members had met online and made decisions, and the face-to-face meeting was the nominal show-time to validate what they had done.

Naïve us!

I’m not going to argue that we force people to meet face-to-face to conduct business — which, incredibly, is what some old-tyme ALA Councilors suggest. The horse is out of the barn, and good for ol’ Mr. Ed, at that: as I keep saying, let’s get the busy-work out of the way between conferences so we can use our hard-won money and time to show up to network/learn/share/par-tay. Some meeting work still needs to be done face-to-face, but please — not the bulk of it.

What I am suggesting is that civil disobedience — which I promoted in an earlier post — is an interim step.

As Christopher Harris notes in his comment, functionally, it’s not as simple as saying “let’s just ‘do it’.” The biggest problem is that if we simply condone virtual participation, we don’t address the problem that crept in while ALA was pretending nobody worked this way, illustrated by the example that opens this post: we don’t have methods in place to ensure that ALA business is truly open.

We have a long, proud tradition of openness in ALA, and that’s a Good Thing. Some of that tradition is very hard-won. It was not always so: in the late ’60s there was a sort of revolution in ALA. It had been an insider’s organization with unfair rules privileging the insiders, and a lot of members worked hard to change that.

Some of those members are on Council today, and in their minds an “open” meeting takes place twice a year at a conference, where it is listed in a published paper bulletin and people gather in a room. (As I write that, it sounds almost quaint.)

Yet interestingly, the ALA Policy Manual doesn’t actually define what it means by open. From this rather dry extraction of ALA documents comes the sum total of Policy 7.4.4:

All meetings of the American Library Association and its units are open to all members and to members of the press. Registration requirements apply. Closed meetings may be held only for the discussion of matters affecting the privacy of individuals or institutions.

In my head, online committee work is potentially far more open than a meeting that requires all the hurdles of face-to-face participation. But it’s not open if you don’t know about it. Time, place, manner: these are the facts our members are entitled to.

In some ways I’m advocating a return to the Good Old Days, or at least to that twenty-year period when openness meant a meeting you knew about and could attend. That’s why it’s just not enough to break the law; we also have to remake it.

Caution: I smell the incipient lust of the ALA policy types: how they would love to spend years diddling with definitions, best practices, proposed policies, proposals to the proposals, nit-picking, quibbling, debating, postponing, referring to other committees, and every other tool used to throw roadblocks in front of change. Please let us not diddle this to death. It’s really simple! Give each committee a wiki page, tell them to advise members how to follow their discussions and to announce incipient actions, advise ALA members to subscribe to the feeds, and we’re done. Take note of the ten-day notice for final votes; it’s fair and reasonable.

We don’t even have to wait for a policy change; sunshine could precede legalization. That’s how I understand it went down for the ALA reformers of the early 1970s, whose practices set the standard for the organization.

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