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Armadillos on Fire: Revisiting ALA’s Open Meeting Policy

Claire the Armadillo, courtesy Houston city gov.

Claire the Armadillo, courtesy Houston city gov.

Last Saturday at the LITA board meeting, board member Jason Griffey set an armadillo on fire and let it loose in the room. I watched in amazement as board members (metaphorically) leapt on chairs and screamed.

The armadillo was ALA’s open meeting policy, and the fire was Jason opening his MacBook and streaming the proceedings to the world at large.  Within minutes the fire was put out, when board members voted to request that Jason kill the streaming. Jason complied.

Several of us continued Tweeting the proceedings; there were complaints about this as well, directed to No One In Particular but obviously pointed at us. But if the membership ain’t free to write about what happens at an open meeting, we’re in gulag territory, so I played dumb. Elsewhere librarians have observed that complaining about tweeting after voting to kill the stream was disingenuous.

In general, it’s a bad idea to surprise your boss or your board. If you’re doing this routinely, you aren’t a maverick; you simply lack the skill or discipline to communicate and coordinate. To use an mnemonic the team I was on cooked up  at Squadron Officer School back in the day, Purple Oranges Don’t Cause Cancer: responsible action requires planning, organizing, delegating, coordinating, and communicating.

However, an organization that routinely streams other open meetings should not be startled when, in 2011, the camera shows up at their proceedings. Frankly, the board was not prepared for virtual participation, which in 2011 is all wrong for an organization where the “T” means technology. Streaming (thankfully) isn’t new to LITA;  LITA’s Top Technology Trends was streamed the next day, as it has been for a while, and I don’t know that anyone complained. You’re going to reply, but that’s a program! No, my friends, at Midwinter, we don’t HAVE programs, remember? TTT at Midwinter is an open meeting. Check the schedule.

Boards rely on trust relationships, and the generational disconnect between Jason’s action and the board’s reaction didn’t build that trust. But I will swear by Ranganathan that Jason wasn’t trying to pull a fast one. The board may also think I was invited just for this event–which I was not. When I realized Jason was streaming, I vaguely thought “That’s cool,” and my brain moved on.

That is exactly the response I have had in describing the incident to people:

Me: The LITA board was being streamed…

Person: Oh yeah? That’s cool…

Me: Um…

Ironically, at Sunday’s Top Technology Trends, none of the Trendsters commented on streaming as a trend, which could mean it isn’t novel enough to mention. (Or it could mean that the trends were generally a bit cerebral, save those of Monique; it was a good discussion, but I will share my own, far more sublunary trends in a day or two.)

At the meeting, the board tried to retrofit its reaction, reasoning that there was a consultant presenting copyrighted material.  But that assumes that there is some middle ground for open meetings where they are open to the people in the room but not to ALA members elsewhere. The policy does not establish or even mention such a middle ground, though it is one that has been long-assumed by some members.

On the other hand, the complaints on Twitter that the stream should have been left wide open are a bit naive about current ALA open meeting policy. I’m not defending the wording, but as it stands, meetings at conferences are open to registered attendees. You might find this absurd or restrictive, but in its time, this was part of a broad series of reforms. Well before my time, in the late 1960s, there was an “ALAgate” that had to do with… open meetings. The more things change…

Anyhoo, the Open Meeting policy has obviously been OBT (Overcome By Technology). Also, the Incident of the Armadillo Engulfed in Flames has surfaced something even more  intriguing, which is that all of that maverick-y streaming of routine work done by divisions such as ACRL, YALSA, RUSA, etc. (organizations that unlike LITA are not hemmoraging members and revenue) is technically out of compliance with ALA policy. You’ve All Been Breaking The Law!

I am not advocating cease-and-desist. In fact, based on the numbers, OBT lawbreaking appears to be key to fiduciary health; allowing for the impact of a very bad economy, the “streamers” are doing better overall than the “meatwares.”

However counterintuitive to the people who count nickels, the more you open your proceedings, the healthier your organization (which is in line with a finding from the Task Force on Electronic Meeting Participation–more about that below–that there is a correlation between the rise of member access to technology and increased attendance at ALA conferences).  If that’s the case, and we all agree that ALA is itself a higher good, then particularly after ALA’s recent fiscal troubles, it’s clear that the law needs to be brought into line with good practice.

ALA as a body needs to immediately point its wonkiest law-making committees at the “open meeting” question, and the response — which needs to happen no later than Annual 2011 — needs to be both informed by ALA values (such as our historical commitment to intellectual freedom) and by our urgent need to stop losing money.

We began to explore the definition of open meetings on the Task Force on Electronic Meeting Participation (hi Janet!), but even less than five years ago, our concern was not that streaming needed to be limited, but that ALA didn’t have the resources to make it widely available.

At the time, it seemed impossible to imagine that within five years a member could bring fairly standard personal technology to a meeting and use it to share the meeting with the world.  I think our points about Midwinter were (and are) quite valid–and perhaps prescient; I remember commenting more than once that a fiscal downturn could be a game-changer. But the comments about Midwinter also tended to distract people from other things we were saying (as Janet warned us might happen).

One warning to all is that as as rule, ALA committees tend to get focused on the idea that something needs to be made available to the entire association, BY the association, in a uniform manner. I’m all for authority control, but we need to let flowers bloom when they’re ready, and ease up on the argument that “we can’t afford it” because ALA, as an association, can’t personally put a camera in every meeting room. (And an organization where the “T” stands for technology should in theory have more than the usual number of early bloomers.)

Learning to bless a practice without mandating it would also allow ALA to become more Darwinian about its divisions.  It’s not good fiscal practice for ALA the bureaucracy to keep a division alive on artificial life support, and it’s not fair to the dues-paying members, either–it’s the equivalent of wasting taxpayer dollars on standing orders for print reference. If a division can’t evolve to meet the needs and expectations of ALA members, then we need to thank it for its years of service and send it on its way. (Incidentally, I’m not actually thinking of LITA as I write that–I’m going way back in time.)

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