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Liberty Bell - from Wikipedia

Liberty Bell – from Wikipedia

I stayed in Philadelphia past ALA Midwinter for my third-semester doctoral program intensive until today, Sunday, February 2, so I’m just getting around to my post-ALA blogging.  What I’m writing about tonight, on my flight back to SFO, is a bit wonky. But stick with me, because if you’re an ALA member, it matters.

ALA has a unit called the Planning and Budget Assembly. Despite serving three previous terms on Council, I really never gave PBA much thought until last summer when I agreed to run for a position as one of its ALA Council representatives, who are elected by our Council peers. My interest was really piqued when an ALA member I respect greatly took me aside to warn me not to waste my time on PBA. I almost took that advice, but in the end, I’m glad I pressed on anyway.

I was swept into office with a grand 93 votes–hey, you laugh, but I was the top vote-getter. (I recited that from memory while composing this over  sluggish in-flight wifi, and now I am worrying there will be a scandal in which it turns out I actually received 91 votes and will have to go on an Apology Tour.)

The charge to PBA is “To assist the ALA Executive Board and the Budget Analysis and Review Committee (BARC), there shall be a Planning and Budget Assembly which shall consist of one representative of each division, ALA committee, round table, and five councilors-at-large and five councilors from chapters.” There are other fiscal units–besides BARC, a very important fiscal unit is the Finance and Audit Committee of ALA’s Executive Board–but PBA does, after all, exist, at least on paper.

First, I’d like to point out how huge PBA is. At least by headcount, it’s about 80 delegates, not including ALA staff. Additionally, the PBA assembly, taken together, is comprised of some of the best, most seasoned minds in ALA. I am in complete awe of the potential force of this assembly, and in theory, I could learn quite a bit from the questions they ask or the observations they make. Based on both their ALA work and the work they do in their libraries, they are extremely well-positioned to provide commentary and planning advice on ALA’s next steps in light of the fiscal challenges ALA has faced in the past five-plus years of recession and changing information patterns: staffing cutbacks, frozen salaries, creeping workload, sinking revenues.

But PBA’s rather exceptional group of people is not actually empowered to do anything other than be herded into a room twice a year and then read condensed highlights from various reports (reports, no less, that a number of us have already had read to us at Saturday’s Council/Executive Board/Membership Information Session).

It’s diagnostic of PBA’s dilemma that there is no onboarding for PBA, its charge is vague, and there’s no direction for what PBA is to do once it has attended these twice-yearly meetings. For ALA Midwinter, a PBA meeting that everyone knew would attract strong participation, we had a one-hour session in which we were squeezed into a  room for a group half our size, asked to do introductions (which of course took a while), then read to from reports that had been read from at Saturday’s . We had exactly 5 minutes at the end for “discussion.”

Structurally, there’s no way this assembly of close to 100 people can use this format to “assist” other ALA units.  Symbolically, the message is clear: PBA is to be seen and not heard.

Other shenanigans have bordered on silly. PBA members have no easy method for communicating as a group. We are emailed in a couple of reply-all batches. When I asked ALA several weeks back to create a Sympa discussion list for PBA, I encountered pushback.

I get that every new mailing list creates overhead, but PBA is the only governance unit denied such a list, and far more human labor has been spent stonewalling the creation of this discussion list than would have been expended just making it happen. Why, you’d think they were concerned about some activist PBA member stirring the pot and encouraging PBA members to, you know, talk amongst themselves about the future of PBA! I was assured at Midwinter that ALA will in fact create a discussion list, and I’ll let you know if that does or doesn’t happen.

In any event, it’s time to make PBA useful or kill it off. As I wrote on Council list, “I don’t want to speak for everyone on Council, but it seems safe to say that there was general agreement that the Planning and Budget Assembly has untapped potential, and that its present composition and charge and how that charge is interpreted and acted upon are not useful to ALA or to the members of the assembly. In particular, to paraphrase something Mary Ghikas said months back, PBA’s potential role in planning has not been leveraged. To be more blunt, you’re welcome to dismiss me but don’t also waste my time while you’re doing it.

But the good news about PBA is, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, there is a fork in the road, and we plan to take it.

Council has informal sessions it calls Forums. These sessions, which are open meetings, are opportunities to discuss matters before Council in a relaxed, conversational manner, outside the framework of parliamentary procedure. Council Forum II, held Monday night, concluded with an extremely resonant, thoughtful, and engaged conversation about PBA.  Maybe it’s a question of my own personal motivation—I have spent a year asking questions about the ALA budget, starting in January 2013 when I expressed concern about projected revenues from RDA—but I felt really attuned to the conversation that flowed among  former treasurers, Executive Board members, BARC-ers, and new and seasoned Councilors.

I originally thought I would head to Council Forum II with a proposal for a presidential task force on fiscal communication. But I forced myself to spend a few hours reviewing earlier ALA presidential task forces, and I learned something worth heeding: if you want to keep membership at bay on an issue, form a presidential task force. Let them have their meetings, their special sessions, their lovely dinners. Let them spend years crafting their long, carefully-considered reports. The recommendations rarely get implemented. It was disturbing to confirm another Councilor’s observation that one task force we had served on for two years had simply disappeared into an ALA Vortex.

Thinking a presidential task force is going to “fix” an ALA issue is like thinking a dues increase is going to have a significant impact on ALA’s fiscal situation. You do realize that the long-debated dues increase voted in last year will only marginally affect the ebb and tide of ALA’s revenue/expenditure stream? Ah, maybe you only thought dues made a huge difference.  Dues matter, but only to a point, and are eclipsed by other revenue streams. For example, almost half of ALA’s revenue comes from publishing.

Instead, I dialed back to a proposal for a simple resolution specific to PBA to be brought to Council, and that, among many other things, is what will be moving forward. LITA Councilor Aaron Dobbs and I are co-workerbees on this project, and we’ve already begun developing timelines and deliverables. There will be widening circles of engagement and crowdsourcing, from us to PBA to Council and beyond. A rough preliminary goal is to have a resolution ready for BARC and other units to discuss at ALA’s spring meetings in April. In addition to round-robining versions of this resolution, we’re hoping to hold a virtual Council Forum session before then to get additional input.

There are ancillary ideas that may emerge in parallel with this work. For example, I keep floating the idea of holding the Council/Executive Board/Membership Information Session online, at least two weeks prior to ALA. We have the technology to do this, and “flipping” this session would give people a chance to hear, process, think, ask a few questions, and come prepared to have real conversations about ALA.  In the Council Forum discussion, wise librarians of all ages also shared ideas and insights about what they would like to see from fiscal documents, and we were also reminded of the excellent ALA Financial Learning series of short videos.

 Not everyone thinks my focus on PBA and ALA’s fiscal condition is a good idea; I heard as much from one colleague at Midwinter.  But I can tell you that based on the phone calls and email and meetups I have had over the past year with people I truly respect—many of whom have currently or previously held distinguished positions among the ALA membership—engaging with the problem of how members engage with ALA in the budget and planning processes is an honorable investment of effort.



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