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Keeping Council

Commemorative Coin, 1893 World ExpoEditorial note: Over half of this post was composed in July 2017. At the time, this post could have been seen as politically neutral (where ALA is the political landscape I’m referring to) but tilted toward change and reform. Since then, Events Have Transpired. I revised this post in November, but at the time hesitated to post it because Events Were Still Transpiring. Today, in January 2018, I believe even more strongly in what I write here, but take note that the post didn’t have a hidden agenda when I wrote it, and, except where noted, it still reflects my thoughts from last July, regardless of ensuing events. My agendas tend to be fairly straightforward. — KGS


Original Post, in which Councilors are Urged to Council

Edits in 2018 noted with bolding.

As of July 2017, I am back on ALA Council for my fifth (non-consecutive) term since joining the American Library Association in 1991. In June I attended Council Orientation, and though it was excellent–the whole idea that Councilors would benefit from an introduction to the process is a beneficial concept that emerged over the last two decades–it did make me reflect on what I would add if there had been a follow-on conversation with sitting Councilors called “sharing the wisdom.” I was particularly alerted to that by comments during Orientation which pointed up a traditional view of the Council process where ALA’s largest governing body is largely inactive for over 350 days a year, only rousing when we prepare to meet face to face.

Take or leave what I say here, or boldly contradict me, but it does come from an abundance of experience.

You are a Councilor year-round

Most newly-elected Councilors “take their seats” immediately after the annual conference following their election — a factoid with significance. Council, as a body, struggles with being a year-round entity that takes action twice a year during highly-condensed meetings during a conference with many other things happening. I have written about this before, in a dryly wonky post from 2012 that also addresses Council’s composition and the role of chapters. I proposed that Council meet four times a year, in a solstice-and-equinox model. Two of those meetings (the “solstice” meetings) could  be online. (As far back as 2007 I was hinting around about the overhead and carbon footprint of Midwinter.) I doubt Midwinter will go to an online format even within the next decade–it’s a moneymaker for ALA, if less so than before, and ALA’s change cycle is glacial–but the proposal was intended to get people thinking about how Council does, and doesn’t, operate.

In lieu of any serious reconsideration of Council, here are some thoughts.

First, think of yourself as a year-round Councilor, even if you do not represent a constituency such as a state chapter or a division that meets and takes action outside of ALA. Have at least a passing familiarity with the ALA Policy Manual. Bookmark it and be prepared to reference it. Get familiar with ALA’s financial model through the videos that explain things such as the operating agreement. Read and learn about ALA. Share news. Read the reports shared on the list, and post your thoughts and your questions. Think critically about what you’re reading. It’s possible to love your Association, believe with your heart that it has a bright future, and still raise your eyebrows about pat responses to budget questions, reassurances that membership figures and publishing revenue will rebound, and glib responses about the value of units such as the Planning and Budget Assembly.

Come to Council prepared. Read everything you can in advance, speak with other Councilors, and apply solid reflection, and research if needed, before you finish packing for your trip. Preparation requires an awareness that you will be deluged with reading just as you are struggling to button up work at your library and preparing to be away for nearly a week, so skimming is essential. I focus on issues where I know I can share expertise, and provide input when I can. Also, I am proud we do memorial resolutions and other commemorations but I don’t dwell on them in advance unless I have helped write them or had close familiarity with the people involved.

Fee, Fie, Foe, Forum

Coming prepared to Council is one of those values Council has struggled with. Looking at the Council list for the week prior to Annual 2017, the only conversation was a discussion about the relocation of the Council Forum meeting room from one hotel to another, complete with an inquiry asking if ALA could rent a special bus to tote Councilors to and from the Forum hotel.

Council Forum is an informal convening that has taken place for decades to enable Council to discuss resolutions and other actions outside of the strictures of parliamentary procedure. It meets three times during ALA, in the evening, and though it is optional, I agree with the Councilor who noted that important work happens at this informal gathering.

I am conflicted about Forum. It allows substantive discussion about key resolutions to happen outside of the constrictive frameworks of parliamentary procedure. Forum is also well-run, with volunteer Councilors managing the conversation. But Forum also appears to have morphed into a substitute for reading and conversation in advance. It also means that Councilors have to block out yet more time to do “the work of the Association,” which in turn takes us away from other opportunities during the few days we are together as an Association. I don’t say this to whine about the sacrifice of giving up dinners and networking with ALA colleagues, though those experiences are important to me, but rather to point out that Forum as a necessary-but-optional Council activity takes a silo–that Brobdingnabian body that is ALA Council–and further silos it. That can’t be good for ALA. As Councilors, we benefit from cross-pollination with the work of the Association.

Resolved: To tread lightly with resolutions

New Councilors, and I was one of them once, are eager to solve ALA’s problems by submitting resolutions. Indeed, there are new Councilors who see resolutions as the work of Council, and there have been round tables and other units that clearly saw their work as generating reams of lightly-edited, poorly-written resolutions just prior to and during the conference.

There are at least three questions to ask before submitting a resolution (other than memorial and other commemorative resolutions):

  • Can the resolution itself help solve a problem?
  • Has it been coordinated with the units and people involved in the issue it addresses?
  • Is it clear and well-written?

There are other questions worth considering, such as, if the issue this resolution proposed to address cropped up a month after Council met, would you still push it online with your Council colleagues, or ask the ALA Executive Board to address it? Which is another way to ask, is it important?

Tread lightly with Twitter

Overall, since coming through the stress of living through the Santa Rosa fires, I’m feeling weary, and perhaps wary, of social media. Though I appreciate the occasional microbursts taking on idiots insulting libraries and so on, right now much of social media feels at once small and overwrought. If I seem quieter on social media, that’s true. (But I have had more conversations with neighbors and area residents during and after the fires than I have since we moved to Santa Rosa in early 2015, and those convos are the real thing.)

More problematically, as useful as Twitter can be for following real-world issues–including ALA–Twitter also serves as a place where people go to avoid the heavy lifting involved with crucial conversations. I find I like #alacouncil Twitter best when it is gently riffing on itself or amplifying action that the larger ALA body would benefit hearing about. [the following, to the end of this post, is all new content] I like #alacouncil Twitter least when it is used as a substitute for authentic conversation, used to insult other Councilors, or otherwise undermining the discourse taking place in the meatware world. Twitter is also particularly good at the unthinking pile-on, and many people have  vulnerabilities in this area that are easily exploited.

Sometimes those pile-ons hit me close to home, as happened a little over a year ago. Other times these pile-ons serve only to amuse the minx in me, such as when a Famous Author (â„¢) recently scolded me for “trafficking in respectability politics” because I was recommending a list of books written by writers from what our fearless leader calls “s–thole countries.” Guilty as charged! Indeed, I have conducted two studies where a major theme was “Do I look too gay?” I basically have a Ph.D. in respectability politics. And like all writers–including Famous Author (â„¢)–I traffic in them. I chuckled and walked on by.

Walking on by, on Twitter, takes different forms. As an administrator, I practice a certain pleasant-but-not-sugary facial expression that stays on my face regardless of what’s going on in my head. I’m not denying my emotions, which would be the sugary face; I’m managing them. It’s a kind of discipline that also helps me fjord difficult conversations, in which the discipline of managing my face also helps me manage my brain.

The equivalent of my Admin Face for me for #alacouncil Twitter is to exercise the mute button. I have found it invaluable. People don’t know they are muted (or unmuted). If only real life had mute buttons–can you imagine how much better some meetings would be if you could click a button and the person speaking would be silenced, unaware that you couldn’t hear them? Everyone wins. But that aside, I have yet to encounter a situation on Twitter when–for me–muting was the wrong call. It’s as if you stepped off the elevator and got away from that person smacking gum. Another car will be along momentarily.

My last thought on this post has to do with adding the term “sitting” before Councilors in the first part of this post. When I was not on Council I tried very hard not to be “that” former Councilor who is always kibitizing behind scene, sending Councilors messages about how things should be and how, in the 1960s, ALA did something bad and therefore we can never vote online because nobody knows how to find ALA Connect and it’s all a nefarious plot hatched by the ALA President, his dimwitted sycophants, and the Executive Board, and why can’t MY division have more representation because after all we’re the 800-pound gorilla (ok, I just got political, but you’ll note I left out anything about what should or should not be required for a Very Special Job).

Yes, once in a while I sent a note if I thought it was helpful, the way some of my very ALA-astute friends will whisper in my ear about policy and process I may be unfamiliar with. Michael Golrick, a very connected ALA friend of mine, must have a third brain hemisphere devoted to the ALA policy manual and bylaws. And during a time when I was asking a lot of questions about the ALA budget (boiling down to one question: who do you think you’re fooling?), I was humbled by the pantheon of ALA luminaries whispering in my ear, providing encouragement as well as crucial guidance and information.

But when I am no longer part of something, I am mindful that things can and should change and move on, and that I may not have enough information to inform that change. We don’t go to ALA in horse-and-buggies any more, but we conduct business as if we do, and when we try to change that, the fainting couches are rolled out and the smelling salts waved around as if we had, say, attempted to change the ALA motto, which is, I regret to inform you, “The best reading, for the largest number, at the least cost”–and yes, attempts to change that have been defeated. My perennial question is, if you were starting an association today, how would it function? If the answer is “as it did in 1893” (when that motto was adopted), perhaps your advice on a current situation is less salient than you fancy. You may succeed at what you’re doing, but that doesn’t make you right.

And with that, I go off to Courthouse Square today to make exactly that point about events writ much, much larger, and of greater significance, than our fair association. But I believe how we govern makes a difference, and I believe in libraries and library workers, and I believe in ALA. Especially today.

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