Is the Association Ripe for Rebellion?
ALA Connect is the library world’s communication tool
Posted Tue, 01/04/2011 - 09:10
Jim Rettig, ALA president 2008-09.
During my 34 years as a member of ALA I have heard others—some members, some former members, some never a member—complain about the Association and its value. Complaints I have heard again and again include:
- It costs too much.
- It should be possible to join one of the Association’s 11 divisions without joining ALA.
- It doesn’t care about librarians, just about libraries.
- It spends too much time on issues that aren’t relevant to libraries.
- It’s a mouthpiece for left-wing radicals.
- It doesn’t do anything for me.
The last issue recently received a public airing in the blogosphere—surely not for the first nor the last time. In the Dances with Books blog, ALA was high on the list in a September 17 post, “Seven things I hate about librarianship.” The anonymous librarian-author touched on several of the issues noted above and concluded, “It just seems more like an expensive subscription to some journals. At my level, I don’t think it does a whole lot.” Since then he or she has dropped membership in ALA and reports, “I have not looked back.”
Abby Johnson replied in her Abby the Librarian blog post, “ALA Is Not Your Mom,” saying, “I’m here today to say that ALA is an organization made up of US. It’s not some magical entity floating around to solve all librarians’ problems. ALA is what we make of it. Therefore, if you’re not getting what you want out of ALA (what is it that you want out of ALA, anyway?), the only way to change that is to get involved.”
All too often participation in ALA, its divisions, and its round tables is equated with serving on one of ALA’s 1,200-plus committees. Committee service is inherently tied to ALA’s complex structure, a structure that does not change much from year to year. Not all members’ interests and desires correspond neatly with one of these many committees. And even when they do, opportunities to influence their work from outside a committee does not compare to the opportunities from within. We need a broader understanding of what participation means, both to individual members and to the Association.
In 2010 ALA adopted a new five-year strategic plan. One of the plan’s five goals states that “ALA provides an environment in which all members, regardless of location or position, have the opportunity to participate in, contribute to, and benefit from engagement in their association.” What that environment looks like five years hence will depend upon what ALA’s members do to create it and what ALA does to help them.
In spring 2009, ALA gave its members a tool that can play a role in creating that environment: ALA Connect. Think of it as Facebook for ALA members and others. One need not be an ALA member to create a Connect account or join groups. Every committee, board, and other units has a Connect space. And as in Facebook, ALA members can create new groups. As of October 2010, Connect had 566 member-created groups. These include Genealogy Librarians, Urban Schools, Special Collections Teaching Strategies, Vegan and Vegetarian Librarians, Gen X Leadership and Networking, Rotary International Members, Graphic Novels in Libraries, Unconferences, and Union Librarians. An advantage of creating groups in Connect rather than Facebook is that they exist in the context of the library world rather than in the vast sprawl of Facebook. A similarity with Facebook is that some groups show little activity and have more members than total posts.
In a 1787 letter to James Madison, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical … It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.” If the feelings of discontented members, past members, and nonmembers about ALA can morph into a little rebellion of creative discontent, they can give all members “the opportunity to participate in, contribute to, and benefit from engagement in their association.” Rather than take up arms, they can connect through Connect and tap its potential. Vigorous, creative use of Connect could in time create a new structure for ALA—a changeable, changing, fluid, member-generated structure in which groups form, carry out their mission, and in some and possibly many cases disband once goals have been realized.
One can debate the merits of “the wisdom of the crowd”; however, every ALA member ought to trust fellow members to create and work in groups that serve those members’ interests and needs—exactly what a membership organization should facilitate and promote.
ALA also has a role. It can and should help its members channel creative discontent into transformational rebellion. Precedents point to a constructive role for ALA. Despite lean budgets and reduced revenues in recent years, ALA has annually allocated money for initiatives, most proposed by staff, that supported its 2005–09 strategic plan. If members are given both opportunity and incentive, some of those funds can support member initiatives born in and incubated by member-created Connect groups.
Simple and overdue
A simple and overdue innovation during the 2009 Annual Conference demonstrates the value of incentives. For example, with few exceptions Annual Conference programs are produced by committees. Opportunity to produce programs outside that formal structure was very limited until a call went out in late fall 2008 for 2009 Annual Conference program proposals. The budget for the Grassroots Programs initiative was able to fund only 10 of the 118 proposals submitted. Yet a seed was planted and took root. Timely programs, produced on a schedule much shorter than the norm, attracted ample audiences; some received praise in the library press. Grassroots Programs are now a standard part of the Annual Conference. The lesson for ALA is simple: Fund it and they will come.
ALA can accelerate progress toward giving all members “the opportunity to participate in, contribute to, and benefit from engagement in their association” by establishing a venture fund that member-created Connect groups can apply to. Without such support Connect will not realize its potential, nor will ALA realize its potential. Thomas Friedman, New York Times columnist and author of The Earth is Flat, quotes Curtis Carlson, CEO of SRI Research: “Innovation that happens from the bottom up tends to be chaotic but smart. Innovation that happens from the top down tends to be orderly but dumb.” ALA Connect can support “chaotic but smart” innovation.
Abby Johnson noted that “ALA is not your mom. ALA is not there to do your laundry and pick up your socks, metaphorically speaking.” ALA Immediate Past President Camila Alire appointed a Young Librarians Working Group during her term that submitted a report in June 2010 making 13 recommendations “for ALA to use in recruiting and retaining young librarians.” Every recommendation begins with the phrase, “By [year] ALA will … ” With all due respect, if ALA members of any age group are waiting for a “magical entity” named ALA to bring about change of the sort and at the pace the Young Librarians Working Group and many other members want, my experience over more than three decades indicates that they will have a very long wait.
ALA is us—change for its members comes through our initiatives. The most helpful thing ALA can do is provide an environment in which members can continuously refine and redefine what participation means—an environment with not just appropriate tools, but also with enticing incentives. The best thing members can do is use that environment to get what they want out of ALA. A little rebellion is a medicine necessary for the sound health of our Association.
JIM RETTIG is university librarian, Boatwright Memorial Library, at the University of Richmond, Virginia. He is a former ALA president (2008–09).