I just had the pleasure of spending an hour listening in on a streamed LITA board meeting. I have somehow, and entirely to my shock, become a diehard LITA politics junkie; I’ve been to almost all the board meetings for the last three conferences, and I appreciate that LITA is feeding my addiction — er, making meetings more widely available to non-conference-goers, and both conducting and making available its business outside of conference times. And — as I’ve often been the only rank-and-file member present at board meetings — I was also thrilled that I wasn’t at this one. I think the more LITA makes its meetings available (streamed or amply reported, well-advertised, etc.) the more the members will participate, and that’s good for everyone. So: hats off to everyone who made that happen.
I was troubled, though, by part of the discussion. All you LITA-watchers out there (which, admittedly, may be just the board members and me) know that the board has been convulsed for the last year or so — as long as I’ve been watching, anyway — with issues surrounding transparency. How much is enough, or too much? What’s the obligation of the board to its members in terms of streaming, reporting, and communications? How might it be constrained (or not) by ALA policy, the legal framework, et cetera? What are the comfort levels of individual board members with respect to different levels of transparency, and to what extent do we need to be compassionate about people’s differing comfort levels, and to what extent do board members have an obligation to put their feelings aside (if necessary) in service to the membership? To what extent does streaming technology constitute a service — or favor, or obligation — to the membership?
These issues have proved difficult to resolve.
Toward this end the board meeting today featured a guest, a lawyer who commented on legal risks associated with streaming and archiving of board meetings. And it’s important to do some due diligence on that front. But the lawyer, and the risks, were the only angle on transparency on the agenda. And, to be blunt — isn’t that a little like having hearings about birth control that don’t include any women? Or hearings on SOPA that barely include representatives from tech, indie art, or free culture?
Risk analysis, to me, implies a thoughtful consideration of costs and benefits. And, yes, there are legal concerns that LITA needs to be aware of. But — librarians’ seemingly obligatory risk aversion notwithstanding! — the fact that there is a risk to something does not ipso facto mean we must run away from it. The question should never be, “is there a risk” (the answer is always yes). The question should be, do the benefits justify it?
For all that I appreciated that the board livestreamed this meeting, and has streamed some others in the past, I’m flexible on what its ultimate streaming policy should be. I respect that board members’ comfort levels vary. What I absolutely do not think LITA should waver on is an outspoken commitment to communication and inclusion, backed by action.
I’ve been trying for the last few years now to answer the question, “What is LITA?” I’ve been mostly failing, but insofar as I’ve come to an understanding, it’s that LITA is its members — some of the most wonderful people I’ve ever had the fortune to meet. And one of the things that was brought home to me at the LITA Town Hall meeting this past Midwinter — an excellent discussion, by the way — is that the members want to feel more connected, more included. They know this is a place that should be a home for them, but they’re not always convinced that it is.
Benefit number one of an outspoken, proactive commitment to transparency: it tells the members we’re included.
Benefit number two: it shows us ways that we can translate inclusion into action. I shouldn’t have to spend years being that wonkish weirdo who sits in on board meetings, and has all manner of IM and happy hour conversations with board members I happen to be friends with, just to start to have a working sense of what LITA is and what it means in my life. If it takes that much work for me to start to have any grasp on it, how can the average member have any hope of it? Proactive, multimodal communication, transparent board actions, give more members the chance to understand what LITA is and how it connects to their lives and how their lives and skills and needs, in turn, can connect to LITA.
Benefit number three — I think the biggest, and the least discussed — is that transparency allows the membership to hold the board’s feet to the fire. My notes — of course I take notes; I am a ridiculously thorough note-taker — of the last few years’ worth of meetings are absolutely littered with loose ends. Discussions the board has had over and over, where I can’t even tell if they’ve reached a consensus, or where I thought they had and can’t tell why it’s on the agenda again. Issues put on the table without a resolution. Motions put on the table without a vote. Action plans proposed, and not followed up on.
This is not how the board should operate. Many of its members are my friends; I like and respect them; I am sad I have not had the opportunity to get to know the rest of the members, and I trust I would like and respect them as well. But this is a board that needs, for the sake of itself and the members and the association, to be more accountable to the membership. This is a board that needs members — not just me, who might as well have “crazy LITA gadfly” tattooed across her forehead — saying, hey, about that thing you said you’d do…
The amount of creativity and skill I’ve seen among LITA members is really, truly, inspiring. This is an association that can and should be doing far more to, quite frankly, change the world. But for that to happen, the membership needs to hold the board to a higher standard. And for that to happen, the membership needs to know what’s going on. And it needs to be possible for them to do that even if they can’t afford to go to conferences and don’t have the tremendous social good fortune to get half-drunk with board members in a hotel bar.
So: yes. There’s a risk, the more transparent the board is, that…someone, someday…might sue them for…something never specified. And that risk needs to be thoughtfully considered. And it needs to be considered in a discussion — a thoroughly reported, whether streamed or not, discussion — that also takes into account the benefits of a board that is more open and accessible to its membership. And takes into account the risks and benefits for all the stakeholders, not just lawyers — who constitute, I daresay, a small fraction of the LITA membership.
With any luck that will be — like today — a discussion at which I am not the only non-board member in the room.