Andromeda Yelton

Across Divided Networks

In which I comment on the LITA board and transparency.

February 24th, 2012 · 20 Comments · Uncategorized

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.

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20 Comments so far ↓

  • admin

    It’s been pointed out to me that, in fact, the agenda encompassed another transparency-related discussion, but it turned out there wasn’t time for that. Mea culpa.

    (The agenda, by the way, is available here: http://connect.ala.org/node/170116 [pdf].)

  • Grant Gould

    The foremost risk any deliberative body faces is irrelevance; the foremost risk to any representative body is apathy. The lawyer stuff comes a distant third, so starting risk analysis with a lawyer puts the cart before the horse.

    Risk analysis is an important part of decision-making, but it has to be done in a clearheaded, meticulous, and quantitative manner or it risks becoming nothing more than a collection of reasons that the fears of the moment should prohibit changing the future.

  • Ann

    I am puzzled by what could be so legally risky regarding streaming and transparency. Certainly the LITA Board is not doing anything illegal. What are the risks? (Obviously I was not listening in on the meeting, or I guess I would know!)

    • admin

      I’d love to see a good answer to this question too but I don’t have one — I invite people better-qualified to respond.

    • Jenny R

      IIRC the first attempt at streaming was cut off due to uncertainty about a report that was being presented by an external consultant? Someone else can chime in if I’m mischaracterizing events, but I believe there was an issue with whether the “broadcasting” of the report went further than what the consultant’s contract specified would be done with the report.

      I would love to see streaming and recording being the default, with the possibility to still have “closed” portions for something especially sensitive, with some criteria around that. Future board candidates would know the expectations when they run for the positions.

      • admin

        I was present at that meeting and I *still* can’t tell you the correct characterization of events. I think people had a variety of reactions at the time, and the interpretations of the event after the fact as they developed among people who were and were not there (twitter, blogs, etc.) varied. I felt like the consensus understanding of what happened evolved until it converged on a story everyone could live with, but I’ve never been convinced that story is actually what happened — and as I was involved in that whole consensus-reality process myself, I’m not willing to trust my memory on that score. Except with this: I think the question of why it was cut off is multifaceted and has many answers.

  • Margaret

    I can understand the worry about streaming and archiving certain things. I am sure I have said things in LITA meetings–both official and unofficial–that I wouldn’t want archived forever publicly. I don’t see them as wrong or illegal, but when you are talking about skills specific people/organizations have or do not have, you absolutely need to respect the privacy and reputations of those people/organizations. That said, as long as there is an allowance for privacy for certain discussions, a lot else can be open.

    I also didn’t find it terrifically difficult to get involved or feel part of the group–just signed up and starting showing up and volunteering. I think membership needs to realize that what they do makes things exist or happen to a large extent.

    • admin

      ALA’s open meetings policy covers specific situations under which meetings can be closed, to address concerns like that one. What exactly constitutes a “meeting” and “open” (open to whom, e.g.) has been on the table. I definitely agree there are some things that must be closed.

      Personally, I’ve not found it difficult to be *involved* — LITA’s clearly my social home and over a crazy day in Midwinter I ended up founding an interest group. So, yay! But I’ve found it very difficult to *understand*. And I’ve heard other people saying that they find it hard to feel involved or included, and I have to be sensitive to their concerns even if I haven’t personally had that experience.

  • Aaron the Librarian

    Hi Andromeda,
    The legal issues stuff, which was the first part of the consideration *for this particular meeting,* was not (at least in my view) the main consideration over the duration of the conversation(s) about streaming board meetings (and other governance activities).

    The end (actionable) result of this meeting is something I (and other members of the Board) have been working on for a while. There is now agreement (and official policy in the works!) that 1. the Board meetings will be streamed, 2. a recording of the stream will be kept for up to ~6 months for review and follow-through, 3. the stream is officially recognized to not be a formal record of the proceedings, and 4. the lawyers will be kept happy with a defined retention policy for LITA-maintained recordings.

    All that sounds pretty easy and obvious, I’m sure; however, getting “here” was an adventure. (and more adventurous than I expected)

    Regarding your notes and the various un-actioned action items… I would love to review them and get them either acted upon or marked as moot. Plz2share? ;)

    • Aaron the Librarian

      Whoops, meant to share a link to the discussion thread on connect resulting from your post: http://connect.ala.org/node/170177
      Thanks again for calling on us to own our ….

    • admin

      I’ll be cautiously optimistic about the consensus. These issues have been discussed so many times in the last couple years and I’ve never been entirely clear on whether I’m seeing new ground being broken or old wounds rehashed. But you know I’m a big fan of your work on the board and I want to make sure that’s clear to any readers, too.

      I’ll wrangle my notes. They’re in a few locations and formats so it will take me a little bit. But I’ll be delighted to pass things along to you.

  • Cindi Trainor

    As Andromeda points out in a comment, above, the other meaty agenda item the Board were to have discussed on Friday was how we operate in ALA Connect. We had a spirited discussion at Midwinter about Connect and whether threads should be created as “public” by default, but we ran out of time and came to no consensus. This thread on Connect begins with Andromeda and Aaron’s notes on our discussions (and my comments wrt our discussing them in a virtual board meeting.

    We obviously still struggle with parliamentary procedure. :-/

    The email that is attached as a comment later in the Connect thread by Karen Starr bears some explaining: as we traveled home from Dallas, several board members and LITA members had a discussion on Twitter regarding Connect and ALA’s open meetings policy. Jenny Levine captured that conversation and forwarded it to Mary Ghikas, of ALA Member Programs and Services. Mary responded with a memo and a FAQ regarding ALA’s legal framework (closed, working on that) to those who participated. Our discussion on Friday was to consider these documents as we discuss how to operate in Connect; the “Risk Analysis” part of the meeting’s agenda was to inform us about the legal ramifications. My /personal opinion/ is that the phrase “Risk Analysis” was misleading; we heard one opinion (the legal one), and that opinion is just one being weighed in how we proceed.

    Anyway, I said in the Connect thread that I would start another post where we can discuss openness vis-a-vis Connect, but honestly, I’m not sure that’s a good idea. Our threads tend to degenerate into nitpicking and tend to lose steam after a while; I think (again, my /personal opinion/, not the opinion of the entire Board) that our synchronous discussions are more productive. Making sure that we have a consistent practice for Connect transparency and follow-up will correct some of this.

    • admin

      Thanks for following up, Cindi. I do appreciate that there’s more forward progress happening on Connect these days (or, at least, more where I can see it ;) and I hope that’s going to result in some good consensus about process before Annual…so that the Board can use that process to stop, well, processing, and start kicking some ass.

  • Cindi Trainor

    Another comment, about the general assertion that, as whole, we get nothing done. :) [full disclosure, I am one of the board members that--I hope--Andromeda counts as a friend.]

    As little as 14 months ago, the thought of streaming a governance meeting had never occurred to or been brought up in front of the Board (as far as I know). When I joined the Board immediately following Annual 2010 in DC, nearly all the between-meeting work of the group was done on the Listserv, a community closed to member participation. The Board’s Connect group lay largely fallow; now it’s a vibrant archive of group discussions, and we are in the throes of transforming it into a space that is publicly open, not only to LITA members to but to the world. Judging solely by the revision history of the Connect page that links to all of the Executive Committee’s agendas and minutes, that page didn’t even exist before a year ago (though it could very well have been on the LITA website; I do not know for sure).

    These are huge cultural shifts. Connect does some things really well, and some things not as well. We have had to investigate and suggest best practices for each other, while also learning what our duties exactly are, what the work of the Board should be, and how to get to know and adjust to each other’s working styles. Several board members are jump-in-feet-first, IT types (me included); several are not. Transparency (and working online) comes naturally to some, not so naturally to others. Andromeda said it well, above, that LITA /is its members/, and your Board of Directors are members, too. Like any working situation, change is a long process if it is to be done well, thoroughly and with respect. We will get there, and we /need/ your help and feedback along the way.

    • admin

      [Yes, internet, Cindi is totally a friend of mine. I'm lucky that way. :) ]

      One of the things I know I’m missing here is that I only really started paying attention to the board, iirc, in January 2011, so I don’t know the status quo ante; I can see how difficult the changes have been much more easily than I can see how *large* they’ve been. I appreciate your weighing in on that front.

      If there are any LITA members out there still paying attention to this comment thread, I also want to call your attention to the last few sentences of Cindi’s comment. Being a LITA gadfly is pretty fun, and lots of people should be doing it!

    • Lauren Pressley

      I think this cultural shift issue can’t be underestimated. Every organization I’ve been involved with that has undergone a cultural shift has taken a long time to do it–at least the ones where it stuck. And Cindi’s point of the diversity on the board is also an important one. One thing that makes me happiest, though, is that we’re all trying to make LITA better from the diversity of the board to the members. Thanks for the post, thoughts, and accountability, Andromeda!

      • admin

        I can, alas, always use more reminders about the need to develop patience ;) .

        And I do think diversity is great — actually I wish there were *more* of it (the bylaws stipulate that nominations should be diverse with respect to library type and geography, and I can’t say that’s well-reflected in the current board, e.g., awesome as you all are). But of course diversity requires the ability to …engage in collaborative conflict, if that makes sense? I think conflict isn’t a natural skill for most librarians (certainly not me). I hope I’m watching those skills slowly and twitchily emerge. And I’m working on the patience.

        • Lauren Pressley

          Agreed! I’d love to see more diversity as well. As for now, we have diversity of opinion and work process ideas… which is not unlike a lot of organizations. :)

          You’re spot on. As a profession I think we tend to avoid conflict (ebooks, anyone?). The more we can learn to have tough conversations and find good solutions that most people are happy with, the better off we’ll be as a field.

          Patience… if you figure it out, let all of us know. ;)

      • admin

        oh, and thanks for commenting! It is super-gratifying to see multiple members of the board out here in internetland, engaged with the discussion about the organization.