answering Andy about ALA

(Can I resist the alliterative title? No.)

Andy Woodworth asks the entirely reasonable questions about ALA reformation:

But on this point, I have questions for my fellow young librarians. How is it slow? How is it bloated? How is it not meeting your expectations or needs? What should it be doing?

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. As one of the current class of Emerging Leaders, it’s important to me not only to maintain an enthusiasm for the organization and to learn as much as I can about how it works, but also to maintain a critical perspective: enough independence of thought that, even as I become acculturated, I don’t end up blinded to things that need to change. The thoughts I have in re Andy’s specific questions:

What should it be doing? Well, I’m not entirely sure of that yet, which I suppose prevents me from successfully advocating for change, eh? I do admire work like ACRL’s Value of Academic Libraries Toolkit — things that members might not have the time or resources to put together on their own, that let them do their jobs better. Force multipliers. But I’m still looking for my professional footing (obligatory reminder: I’m on the job market; hire me?) so I’m not entirely clear what ALA could be doing to better support practicing librarians.

How is it slow? How is it bloated? This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot in the context of virtual participation, LITA board streaming, and all that parliamentary procedure I have yet to read. The information-profession landscape is changing constantly. My husband is busy at his information-profession (software) job lately because they have a release coming out this week. Just like they did last month. And the month before that. And, you know, perpetual beta: it’s not just a catchy phrase.

Meanwhile ALA has face-to-face committee meetings twice a year, and can’t seem to make important decisions between them? (Maybe I’m wrong on this. Please tell me I’m wrong.) When the issues are changing that fast, how can a six-month lag time in every major conversation be anything other than — not just cumbersome — but not even credible?

I appreciate that politics moves slower than technology, and ALA needs to operate in a way that allows for discussion and input and transparency, and sometimes that’s messy and slow. But its operational infrastructure seems to outright prevent it from addressing fast-moving issues. And a lot of the issues I’m interested in move very fast.

There’s another question he verged on asking, which is what’s stopping you from being the change you want to see? And to that I would say…there is a lot of institutional knowledge it seems you have to get a handle on before you can do anything. ALA is enormous and sprawling — my mother gasped in horror at its org chart — and that was just the org chart of the central offices and so forth; it didn’t begin to touch the committees. (Oy vey, the committees.) I’ve gone to the last three conferences and have been remarkably lucky in getting to meet insiders; I chose my Emerging Leaders project specifically because it was the one that seemed most likely to get me deep into the guts of the organization, figuring out how it works; and seriously, it’s just so big. It seems like it will take years to build up enough knowledge of the organization that I would have enough leverage to do anything interesting with it.

Partly this is something ALA could rectify by doing a better job of reaching out to new members, making it easier to figure out the unwritten rules of getting involved, et cetera (so maybe that’s something else I’d like to see from the organization — and I should mention that groups like NMRT and ACRL NMDG do well at that — once you find them in the sprawling vastness). But partly, it’s just hard to get a grip on an organization with tens of thousands of members and a well over a century of history. And more committees than a school of hypertrophic squid has tentacles.

9 thoughts on “answering Andy about ALA

      1. @ThatAndromeda There’s a volunteer web editor position for the ACRL, but I’m looking to see if there’s a similar spot in LITA.


  1. I think ALA should allow those who are new to it (and therefore lacking the knowledge of its org. structure) to be able to participate and thrive in it. I know that a lot of new librarians penetrate the ALA bureaucracy(!) and find a way to bring positive changes through the Council, etc. But my ideal would be that new members are able to navigate ALA without understanding the org. structure and/or politics, purely following their interests in particular areas of librarianship. After all, ALA is a member-run organization and its org. structure can benefit from becoming more flat and flexible.


    1. YES. That. I think maybe that is what I was trying to express, but you said way more concisely: you should not HAVE to understand so much about how ALA works to get involved. The having-to-understand is a huge barrier to participation (and to ALA’s being able to leverage people’s interest and ability!).

      I want an ALA that works like this:
      Librarian: I have an idea for making things awesome!
      ALA: Awesome! We love awesome. Let us hook you up with help for that.

      Not an ALA that works like this:
      Librarian: I want to be more professionally involved! I will submit a form online about being interested in committee service.
      ALA: *crickets chirping*


  2. *lots and lots of applause*

    Very articulate, and very much what I’ve been thinking. It’s not that I don’t appreciate or believe in the work ALA does, it’s that, by my standards of life and work, it’s too slow, pointlessly messy, and very, very unwelcoming to new involvement. It’s much easier to take an idea elsewhere or do it myself than to try to do it through or with ALA, and that’s sad.

    Thank you for saying what I’ve been thinking!


    1. Thank you! Coming from you this means a lot. I think I kind of want to be you when I grow up…not least because you are so honest about the fact that one needn’t be all grown up to be you; as much honor in the attempting as in the elegance.

      And yeah, I’ll go it alone, #makeithappen myself if I need to…but that places such a limit on what I can accomplish. Sometimes even on what I can start. And everyone else, too.


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