ALA11 takeaways

So I just posted this whole thing about how to win at conferences that you’re attending conferences for personal/career reasons, and I promptly went to an ALA where I had work responsibilities and it was different and I’m not even totally clear on how it was different.  Except that I worked for, like, 25 hours Friday-Sunday, not counting the 8 or so I spent doing Emerging Leaders (check out our project and demo!), and after I got home Monday night I promptly slept for 11 hours and then it took me another two and a half before I could remember how to take a shower.  What I’m saying is: I have a lot to process.  And that’s going to take me a while.  But going through my notes from ALA (which by itself took me three hours) I find I do have takeaways, themes that kept recurring:

  • There’s a simple, three-step recipe for winning at ALA: talk to people; identify cool things to do; actually do them.
  • Figure out who you are, and be that. This was Emerging Leaders Team M’s advice to LITA on marketing and branding — and I look forward to their implementing it — but it’s good advice for the rest of us, too.
  • Processes need ownership and authority. I saw a number of committees and other groups ask who had ownership of a particular project, or note that it wouldn’t get done unless some specific individual did have ownership, or express frustration that they had a charge but didn’t have the authority needed to enact (rather than just talk and recommend). Note to self: don’t join a committee that isn’t chartered with the authority it needs to act. Don’t vote to charter one, either.
  • A lot of discussion of finding your niche. ALA is this vast, sprawling, many-tentacled Cthulhoid horror, and you’re not going to get your mind around it (not that this has stopped me from trying). But you can gravitate toward neighborhoods where you find your tribe and where people are doing good work, real work (all neighborhoods should be like this; sadly, not). Surround yourself with people better than you, and learn from them. Join up with people better at some things than you and be better than them at others — complementary strengths make you an unstoppable team. Look for ways to experience, and facilitate, leadership development at all levels, not just obvious places like boards and committee chairs.
  • People can be the people you believe them to be. Find people to believe in — see things in them they don’t see in themselves. This is one of the things leaders do; believe in us more than we believe in ourselves until we turn into that person we didn’t know we were meant to be. (Sometimes it’s hard.)
  • There is no spoon. Still. Always.

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.

four leadership lessons (and three questions) from ALA Midwinter

My head is racing with thoughts from ALA — you know, “my brain is full, may I be excused?” Little to no hope of ever digesting them all but, in the spirit of reflective participation in the Emerging Leaders program, I’d like to make a spirited attempt to write down thoughts on leadership: as Maureen Sullivan advised us, to be “aware and intentional” about developing this skill. So, in no particular order:

1)Be scared every day and have a drink in your hand: Peter Bromberg‘s distillation of Leslie Burger‘s talk to the ELs, capably (and quickly!) blogged by EL Lessa Pelayo-Lozada. The scared: throw yourself into situations where you don’t know what you’re doing but you need to succeed, and the crucible makes you learn how. The drink: is not actually to counteract the scared; it’s to force open body language while you go to the happy hours where all the real work happens.

Me on drinks: My ALA, for the record — my relationship to it, my involvement in it, the successes I’ve had in it so far — all started at the LITA happy hour at ALA Midwinter 2010 in Boston.

Me on scared: I keep gaining appreciation for how much the capacity to be scared, the ability to walk into ambiguity and not freeze or run away or give up, is a real skill, and matters.

2) Be generous. ALA leadership seems to be a gift economy, and I can’t count all the people who have been incredibly generous to me as I learn the ropes (though I have to mention Peter, Jason Griffey, and Janie Hermann). I am keen to be in a place in my career where I can pay it forward.

There’s some other lessons in there that I’ve elided, because I’m not sure I’m ready to commit them to a blog. But you might be able to get them out of me in other channels. (Particularly if you’re generous at happy hours. 😉

3) There is no spoon. I got this from Andy Woodworth’s blog a few weeks ago and keep coming back to it. The world is really, truly full of opportunities just waiting for you to notice and ask, or notice and do it. “Carpe diem” doesn’t mean “ask permission”. Which is why fellow EL Kate Kosturski is running for ALA Council (vote for Kate!). Which is how Jan Holmquist, Ned Potter, Justin Hoenke, and I — and a whole world of incredibly generous people on the internet — have raised almost half the money we need to buy India a library. Since Friday.

(Seriously: check that link out. There’s a box for our Facebook page in my sidebar now, too.)

4) Relationships. Meeting Brett Bonfield alone was worth the price of admission this weekend. Among the many reasons: during our panel on personal branding he talks about how he hates the term; for him, what it’s about is relationships: which people does he want to know? to collaborate with? And what can he do to make that happen? A moment when something clicked into place, right there.

And this, all this — barely even scratches the surface of my notes; is not the much longer list of things I know I don’t know about leadership. But at least gives me a fighting chance of capturing important parts of the experience while they’re still in my head.

And you, fellow travelers? What did you learn about leadership this weekend? What do you know you don’t know? What would you tell me today, or yesterday’s you?