how the next meeting went

In June, I said that I wouldn’t be voting to approve the LITA budget, due to a variety of unaddressed concerns. At Annual, Cindi Blyberg ran an awesome meeting where we put off the vote, to give our Financial Advisory Committee time to update things before the fiscal year close. And then I forgot to update the blog about the subsequent meeting!

Well, the FAC did outstanding work, pulling together a budget that I solidly believe in, on very little notice. (I owe you all beers. A lot of beers. Zoe Stewart-Marshall, Andrew Pace, Susan Sharpless Smith: please be thinking what kind of beverages you like.) We approved it in August with very little fuss. I was pleased to vote for it.

You can have a look yourself if you like: FY2015 budget [.xlsx].

You’ll notice the bottom line here is a deficit. I’m bummed about that, because I’m concerned about LITA’s health, but mostly I’m happy about it, because it’s honest. I think the lines above it are credible estimates of what we’ll end up doing in FY ’15, and I would a million times rather be honest about the challenges of that, so we can plan for them, than sweep them under the rug.

And now the FAC is off and running on the FY ’16 budget, with a timeline that should allow for much more deliberation at leisure than FY ’15 allowed. (Note to self: you owe them even more beers.) And Board is pondering how to fill the holes. Your ideas, as always, are welcome.

Advertisements

how the meeting went

Last post, I said I wouldn’t be voting to approve the LITA budget. And then I left you all hanging as I went off to Vegas, and recovered from Vegas, and started my to-do list recovering from Vegas…

So, how’d it go?

Short version

Cindi Trainor Blyberg (now LITA past president) is a quiet meeting-running ninja. We have delayed the vote. I’m cautiously optimistic about how things went. We’ll see.

Longer version

We had a remarkably good meeting Saturday of Annual. A solid majority of the Board expressed views frankly and without hard feelings. We didn’t always agree, which I think is a good thing.

We’ve asked the Financial Advisory Committee to do a bit more work before our vote. The fiscal year begins September 1, so there’s a bit of a window for that work, though it’s definitely a time crunch. We’ve also asked them to do work toward a better process for FY2016 and beyond. The ALA budget calendar says boards voting at Annual but divisional budgets are put forward for review in late winter, which means your options are pretty much “rubber stamp”, “last minute panic”, or “go beyond the calendar to ensure a consultative process by Midwinter”, and really only one of these options is any good, so I think we’ll be working toward it.

I’m glad we delayed the vote to allow time for some issues to be addressed and I hope that, when we do meet next (time TBD), we’ll have something I can feel comfortable voting for.

Obviously there’s a lot of loose ends here. What exactly can we get done in time? How fluidly can ALA roll with late-breaking changes? I’ve asked a lot of people, gotten a lot of answers, and won’t know which ones are right until at least September — that’s the caution in my optimism.

Feeling fairly confident about FY2016, though. And really hoping that as I face FY2017, the last budget I’ll face in my Board term, that I’ll be saying what’s past is prologue, and the budget is a fluid and strategic tool we’re using to advance our goals and yours, howsoever they change. And be super excited to vote for it.

Why I won’t be voting to approve the LITA budget

Not every board member can be a financial wizard. Every board member, however, needs to be a financial inquisitor.

101 Board Basics: Fiduciary Responsibilities, BoardSource

I ran for LITA Board on a platform of inclusivity, transparency, and financial stewardship. That means I consider it my sacred trust to you, the members, to understand LITA’s financial status and sustainability; to advocate for directions that support its ability to serve you for years to come; and to communicate with you about the decisions I make in representing you.

The fiscal year 2015 budget [PDF] has been presented to the Board and I will not be voting to approve it this weekend. Here’s why.

Unanswered questions

First, the budget presents too many unanswered questions.

It does not attribute revenues and expenses to program lines, which makes it prohibitively difficult to tell whether our allocations support our strategic vision, and to monitor the status of our programs.

It quotes fiscal year 2013’s actual dues revenue as our expected dues revenue for fiscal year 2015, but this is not supportable in light of our decreasing membership trend; this dues revenue projection is overstated by approximately $20,000.

Its revenue for registration fees (a new line in this year’s budget) appears to be based on our fiscal year 2014 estimated dues revenue for the sum of Forum, web courses, webinars, preconferences, midwinter workshops, and regional institutes. However, we have not run regional institutes since 2007 and have no immediate plans to do so, and budget estimates for online education have consistently exceeded actual revenue by tens of thousands of dollars. This line is given as $234,200, but actual realized revenue for fiscal years 2011 through (projecting from year-to-date) 2014 has been between $180,000 and $190,000. Therefore this line overstates revenue by roughly $50,000.

The expenses are reported in a new format, with categories that cross-cut previous categories; therefore I cannot confidently judge whether they are accurate. (Over the past four years our expense lines have also been overestimates, usually working out to net operating deficits in the $20K range, but with large year-to-year variance.) I also cannot tell how much support we intend to give to our programs, and if that is in line with what we require.

I asked some of these questions about a previous draft of the budget at Midwinter. (And more; my unanswered-questions list is far too long to fit in either a blog post or a Board meeting.) I have not found that either Midwinter, or this new draft, have answered those questions.

The bottom line: this budget overstates our revenue by around $70,000 and makes the accuracy and relevance of our expenses impossible to analyze.

What budgets are for

Second, this budget is not an instrument for communicating or enacting LITA’s strategic goals.

Because it neither disaggregates revenues nor attributes expenses to program lines, we cannot communicate clearly with our committees and interest groups how their work fits into the big picture, what LITA needs of them, and how we will support them.

Because it does not change — it reflects programs we no longer run and revenues we no longer realize, and does not reallocate money or staff time to new programs — we cannot change. We know that — particularly as a technology association — we operate in a competitive landscape that is radically different than it was ten, even five, years ago. We know, from our membership declines (shared by ALA and many associations) and the thoughtful reporting of our Financial Strategies Task Force, that we must do a better job of articulating our vision and providing value.

We have no shortage of vision, but all our strategic planning is meaningless if we cannot operationalize it.

The budget is a prologue to the real story, which is how we serve you. Let’s set the scene correctly.

Where I stand

I am persuaded that, if I were to approve this budget, I would be failing in my duty of care toward the association, and (more importantly) my duty as a representative of the membership: elected by you, holding the trust of three thousand members carefully in my hands.

Duty of care is an obligation I submitted myself to when I accepted the nomination, but your trust? That doesn’t feel like obligation; that feels like reverence.

We can and must do better by you.

I will not be voting to approve this budget. I ask the rest of the Board to join me.


Update, 10 July 2014: how the meeting went.

#litabd strategic analysis for fun and profit

I’ve had the pleasure over the last few weeks of having in-depth chats with several women who are top-notch strategic thinkers and have leadership roles in business and nonprofit organizations. Total contact high.

And this has been dovetailing with my LITA Board almost-a-year retrospective thoughts. Because you know I can’t find something interesting without totally obsessing over it until I understand it frontwards backwards and sideways, right?

And in the meantime I’ve checked out a book on nonprofit financial sustainability, which turned out to have a sticker in it saying it had been placed there by an ALA program on financial literacy, which is surely a sign. The book’s giving me a specific technique for analyzing nonprofit budgets, so I’m testing it out on LITA’s.

The tool is a matrix map – basically, put all your budget lines on a chart of impact vs profitability and see what happens. This gives you four quadrants:

  • High impact, profitable (winning)
  • High impact liabilities (labors of love: worth doing if you can subsidize them)
  • Low impact, high profit (the things you do to subsidize your labors of love)
  • Low impact liabilities (why are you doing these?)

Then you represent all those activities with circles scaled to their expense.

The book also gives 7 criteria you can use for determining impact that it claims to have tested (not clear how, but I’m also not done reading) with real-world organizations. It says using more than 4 tends to be unhelpful, so pick the up-to-four that make most sense for your organization; assign each activity a 1-4 score on each criterion; and total them up for your impact estimate. (You can weight them if you like, but that’s a whole other level of complexity I didn’t get into.) I picked the 4 I think are most relevant to LITA and did a back-of-the-envelope impact analysis:

  • Mission alignment (I can compare with the mission statement)
  • Effectiveness of execution (I think this is really important but I have no way of evaluating it)
  • Scale of impact (I assigned a 4 for thousands of people reached per year, a 3 for hundreds, and so forth)
  • Community building (I totally just made this number up on instinct)

(The other criteria it suggested are depth of impact on participants; leverage (how much does it increase the impact of your other activities); and filling an important gap in your competitive space. I found these both less interesting and harder to gauge – I think they’d need a lot more data to do right. Your mileage may vary!)

Results

I made graphs! (Impact and profitability normalized so they run -1 to 1, obvs.) These are based on FY2013 year-end data (aka “the most recent completed fiscal year”) – actual as-realized expenses and revenues. Sorry about the overflow on the legend – couldn’t figure out how to fix that.

Here’s what we do:

Here’s another version without Forum (which is so much bigger of an expense than everything else that it makes them hard to see; and apparently I normalized them to different axes, whoops):

Well now, that’s interesting.

Discussion

I’d love to have some people argue with me – did I pick the wrong criteria from that set? Estimate their values wrongly? Is this entirely the wrong analytical frame? Go for it. Tell me why 🙂

I also think there’s a hugely important caveat with this entire analysis, which is that our budget docs report staff expenses as a single line item, rather than breaking them out by time spent on each activities. This is important because it means every profitability estimate is an overestimate; not one of those lines accounts for the staff time it takes to make those things happen. This is especially relevant for Forum, which looks like a net profit, but clearly takes a great deal of staff effort (it’s a huge undertaking!) and may therefore be a net loss. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing – it reaches hundreds of attendees, who by all reports I’ve heard think well of it, and it’s a great opportunity for us to showcase our members’ accomplishments and help them advance their career goals. But not accounting for staff time does cloud the strategic analysis.

What do you think?

My LITA Board service: an almost-a-year retrospective

ALA elections close tomorrow (eligible and haven’t voted? Go vote! The LITA slate is amazing). So it’s been about a year since I was elected, nine months on the Board, which is making me think retrospective-y thoughts.

(Like everyone, I’ve meant to blog more about my experience on the Board. Like everyone, I’ve found that so much of it is contact highs and crazy plans in bars, little nudges over IM, conversations that aren’t mine to share – both hard to summarize, and sometimes confidential. But for someone who was inspired to run for Board in part because of a fascination with its wrestling over the role of transparency these last few years, that’s not really good enough, is it?)

So let me look at my campaign platform and mull over how I’ve been doing. And you tell me what you want from LITA, how I can do better.

Technology is for everybody.

LITA’s made some baby steps in this direction – not all things I can claim credit for. Forum 2013 (a committee I was on) had more public library speakers than usual, and some youth services presentations, though it didn’t do as well as hoped on diversity counts. I hear Forum 2014 actually did blind review of submissions, and I’m looking forward to seeing the results of that.

A few folks have joined LITA, or rejoined after a long time away, that I’m super excited to have.

The Education committee (to which I liaise) has some children’s technology webinars in the pipeline in addition to our traditional academic-library-oriented content, and is working on broadening its topic coverage and reaching out to new speakers. You can help! Teach for LITA (I’m happy to answer questions). If you can speak to an important libtech topic we haven’t covered much, and if you’re not one of the usual suspects who’s spoken for LITA a bunch of times already, we’re especially interested in hearing from you.

Education is where I have been spending a great deal of my time – working with its leadership and LITA staff to get processes better documented, to put a better feedback loop in place so committee members can see the impact of their work, to communicate Board expectations more thoroughly to the committee, et cetera. And also personally, to understand the liaison role – I don’t want to run the committee or do its work (that’s for our awesome chairs and members); I do want to remove obstacles, and make sure they get information from other parts of LITA/ALA that they need to be fully effective. Lots of progress here; lots yet to be done.

Communication equals engagement.

Baby steps forward.

The Board’s taken on responsibility for @ALA_LITA, so it’s livelier and has a few hundred new followers; yay!

A lot of you showed up at the last online Board meeting – that was awesome! Hope it was interesting seeing how the sausage is made. Please join us in Vegas if you can!

I try to be conscientious about posting my LITA Board Connect content publicly whenever it is consistent with the open meeting policy to do so. (ALA Connect defaults to private, but can easily be set to public. You can get email notifications of, and comment on, public content, FYI.)

Been talking a lot with VP Rachel Vacek about more comprehensive steps we can take toward inclusive, vibrant communication.

Lots more to do here, though. The rest of our social media needs people to own it and make it vibrant. The Board needs to do better at regular communication to the membership – someone needs to own that, too. And that’s a thing that we need to model and set expectations for so it trickles down. The committee and interest group chairs are the first point of contact for many (actual and prospective) members, and we need to have a culture of communication that runs all the way down. We need a culture of understanding that communication isn’t just a thing you do in January and June, with people who show up physically to conferences.

I can see processes that would help here, but I don’t have the throughput to own them all.

Stewardship matters.

And this is where I’ve been spending the bulk of my time.

I’m a numbers person, right? I was a math major. And when things don’t make sense to me, I obsess about them until they do. LITA’s budget does not make sense to me.

This may well be because I don’t have experience with budgeting (and I’d love to have conversations with those of you who do). What I know is, I’ve collected every spreadsheet I can find back through FY2011 – drafts, actuals, high-level, line-item. And I’ve put them all in a master spreadsheet so I can compare them, year-on-year, category-to-category, draft-to-actual. And I’ve stared at the line items and tried to tie them to the high level stuff, and I’ve stared at the actual year-end revenue and expenses and tried to compare it to our projections for future fiscal years, pretty much until my eyes bleed. And I’ve asked an awful lot of questions of fellow Board members and the Executive Director and the Financial Strategies Task Force (its report [PDF] is illuminating). And I am just not smart enough to make these numbers make sense.

As a Board member I have a duty of care toward the association, and I believe the single most important element of that is ensuring the financial health of the association, so that it can continue to serve its thousands of members for many years to come. But I see financial year closes that show us running deficits most years, and I’m a startup girl: I know that everyone has a burn rate and a runway, and if your runway isn’t growing at least as fast as your burn rate is eating it (and ours is not), there comes a time when you are not aloft, when your wings are wreckage on the ground.

I’m a Board member and I love you, our members, all. I am not allowed to let there be wreckage.

I don’t know, yet, how to change the burn rate or runway. I’m mulling that over but I’m not a big enough picture thinker yet. What I do believe is that prior to that, the budget has to be an effective instrument for operationalizing our strategic priorities, and the Board has to be more effective at using it thus.

(Disclosure: I voted against sponsoring Emerging Leaders at the last meeting. I think this sponsorship is one of the best things we do, but I simply don’t know if we have the money to do it, and I cannot in good conscience appropriate money I am not confident we have. I chant “duty of care” to myself a lot some days.)

We on the Board, we’re not elected for our budget experience. Some of us have it, some of us don’t; some of us are numbers people, some of us aren’t. And we’re librarians; we’re not into conflict. We’re not into telling hard truths. And so over many years we’ve ended up with a culture of shirking our oversight responsibilities, of telling ourselves this runway looks good. And it shows.

We have begun to charge a Financial Advisory Committee, and we’ve found some really good people to serve on it, and I’m very optimistic about the work they’ll do. We need people specifically selected for financial expertise to help the Board perform its oversight role effectively, and to help us weigh the tradeoffs in implementing the Financial Strategies Task Force’s recommendations, or in other ideas that will from time to time arise. I think they’ll be a great help once they become a regular thing.

In the meantime, though, I have to keep on trucking with my own understanding of duty of care, my own drive to make the numbers make sense to me, to be able to look at the budget and see answers to my questions about whether our hopes can be implemented. Whether we will or won’t, in the end, have had the money to sponsor our Emerging Leaders in FY2015. Little things that make up big ones.

I myself, I wasn’t elected for budget expertise, and I’m happier with hugs and innovation and kittens than I am with hard truths. But I believe that when you elected me, part of the deal was that my own feelings and inadequacies became secondary to the good of the association. When I think of leadership I think of how I can be the person that you, that circumstances, need me to be. How can I rise to the level of the task you’ve entrusted me with.

How can I serve you better?

Newtonian mechanics, and the LITA election

I’m bad at physics.

I went to an engineering school and I majored in math and I almost majored in chemistry so people thought I was supposed to be good at physics but, no. Put me in front of a free-body diagram and I react with this sort of blind scared incomprehension, forces are supposed to act on this? What could they possibly be? How on earth would I know? There’s this cargo-cult algebra of gravity and normal forces I could try to do but I never had any sense of what I should or shouldn’t write, or why. Arrows, at random.

My school required three semesters of physics so, well, that didn’t work out awesomely for me. Thursdays, the night before physics and chemistry (also required) were due, I’d get together with two friends who were good at physics but struggling in chemistry and we’d trade off strengths, dragging each other bodily through the hardest classes we’d taken to date.

A week before the final I showed up at last, embarrassed, in the professor’s office to throw myself on her mercy. (Yes, I should have done this a lot earlier, but what do you expect of a 17-year-old without a trace of study skills.) And I’m not clear what I hoped for, exactly, some kind of guidance or clarity, the guru on the mountain making the entirety of mechanics clear to me, magic, but I definitely did not expect what I got from her, which was her saying: you’re a smart student and I believe in you.

I had, let’s be clear, done nothing that semester to justify her belief. But I was seized with a guilty fire of needing to live up to it. For the next week, I took my physics textbook with me absolutely everywhere I went. I read it through meals. I reworked every single homework problem we’d done all term. I didn’t study for any of the rest of my finals (I was doing better in those classes and had some wiggle room…) I took a few hours off to go see a Shakespeare class put on a play, but I had the book with me and I read it during intermission.

And then I sat down for that final, and the first hour was okay, actually, things looked familiar, I wouldn’t say I understood them but I’d seen the problems or something very like them and I can pattern-match, and then the second hour was this awful dawning horror of meaninglessness opening up underneath and I could feel this test physically assaulting me, I was in actual bodily pain, and hour three dawned and I thought, to hell with this, I didn’t study for a solid week to be defeated by some test, and I wrote blindly and damn-the-torpedoes handcrampingly fast nonstop until the second they made me put the pencil down, and then I staggered out with the rest of my freshman class into the California May sunlight and we blinked at each other in zombielike weariness and defeat.

The class average ended up around 50%. I got about a 75. So. I killed it. Brought my average all the way up to a B-, which I assure you was not where that average had been a week before, and I cherish that B- more than anything else on my transcript.

This is a roundabout way of saying, yesterday I was notified that I won the LITA election — that you, my friends, think that I’m someone who ought to represent you on the Board for the next three years. You believe in me. And for the girl who spent her introverted depressed math-nerd high school years not having a whole lot of friends, and who graduated from library school what feels like yesterday, this is a mind-boggling statement of faith.

Like walking into that office, being told point-blank I’m more than I believe myself to be. So. Time to study. Because it matters, that I justify your belief.

I made a LITA page to make it easy for you to contact me and keep up with what I’m thinking about the association. I hope you’ll use it. It turns out I do have study skills, when I have to, but I’ll learn a lot more if you’re on the journey with me.

three vignettes about connection

Long, fascinating article in this morning’s Boston Globe about the meningitis outbreak. One of the things that most caught my eye about it is the CDC’s role as a manufacturer of leveraged coincidence. A doctor in Tennessee who happened to have the right background and insight to ask for an unusual set of tests. A doctor in Michigan who could correlate those results against other isolated incidents, turn them into a pattern. The tiny handful of experts who have so much as ever seen a case of fungal meningitis, able to put together and disseminate a treatment plan — because behind the scenes you have the CDC and state departments of public health, answering phones, being points of contact. Letting information connect.

The knowledge was all in the system to recognize and address the problem, but it wasn’t in any one person’s head. It required a structure of effective communication that let insights connect into understanding, that let coincidences coalesce into pattern, that let the steps people took in the right direction add up into something more than abortive journeys.


The world is full of these threads we can follow, these isolated coincidences and insights and beginnings-of-things, all the time. Constantly. The vast majority of threads go unfollowed. We don’t even know there are threads in front of us.


Yesterday Cindi Trainor, our fearless LITA vice president, was live-tweeting the LITA Executive Committee meeting. (Did you know we have one? It’s some fascinating sausage-making.) And one of the things she tweeted was:

Some context here:

  • BARC is the ALA Budget Analysis and Review Committee.
  • LITA’s been running budget deficits for years; the Board has made some stabs at fixing this problem but there is a great deal of work left to be done, and there’s some interest in involving more people with budget expertise.
  • The LITA Board oversees but does not entirely set the association’s budget; there’s an operating agreement that governs the relationship between ALA and its divisions, a budgeting process encompassing the Board and LITA staff and ALA and this is the part where I wave my hands around to distract you because honestly I don’t understand it any more than this. It’s complicated. The point being, if the process is going to be healthy, it requires solid communication among a variety of entities.
  • Cindi’s been on the Board for years, and heavily involved with LITA even longer. She knows lots of stuff about lots of stuff.
  • Cindi and Courtney, as you can see from that Twitter exchange, already know each other.

And yet with all that, with so many engines to manufacture coincidence sitting right out there in the open, somehow this particular connection didn’t get made until right now.

To be clear, this isn’t a criticism of Cindi or Courtney, at all. This is a red flag that there are communications processes that need to exist, and don’t.


Yesterday I was doing some local volunteering (hooray!). And I got to chat with several members of the group in charge of the event, just obvious small-talk stuff, “how did you get involved,” et cetera — I mean obvious even to me and I’m one of those nerdish introverts with an intense stereotypical discomfort about small talk.

And only one of them made small talk back, even so much as asking me what brought me to the event — a question whose answer instantly reveals that I have experience relevant to their organization. And he didn’t ask for much detail about the specifics of that experience.

This bothers me on basic hospitality grounds — again, I am a nerdish introvert here, not exactly Emily Post, but I’m not wrong that when strangers volunteer for your cause you engage with them, right? this is what’s done? — but also on utilitarian ones. What if I happened to have unusual skills that would let them break a logjam on some project they’ve been working on? What if I turned out to know someone they’ve been hoping to get connected to? What if I were a prospective major donor? What if the coincidence engine were right in front of them, the loose threads to tie together were sitting right out there in plain sight, but they never asked? How can you know if you don’t talk to people?


The world is full of these loose threads we can follow, all the time. The world is constantly flinging opportunities straight at us. But we need structures for manufacturing system out of coincidence. We need communication and processes that let us find loose threads, recognize their mutual relevance, and tie them together.

On one level it’s easy: just talk to the mysterious stranger. But truly, it’s hard, because you have to do it at scale, and amidst everyone’s constant crush of everyday distractions. Because you have to be consistent. Because you have to be brave enough to talk to people who aren’t familiar. Because if it were easy, everyone would already be doing it, and the magic of the CDC is it’s a thing that works even though humans do not generally do this.

A system for leveraging coincidence at scale. It’s magical, truly. Magical.

LITA board blogging: why they got it wrong about the secretary role

As I do, I went to both LITA board meetings, and ended up with pages of notes. And I could, if you like, blog some of the actual content of the meetings. But it turns out the blog post that’s been writing itself in my head this last day has centered entirely on this one sentence out of all those pages of notes:

“Bylaws doesn’t see a need for a secretary, LITA does a sufficient job handling minutes.”

I disagree strenuously.

For context: at Midwinter, the Board discussed replacing one or two of the Director-at-Large positions with secretary and/or treasurer roles. Some sort of more concrete proposal was to be developed (I haven’t seen it) and sent to the Bylaws committee, as any such change would implicate the bylaws. So the committee was reporting out. And yes, they do think LITA should do something about the treasurer role, and they’re right. They’re just wrong about the secretary.

So, why?

Point one: the handling of minutes

I was about to say “there are some good things about the handling of minutes; they’re routinely available in the Connect site”. And then it took me a really long time to find any actual minutes in the Connect site, and I couldn’t find any kind of page that collated just the minutes. So I take that back. But you can at least read some of them.

And the minutes are actually better than I’d remembered in terms of recording something about the content of the discussions, the context of the decisions. I don’t think minutes should be transcripts (…for all that my personal notes sometimes nearly are), but I do think they should record enough of the why to help future members (not just board members!) get up to speed. I find Connect incredibly useful as a repository of institutional knowledge, a way to rapidly spin up understanding of threads within the organization — this alone justifies working in it (or at least transferring documents routinely to it) rather than in more user-friendly things like Google Docs, the value to posterity — so I’m glad the LITA minutes reflect some of that.

However, with the exception of motions to adjourn and the like, I think it has rarely been the case that all members of the board understand, and agree on, the text of the motions they happen to be voting on. That text isn’t made explicit in the meetings, and it’s not recorded adequately in the minutes thereafter. The minutes don’t adequately record, or make prominent, action items and responsible parties decided on during the meeting. There was at least one time this meeting when the Board was derailed for several minutes because they couldn’t agree on whether or when they had agreed to do a thing in the past, and the minutes didn’t suitably clarify this.

If the minutes don’t suffice for the Board to know what they agreed to do, they don’t suffice.

Point two: minutes are a diversion; here’s what it’s really about

OK, so I just buried the lede, but my jaw dropped when I heard adequate handling of minutes as the reason given for why Bylaws didn’t find the secretary role necessary.

Was…was that all they were considering? Seriously? I never saw the exact proposal (a fact which is about to become ironic in the context of this post) but I never imagined that was all that was on the table. If I’d realized, if it had even for a moment crossed my mind that that could be what anyone involved with the Board these last few years could construe a secretary as, I would have been making a whole lot of noise about this months ago. Because here’s what I’ve thought all along the secretary role has to be:

LITA needs a secretary to own the process of transparency.

Here’s what the LITA secretary in my head does:

Handle minutes. Yes, sure. But this means: stop the flow of the meeting where necessary to clarify the exact text of motions, and write it somewhere everyone can see it, before the votes are taken. And ensure that exact text makes it into the minutes. And ensure the minutes state, with clear words and clear layout, all the action items and their responsible parties.

Ensure that minutes and agendas are posted in a timely and transparent fashion. (I’ve ended up with a copy of the agenda at every board meeting I’ve attended, but often only because I have the privilege to IM board members, who email it to me during the meeting itself…This is really broken, y’all.) And when I say “posted” I don’t just mean “in a public post on Connect”; I mean in Connect, organized in a way that they are readily findable in the future, and cross-posted to LITAblog, LITA-L, @ALA_LITA, and whatever else you’ve got.

Publicize, not only the Board meetings at Annual and Midwinter, but the virtual meetings now happening (hooray!) between them. Encourage members to attend.

Ensure that, at least monthly, there are public, publicized updates on Board discussions. Some of those discussions are private — either necessarily, because they fall within ALA’s closed meetings exceptions, or due to the comfort levels of Board members (the open meeting policy does not cover working discussions in Connect, and LITA’s discussions of how exactly to apply this to itself have been lengthy and contentious, and remain unsettled). And I, personally — not speaking for any other LITA members and definitely not reflecting the (nonexistent) Board consensus — am totally OK with having private discussions plus regular reporting; I don’t need every single thing to be public. But there must be regular reporting — “Here are the issues under discussion. Here are some ideas on the table. Here are decisions we’re proposing or making. Here are the action items and responsible parties. Here’s the status of the loose ends.” There must. And it’s not going to happen without someone to own the process of transparency.

(Double benefit to monthly-ish reporting, really: allows members to be more included, and also gently insists the board actually get stuff done…Goodness knows I don’t accomplish things without deadlines.)

Oh, and while I’m at it, transparency works both ways; I think the secretary should also be a conduit to encourage the members to have more of a voice in LITA. Elicit their perspective on what the board should be doing. Their comment on the decisions being made.

So…yeah. In the context of the Board discussions these last few years, I just assumed all this was obvious. This is one of those situations where I shouldn’t assume things are obvious to everyone just because they’re obvious in my head, isn’t it? I’m completely blindsided and flabbergasted that the secretary role under discussion apparently extended only to taking the minutes.

The secretary isn’t there to take minutes. The secretary is there to take point on transparency. The secretary is there to get the members to hold the Board’s feet to the fire, to get the Board to matter to the members, to make it possible to stitch together the amazing membership and the actions of the Board into a coherent thing. The secretary is there to make the Board up its game.

Or, well. The secretary isn’t there. It is thus recommended.

In which I comment on the LITA board and transparency.

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.

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.