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.

controlled vocabulary, tagging, and the structure of the ALA

The structure of ALA seems to me like a controlled vocabulary. Everything has its place on the org chart; every new term (subunit, committee) must be vetted and approved by deliberative process.

I appreciate the utility of controlled vocabularies — I use them regularly when I do research — but in my messy, information-novelty-seeking, let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom heart of hearts, I’m a tagging girl. I think, really, I am part of a tagging generation, and when I see people (including, but not only, Gen Xers) talking about the disconnect between ALA and younger librarians, they’re talking about the divide between a slow vetting process and a system that’s nimble, fast, long-tail-friendly, decentralized — chaotic, uncertain, unpredictable, emergent.

To go on what may briefly seem a tangent: I’m working on a book chapter about leadership development through communities of practice, and one of the things that keeps coming up in the sources is you can’t control lightning in a bottle. (Communities of practice, in case you haven’t encountered the term, are informal groups that coalesce around some shared domain, and tend to operate independent of the formal hierarchy.) Some organizations, particularly in the corporate world, try to channel that lightning to capture and disseminate best practices and preserve institutional knowledge. And you can do that. You can, as an organization, create an environment in which communities of practice are more likely to flourish. You can support or neglect them in line with your strategic objectives. You can get a lot of mileage out of them. What you can’t do is decide, in advance, what kind of mileage you will get.

In other words, communities of practice are the tagging of organizational structure. They can spring up spontaneously, flexibly, in response to immediate issues, without waiting for any sort of process. They can adjust their domain and goals rapidly, as the environment changes (when was the last time you said “Cookery”)? They can be incorporated into your catalog — er, organization — in ways which augment, even bypass, traditional functionality — or create it where it wasn’t there.

I’ve been thinking about this in the context of the LITA streaming controversy. (Which I was present for; streamer-in-chief Jason Griffey is a dear friend and colleague.) I want to see virtual participation expand, not so much for its own sake (although I think that’s great) but as part of a structural shift toward a communities of practice ethos in ALA. I want to see the round table and interest group ideas expanded into much more ad hoc, dynamic, and empowered elements. I want to see the organization think of itself less in terms of agendas and more in terms of strategic goals and providing support for people who want to achieve them. I want to see the membership — which is already creating networked, grassroots initiatives — be able to look at ALA as the strategic ally with resources and reach, to whom you can turn right now when you have some scheme for changing the world — and which, insofar as your goals and theirs align, is excited to be a part of that.

You want to know what I spend a lot of time thinking about these days, it’s this: how do you cultivate the metaphoric parallels of tagging in a controlled-vocabulary world? How do you get there from here?