An ALA Fireside Chat

I’ve given a couple of presentations to associationland (as opposed to libraryland), and one of the things that quickly became clear to me is that ALA is different from pretty much every other association out there. Most associations have trouble getting their members to participate in conversations online to gather input and feedback, whereas there’s no shortage of either of that from ALA members, a fact that has been greatly in evidence the past few weeks (see Exhibits A, B, and C for starters).

I knew what I was getting into when I started this job (after all, ALA is 134 years old), but the recent conversations about it, both before and during #hcod, have been a little tougher for me to read because of a unique position I occupy. I’m a degreed librarian and an ALA member. I work at ALA because I’m passionate about libraries and librarians. And as one of the few ALA staff members who puts herself out there on social networks as an individual to publicly answer questions, solve customer service issues, and help explain how things work, I’ve generally considered myself a kind of outpost (hopefully I won’t freeze beyond the outer marker).

As I watched these recent conversations build, I could tell that they were asking for something more and that I wasn’t really the right person to respond to them. They required a response from “ALA,” which is simultaneously a broad and narrow swath of people. When I see questions about “what’s wrong with ALA” and “where is ALA,” it’s tough not to take it personally because technically I am ALA. Except that I’m not.

I can’t speak for “ALA,” issue a position statement, or chair a task force. Those are all responsibilities handled by ALA members, so as a staff person I play more of a supporting role. As an outpost, my role the last few weeks has been to alert others to the discussions, which I’ve been doing on a regular basis. I can’t control what happens once that information is received, but one of the things I think we see pretty clearly is that despite the progress ALA has made during the last few years (and yes, there has definitely been progress), there’s still no good place for ALA members to have a public conversation with their elected leaders. I hope that’s something we can work on, beyond the formal spaces of Council and membership meetings.

We also need to do a better job of explaining how ALA works and how members can make things happen within the organization. That’s where this blog comes in. That had been my goal in starting Marginalia back in 2007, but the rest of my job took over and blogging fell by the wayside. That’s going to change, though.

After four and a half years at ALA, I think I finally have enough of a handle on it to help explain the inner workings and secret handshakes. But it’s going to be a two-way street. I’ll share what I know and help draw back the curtain, but it’s up to you to read the blog, ask questions, and most importantly, do things with what you learn. Let’s figure it all out together, because I still have a lot to learn myself.

I may not always have a great response and sometimes it may take me a little while to find an answer, but I’ll do my best to reply honestly and provide context. I sit at some interesting intersections within ALA, so one of my most satisfying roles so far has been to connect people so that they can work together and help each other to #makeithappen.

Our first big project that we’ll start tackling in a couple of weeks is ALA Civics class. In the meantime, what do you want to know about ALA and how it works? Leave your questions in the comments, and we’ll start a syllabus.

12 Responses to “An ALA Fireside Chat”

  1. Megan Hodge Says:

    What does it take to be appointed to higher-level (e.g., divisional or ALA) committees? Is there a magic mixture of experience, enthusiasm, and knowing the right people?

    (By the way, I think this is a GREAT idea, Jenny!)


    Aaron the Librarian Reply:

    Every year, sometime between the end of Annual and the middle of September (how’s that for specificity?), the ALA President Elect (s/he who won the most recent ALA Presidential Election) puts out a call for ALA Committee Volunteers. In the last several years, this call has been in the form of an email with a link to a Committee Volunteer Interest Form (and this email is usually forwarded often to many email lists as well as placed prominently on the ALA website and in ALA-related Social Media).

    People often ask your question and I always encourage interested folks to tell the President Elect and the Committees which advise on the appointments process the following:
    1. Tell them what complimentary skills and strengths you would bring to the committee
    2. Tell them why you are interested/passionate about serving on a given committee
    3. Tell them what experience(s) you’ve had in areas the committee covers

    The better picture you paint of yourself as an asset to the committee, the better your chance of appointment.

    Other routes include serving on a related subcommittee (subcommittees generally are not appointed by the President Elect, they are appointed by the Parent-Committee chair, based on recommendations from the committee or people who committee members know). If you are able to sit in on a committee meeting, you can often catch a committee chair and become known this way, too.


  2. pollyalida Says:

    Great idea to revive this and help ‘draw back the curtain’! If members better understand how ALA works and what purposes it serves, we’re in a better position to make change happen. When I hear people say “where’s ALA in all this” (whatever “this” may be) I think, “Wait! We’re members, WE are ALA”. And while it’s a really hard for such a huge organization to shift gears, as a membership organization, the members need to drive those changes (with TONS of help from the ALA staff!!)



    Jenny Reply:

    Thanks, Polly. It’s interesting to watch that aspect from the inside. One of the things we’ll look at down the road a little is the various mechanisms available to members to affect change to help shift those gears. 🙂



  3. Jenny Says:

    Thanks, Megan – those are great questions. We’ll look at the how during ALA Civics class (especially when Emerging Leaders Team Jaguar submits it’s final project), but the “what does it take” and “magic mixture” are harder to pin down.

    I’m not actually involved in the committee appointment process, so that’s something I’ll have to get input from others to help answer your questions. It will take me a little while, so I’ll add this to the syllabus.

    Keep the questions coming!


  4. Deborah Dubois Says:

    Is there a way to be part of a committee without having to travel to midwinter and annual. I have been a member for many years and I am interested in being more a part of ALA as a committee member or other ways, but the travel costs are prohibitive.


    Aaron the Librarian Reply:

    The answer to this is a qualified “Yes!”

    The former policy barriers to strictly virtual participation have been removed (at MW 2010 if I remember correctly?) – some technical hurdles remain.

    There used to be a “Virtual Member” committee membership option; however, this was blended into the description of “Committee Member” such that as long as a committee member participates in the work of the committee (prep-work, research, discussion, etc.) they remain a member in good standing.

    I have heard of committees which now do their work entirely online and do not hold f2f meetings at MW and hold a business session at the end of their Annual program.


  5. David Schuster Says:

    As the tough economic times hit us and travel will become even more restricted I want to followup with Deborah Dubois’s comment. What is ALA doing to come into the 21st century and be more virtual? Midwinter this year was lean and how many of those committee’s met but only had a handful of attendees?

    We pay a small fortune to be members – where does the money go?

    Then we pay another small fortune to attend 2 conferences – really? I’ve been attending some Unconference events that are FREE and they are providing a LOT of great content without travel.

    Just trying to “draw back the curtain” trying to understand and UPDATE the organization.


    Vic Nunez Reply:

    I agree with David. I “attend” a number of free (to me) webinars through our consortia (Tampa Bay LC), our state library, & WebJunction. Anything connected with ALA always has a fee attached, although the content is, or appears to be, compelling.

    It’s tough to even consider being involved in a committee, etc. with ALA. With our city revenues down, luckily our budget has been flat. Travel costs are rising, so it’s harder to travel on the city’s dime. It is in my job description is to be involved in professional organizations, and my director is supportive, but at least part of a trip to ALA would come out of my pocket. I haven’t seen a COLA or time-in-service pay increase in two years and prospects are not good for some time to come. I suspect others are in the same boat. It’s just hard.


    Aaron the Librarian Reply:

    The short (and incomplete) answer is ALA Connect for virtual participation in the work of committees and the various virtual conference pilots happening in the last few years (ACRL Seattle, ALA Annual 2010, ACRL Philadelphia, as recent examples I know about).

    The “Where does the money go?” question might be a good later topic in the ALA Civics lesson plan. 🙂


  6. Jenny Says:

    I don’t think it’ll surprise you to hear that I’ve heard the comment about virtual participation a lot, so I think it’s a pretty big issue. Your concerns deserve a longer response than a comment box, though, so let me work on a full-blown post so that we can fully discuss the topic. I want to get some input from a few other people at ALA, so it will probably be next week, but discuss this we will. 🙂



  7. Cathy Says:

    A lot more virtual attendance for free, or for lower fees, would be welcome. The fees for webinars are horrendous–I’ve passed on a few I really would have like to attend because I couldn’t afford it, and my library wouldn’t spend it. As for the virtual attendance for ALA confernce–we offer that for our state conference, and archive the sessions. Why not do that at ALA?


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