Let’s Fix ALA.

By “Fix ALA” I don’t mean the conventional *cough, boring* way that I anticipate ALA will be simplified to continue its usual operations. To truly #FixALA is to transform ALA- and I do have some ideas about this. Disclaimer: I lay these burns because I love.

Galadriel from Lord of the Rings saying "In Place of dark lord you would have a queen, beautiful and terrible as the dawn."
Galadriel Vibes

But seriously, I’m not going to talk about how we could, through ALA’s exhausting and labyrinthine bylaws and processes arrive at a configuration of legacy “services” that is sustainable(ish). I’m not going to do that, because it wouldn’t be good content, and it also wouldn’t be the sort of aggressive and transformative change ALA needs.

Hela from Thor the Dark World saying "Nailed it!"
Hela Vibes

I’m also not writing that post because that’s the work that we’re all trying to do anyway– to my mind with little success or reward. That is the punishing work of engaging in ALA’s governance at this moment. Hi, I’m an ALA Councilor-at-Large, feel free to @ me.

Finally, I am not presenting this as the only way forward or positioning myself as ALA’s savior. I care deeply about the Association and I have given it my time, my money, my creativity, and my labor. Now, I offer my opinion, and I’d like to start a broader conversation (#FixALA) instead of reviewing another soft resolution that calls for a timeline for review to take place when the financials are a tire fire. Hey just FYI, I may be wrong- and I may change my mind!

So, for the purposes of this blogpost, which I would describe as a lazy design thinking exercise I’m working through the first three phases- Understand, Identify, and Ideate. I am going to present my solutions as though I have EVERY latitude to make changes to what I identify as the key problem- member engagement and retention, which drives all of ALA’s major sources of revenue.

So with the premise that member attrition is the key problem facing ALA, why aren’t members satisfied, staying, or joining?

Here’s the current negative feedback cycle- ALA hemorrhages members but won’t make major changes for fear of antagonizing its remaining dusty constituents. Let’s understand ourselves and define our issues- here are three key ones.

1) Money

Some would argue that we shouldn’t dwell on the economic realities of potential ALA members who cannot afford to join because well, they can’t help the bottomline, but I am here to tell you that that’s a lot of hooey. We should be focused as hell on the reality of economic hardship in library work, because if we’re not helping our people, who are often dragging masters degree debt around with them for their entire careers, if we’re not helping them make more money then it hurts the profession and therefore the organization. That library workers cannot afford ALA Memberships should be issue number one for the organization- it reflects the precariousness of library work. #ProtectLibraryWorkers

Also, ALA is broke as hell, always asking me for gifts so.

2) Identity

If ALA’s membership was a person she’d be a cis-white lady from a comfortably middle class background. ALA clutches her pearls and means well, but does a lot of harm. No one really likes or dislikes her, because she’s a big anxious baby person who helps keep harmful systems in place while attempting to go unnoticed. She has reaped benefits from being noncontroversial and inoffensive, but those benefits are getting smaller and smaller.

Am I being mean to Karen? I AM. Here’s why:

The organization’s milquetoast, white identity and culture informs ALA’s whole lobbying strategy, which btw, seems to be built around hiding the fact that libraries do operational socialism from various government funding bodies. It’s cowardly, and I cannot abide it. It’s time to swagger on what we do because it is radical finally and now, especially now.

3) Structure

I will not devote many sentences to how weird it is that our professional association is a giant maze designed to:

  • get me to complete a complicated renewal once a year
  • ask me to email my senator about IMLS but not to be mean to him on Twitter
  • publish too many books no one reads
  • give not enough awards and scholarships
  • provide resume-fodder busywork

At a very practical level, our current structure deters new folks from finding their way and gives the same familiar prominent figures opportunities over and over again *cough, nepotism.*

Volunteer work is not a solution.

I have a drastic and specific three-prong plan to address these issues which I will present. Before I do- whatever approach is taken moving forward must address the ongoing failure of the perpetually proposed “solution” that has been applied for ALA’s entire recent history- volunteer work by library workers. Another committee to look at our structure, another member-led resolution to identify “efficiencies.” This notion that we will fix ALA with more uncompensated work is a stunning disservice. ALA members need the organization to work on their behalf- not vice versa.

As an example, a recent spate of press statements have highlighted that ALA members don’t write great press releases shouldn’t write press releases lack the necessary cultural competencies to be allies let alone communicate authentic allyship. It’s not that we’re not trying: it’s that we’re not there yet AND we can’t library ourselves there. Why must we behave like just because it’s about libraries, library workers should be doing it? To treat library work as the solution to everything libraries need is misguided at best, megalomaniacal at worst.

We have tried volunteer and member solutions MANY TIMES FOR MANY YEARS for ALA and they do not work.

Additionally, volunteer activity to solve these issues actually exacerbates all three:

  1. Money, because underpaying and undervaluing our own labor is bad
  2. Identity, because that median ALA member is there because of privilege
  3. Structure, because then you wind up with too many volunteers and you have to put them places that’s when and how you wind up with this overly complicated hoosegow we call a professional association

The Cronk Plan

Here’s my current preferred ALA scenario- one where we move away from just making more library stuff to supporting shared goods and infrastructures that serve library workers, library communities, not just libraries. I put my name on it because I think it’s pretty good.

Hey Hey, Ho Ho / Some of This Shit Has Got to Go

Library work won’t save libraries or library workers- the amount of ALA staff time and resources thrown at creating volunteer opportunities that leave members dissatisfied is waste that could be invested in more meaningful ways. What is, as I said, that vast structure helping?

SCOE is trying to be diplomatic, and so is COO. I have no such compunctions.

I’d axe and/or consolidate:

  1. Most publications including Booklist titles and CHOICE reviews
  2. Conferences, meetings, and trainings
  3. Most roundtables
  4. Most divisions
  5. The public relations office and Washington Office
  6. The Center for the Future of Libraries
  7. UPDATE: ALA Council

Some staff in member and publishing related roles could be redeployed, but not all. I would assume that this is part of the reason we all have hard time talking about changing ALA. I am not a ghoul and I understand the thinking. I dwell on this point first because I cannot simply suggest the new service areas and delivery I discuss below without addressing how and where we could find the capacity and cost as the organization sits now.

Also, and I say this with compassion, a lot of what we produce is not good or helpful or addressing anything except academic libraries’ reenactment theater of promotion and tenure.

1) Focus on Labor

There’s a huge untapped opportunity to transfer ALA’s focus from member-driven content sold to members to realizing the potential of Allied Professional Association (APA) efforts. A frequent critique of ALA is that it is for libraries, not library workers. My dream ALA is a labor organizing platform that helps provide the data and legal support (see Lawyers, below) that can help end precarious labor in LIS and address the systemic undervaluing of library work and workers. The big idea: Just do APA better and make that our association

Owning that the association is for library workers allows for more proactive and principled stands on topics like profession-wide approaches to increasing diverse racial representation in library work, ensuring cultural competencies are requisite in LIS programs and job descriptions, fighting ongoing retrenchment of academic library workers, establishing safety standards for library workers, and perhaps the most glaringly missing document in all of ALA’s many many many publications, a Library Worker’s Bill of Rights.

A staff focus on labor knowledge and process would address a gap within most library workforces on behalf of library workers everywhere- a collective good for ALA members. This is also the area where we could come out swinging, from a lobbying perspective. Why isn’t ALA advocating for expanded student loan forgiveness, particularly Public Service Loan Forgiveness? It boggles my darned mind.

Post-Covid (if that’s ever a reality), many library workers will not get their jobs back, and the single best thing ALA could do right now is help them to connect and organize NOW.

2) Lawyer Up

Legal support is often expensive or inaccessible to library workers. ALA should employ lawyers to help vulnerable library workers encountering discrimination and abuse AND to inform policy discussions that actually support library values and efforts. Lots and lots of lawyers, thinking about and working on behalf of library workers and library communities. The Big Idea: ALA Legal as a service! I would take that over the most prestigious of dumb committee appointments. I would rather have that than a naval gazing think tank that ostensibly tells us what the future of libraries is, but more often than not spots trends so far beyond the reach of any library as to be science fiction though they shouldn’t be (see Digital Infrastructure below).

ALA Legal could partner with law schools and contract local attorneys to provide national coverage and clinics, while the central office could focus on litigating on topics of copyright and privacy. Oh yeah, and sue cities for failing to deliver access to information in the form of libraries? Or something? Someone call a lawyer for me.

3) Digital Infrastructure

In the US we don’t have a national negotiating body, and the future of libraries and collections is collective infrastructures yadayadayada- ALA should partner with a national consortia, for instance LYRASIS, to work to address the hegemonic resource landscape and address scholarly communication challenges and gaps for all libraries.

The big idea: Let’s actually do collective infrastructure instead of half-assing it and failing for a few more decades. Our membership dollars could help pay for that.

It seems straightforward to me- definitely a better investment than bad eCommerce software for selling me a book I didn’t really want. I can see the headline now- “ALA Successfully Leads Effort to Have Internet Declared a Public Utility”- that is if there are still newspapers. Maybe let’s transform so we can also help support independent media too by providing those dang publishing platforms everyone’s trying to replicate in their fancy research libraries.

There, I fixed it for you.

I know many awesome people have devoted a lot of their time to trying to fix and figure out ALA. I am one of them, and I am not unwilling to put in the time to go through our member-driven channels for organizational change. BUT. Member 👏 channels 👏 are 👏 inadequate👏 to the crisis currently facing ALA. They are not the channels through which non-library expertise focused services can be brought forward. We must ask ALA to rely on library workers a little less and to work for library workers a lot more.

I know this post will lead to a fair amount of aggravation and sighs from folks committed to ALA’s process and channels and from those who prefer less direct communication. As much as I respect and like some of those people, that’s still no good reason to avoid an open dialogue about change for the association. Also, I’m not some petulant casual throwing stones from afar- I am your long-time colleague, and I have had enough of our inertia. If you stayed this long, thanks for reading, bud. You may think your way is the right way, but I don’t believe there’s a wrong one. Chaotic good, baby.

I invite you to fix ALA too! I’d love to read your plan. Share it using #FixALA.

Afterword

I am proud of this post, but I sincerely apologize for any anxiety it has caused to ALA’s staff by tone and timing. Impact matters more than intent, and though I did not intend for a post visioning a more secure future for all library workers to provoke fears due to my acknowledgment that that future would require staffing changes at ALA, its effect on some has been that. I acknowledge this impact, and I am sorry for it.

For any distress caused in an already distressing time, I apologize and pledge that I am committed to using my platform to raise member and employee concerns alike. If any ALA staffer would like to reach out to me directly- to address harms or other concerns- I am open to that and ready for the conversations. I also commit to protecting their confidentiality.

23 Comments

  1. How wonderful to have incited a bunch of people on Twitter to call for firings of underpaid ALA staff while they’re all working their asses off right now trying to pull off the first virtual Annual. Thanks, I’m sure they appreciate it.

  2. This is making the rounds with ALA employees now. Couldn’t you have waited for this post until the conference is over? Stressed-out people don’t need you to tell them they’re shit while they’re working long hours facilitating a conference. So many people are depressed and worried now instead of just being exhausted and stressed. Damn.

  3. So, . . . ALA is the evil empire, so it’s fair game for anyone to insult and mock its staff and then casually recommend eliminating a large number of their jobs. I can’t imagine any of the ALA staff I know and work with demonstrating such a lack of basic compassion. If it helps you develop empathy for them, many are librarians, too.

  4. Excellent, this is even more obnoxious than I thought it might be. Some of the finest people at ALA work for the Governance office. Obviously you have not bothered to get to know any of them because they are also excellent at their jobs. Perhaps you and your co-councilors bear some blame in making the governance process so horrible. Just a thought.

  5. Hey, @Francis, @Not Karen, @Greta, and @Sock Puppet Librarian- As I noted in my post, I am not a ghoul. Your points all highlight that ALA staff are hurt as severely (if not more) than library workers when the Association fails to address the significant issues and needs facing the profession to help create long-term sustainability. Much of my critique is leveled at membership- particularly the “Identity” piece- we are responsible for many aspects of current organizational disfunction. That we need to own up to our own shortcomings of skills, stop trying to use library work to solve every problem, and employ and empower staff that supplement our library knowledge and expertise are central points of this post.

    My intent was never to cause distress, but of course, my impact matters more. I apologize for that.

  6. So your proposal amounts to getting rid of all the functions of an actual association that bring in the revenue and do the work to connect the members to each other to learn from and teach each other for the improvement of a profession (that’s not asking free labor: A. the point of associations is providing the structures to enable that exchange between peers, not to have association staff who aren’t working in the field magically come up with and dictate the profession’s innovations; and B. if your workplace doesn’t support you doing that on the clock I’d say there’s your issue) while simultaneously adding expensive new functions like your lawyers (if you can’t afford ALA’s very normal association dues, wait til you see the cost of a legal service)? Oh, and eliminating the niches that are actually what draws most of us, the divisions and roundtables, not the big amorphous umbrella.

    That said, you’re spot on about needing an APA that actually does something useful, there’s a ton of untapped potential in that concept to fill real needs of library workers.

  7. This is a pretty cruel post given the sad job insecurity we’re all experiencing and so many unemployed. The humor and gifs are a nice touch, though! Great job?

  8. @just a bystander- I am sorry for any sense of cruelty. My criticism is directed at members who have created (and clung) to the structures which have hindered innovation within the org and I would argue, across the profession. My own experiences working with ALA staff have taught me to get out of their way and support them in making what needs to happen happen.

    With that said, the precarious employment you describe is not unique to ALA as an organization- it is hitting hard across the profession as I note in my blog post, which pushes for an organizational focus on labor issues. The ways in which I propose ALA change are staff-led rather than member-led, but I did want to acknowledge they would require staffing changes.

  9. @Really? Thanks for engaging with the post! Would love to hear your alternative proposal if you have one! Here’s hoping we can engage in a broader discussion of the many potential ways we could fix the association.

  10. You’re aware that members who write for the Publishing unit get paid for their work, right? Book authors receive a royalty comparable to or a little better than trade and academic presses offer for books for this market, and review writers for the periodicals also are paid the market rate (and I’m pretty sure they’re also given free books). I myself have been paid for short articles for one of the magazines. None of these gigs usually earn the author a fortune, but it’s not free labor. And many of the publications count toward faculty tenure, which is important for both academic librarians and LIS faculty. Points toward tenure + royalties ≠ free labor. If you have a problem with the tenure system, please take that up with higher ed.

  11. While I understand the feelings this post generated, I also don’t see how ALA can continue struggling financially and sustain its operations without a critical reexamination of its mission as explored here. Libraries are having to redesign their futures to respond to the critical needs of their communities with limited resources. This is a often a process of loss, grief, defining what’s core, and looking at the interdependencies where shared goals can generate infrastructure. Why shouldn’t we expect the same from the national organization?

    I especially appreciate that what’s explored in this post is a people-centered redefinition of what could be core to ALA by recognizing the needs of library staff and librarians and the lack of access staff and librarians have to the current association given the cost of participation and its reliance on volunteers in addition to its valuable staff,

    I see this as a post written out of care for the future of the organization and its staff, not an attack. If we don’t begin to have conversations about reimagining these structures that have proven to be exclusive and unsustainable, I worry that we’ll remain in a cycle of defending what is instead of considering what could be.

  12. Thinking about the young library professionals who work at ALA because they thought they could make a difference. What does this post say to them? As they confront the massive financial failings they didn’t cause, uncertainty of their own employment/furloughs, the decimation and mistreatment of the field they genuinely love (and from which almost all of them come)… what does this say to them? Almost everyone on staff at ALA is deeply aware of the need for true, institutional reform and change. They routinely see their leaders make big, fundamental mistakes despite telling them to do otherwise – they actually care about banning hate speech from libraries, centering working conditions and worker rights, and dismantling white supremacy in librarianship. But to alienate even the most reform-minded by calling for, essentially, an 85% reduction in staff, is misguided at best, and callous at worst. It seems like you did come from a place of good faith, but I don’t think you truly realize the pain you are causing to staff members who are on your side for essentially all of your critiques, but who want to stay and be a part of the solution and make a better ALA, not lose their jobs in the middle of a pandemic. And this isn’t meant to be a bitter response to the idea of fundamental change. I just think treating staff, who are themselves experiencing a lot of the same leadership failures that we’re seeing in all our libraries, as expendable themselves, is hurtful.

  13. It might be worth noting here that the Washington Office has been in constant communication with the FCC about internet access at libraries, the digital divide, current erate funding, etc, and they’ve had a fair amount of success at it, even if we don’t have “internet as a public utility” status yet. Members hear a lot of IMLS funding, for sure, but the number of policy areas that office covers goes far beyond that.

  14. Thanks, Meghan. I’m sure ALA staff know that big changes are needed. To imply that they are somehow unaware of this could be experienced as condescending. And Cronk’s gleeful delivery of the “axe” list in this post is just plain gross. I doubt she would tolerate a post like this made by someone about her own library system and its staff.

  15. I use #1. and 2. (Most publications including Booklist titles and CHOICE reviews
    Conferences, meetings, and trainings) a lot but don’t know a lot about the others. Maybe they do need to be reconfigured maybe they are fine and I need to be more involved. Change is hard but is nothing to fear if it is done with thought and goals.

  16. @ALA member who appreciates ALA staff- It is an “Axe and/or Consolidate” and it was a section I added to be direct in acknowledging structural change requires staffing change. If I didn’t say staff would be affected, I would have had nothing but comments about how wild and impractical some of these ideas are (they are!) but as a result of directly acknowledging that any changes to ALA will affect staff, I am being accused of callousness. I am not callous, I am being frank. I am also open to being wrong or changing my opinion, as I note early in my blog post.

    With that said, it doesn’t help anyone (particularly not ALA staff) to pretend ALA CAN continue with its current service and delivery streams. You may want to make ALA staff the central part of your plan to #FixALA. That could be a cool plan!

    In regards to your point about tolerating posts like this one- like all library workers, I have frequent conversations with constituents (some of whom have blogs) who give me feedback and recommendations around workflows and services that would affect staffing. These conversations do not create the precarious work environment we all share, nor do they pose threats- they provide helpful feedback and opportunities.

    Also, I am posting every comment that isn’t just someone cursing me out, so I would hope it’s clear I welcome discussion and critique.

  17. @Petunia- No worries! I can and do take it up with higher ed quite regularly. I know that publications pays authors and royalties but I also know that ALA’s publishing revenue is declining for a reason. I think the “consolidate” part of the “axe and/or consolidate” line is being missed quite a bit. Publishing is definitely an area that I think would benefit from being consolidated and combined theoretically, as again, I do not actually have the power to enact these sweeping and drastic changes and I would love to hear other ideas.

  18. @No Shade But… I totally hear this, and again, I apologize for any distress caused to ALA employees who are having a truly rough time and doing terrific work making Annual a virtual experience right now. I acknowledge the impact of my post on them- which I did not predict, because the focus of the post is not on lay-offs.

    My list does not call for an 85% reduction in current staff. I only present likely service areas for consolidation and reduction. I also make the point that staff could and should be reconfigured to meet some of these proposed areas, but not all. That’s because I’m not going to lie about the severity of the financial challenges ALA is facing.

    In my nearly ten years volunteering within the Association, I have worked with amazing people who work at ALA, and certainly they want to make a difference- but ALA is their job. Often it is the only job they could get with their degrees and geographic constraints. Scarcity of underpaid, entry-level and hell mid-level positions is what needs to be addressed so that everyone can actually be financially secure. That’s one key point of my post.

  19. @Another Librarian- I do know! It’s part of where I think they should be consolidated or better integrated (if that’s a better verb choice). Also, I think they could accomplish a more ambitious agenda with that integration, if we would prioritize library labor and library communities more in our lobbying efforts. Thanks for replying!

  20. The main point @Petunia, by my read, was trying to make is that members are often paid for their content and receive other intangibles as well (the pride of publishing one’s work, disseminating research/experience among one’s peers, etc.). Your post paints a picture of members cajoled and pressured into creating content that ALA then takes control of and packages and sells. What is omitted is that authors and creators want their work to be published, and in most arrangements at ALA, authors and creators retain copyright and share in revenue.

    What you seem to address in your response to @Petunia is the consolidation of publishing activities, which I don’t think they mentioned. No one is arguing against consolidating publishing activities. Yes, publishing revenue is down, but it’s still the largest source of revenue ALA has. So why not consolidate and streamline? Doesn’t everyone agree about that?

    If you begin a blog post with GIFs of bodies stacked in the streets and follow that with a list of ALA departments to be axed, you have to know you’re going to upset people and they’re going to fear for their jobs and be hurt by it. I DON’T CARE if you used “and/or consolidate,” it was still callous in my opinion. If you owned that, I think it would go a long way. Thanks for listening.

    sirena

  21. One of the dimensions of diversity that we often lose track of in our profession is diversity of thought among our colleagues. We’re much more tolerant of different points of view from our users than we are of those from our fellow library workers, to whom we often attribute ill intent. You were *very* clear throughout your post about your purpose: that these are your ideas about an organization you care about, and you want to engage in conversation about those ideas (i.e. “Hey just FYI, I may be wrong…”). I’m disappointed that there isn’t more “I disagree with your idea because…” in the comments above (as opposed to the apparent assumption of cruel intent that shows up in several of them). Whether any of us agree with your ideas or not, we *have* to have this conversation — the continued existence of ALA depends on it — and we have to do a more productive job of engaging with the ideas that we don’t agree with if that’s going to work.

  22. @Sirena- Thanks for following up! Again, the post is not about layoffs or staff security- it is about transformed services that address what I view as the central issue of ALA. I’ll add that I have no direct control over ALA’s organizational structure which I hope is a comfort to employees, who I have spoken with in some cases directly.

    I have been owning and apologizing for the impact of this post in the comments- and I will add an update to the main body. Your assessment is valid- and I apologize if I appeared callous, and I apologize for the angst I have caused some. Impact, as I have noted throughout, matters as much as intention.

    I will add though that a consistent thread in this has been how exhausted and fearful ALA employees are- which reflects what most library workers feel. While I understand my tone- “a lazy design thinking exercise”- didn’t help, it’s not the cause or the root of that either. I am here to be a loud advocate. It’s why people elected me to the positions I hold in ALA. I am also telling a truth I think is important that is being disguised in communications to members about ALA’s financial realities, and I am trying to envision pathways forward that help address our shared precarious fate.

    Thank you again for reaching out and for helping to clarify @Petunia’s point! I’m invested in elevating and amplifying the concerns of library workers, including ALA employees, who can and should have the opportunity to transform their workplaces and should be guaranteed a living wage. Please know that if you want to reach out to me directly- even if only to tell me more about how I did this wrong, I would be open to listening. Please don’t hesitate to be in touch, and thank you for the courage I am sure it took to write this.

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