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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Money, because underpaying and undervaluing our own labor is bad
- Identity, because that median ALA member is there because of privilege
- 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?
I’d axe and/or consolidate:
- Most publications including Booklist titles and CHOICE reviews
- Conferences, meetings, and trainings
- Most roundtables
- Most divisions
- The public relations office and Washington Office
- The Center for the Future of Libraries
- 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.
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.