A Stronger ALA Means Stronger Libraries

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As a new librarian eager to find a professional home, I looked first to ALA. I was (and still am) excited about the “big tent” approach that ALA offers library workers from all types of libraries, and I was (and again, I still am) inspired by the advocacy work that ALA has done so successfully for so many years.

More experienced librarians warned me that ALA could be complex and bureaucratic, but I figured that, hey, I could figure it out. And sure enough, I soon found the Emerging Leaders program, which offered me a solid path into the organization. I was thrilled to participate in the 2011 EL program, where I found a supportive group of like-minded new librarians, an interesting project to work on, and a lot of help demystifying ALA and its many acronyms.

However, despite having a pile of useful papers and a fantastic introduction to the association provided by kind, helpful, and knowledgeable ALA leaders, I still couldn’t quite make sense of it all. How did the divisions relate to ALA? What was the difference between a roundtable and an assembly? How do you get on Council, and what happens to resolutions once they get passed? And then the big question: how do I contribute to the real work of ALA?

Luckily, due in no small part to my participation in the EL program, I was able to get a committee appointment. Then, I figured, it would all start to gel. But honestly, it didn’t. I went to the meetings prepared and ready to do some real work, but there didn’t seem to be much work being done. I sat silently with other committee members as one report after another was presented, and then we left. And then there would be six months of silence until the next conference, where the same thing repeated.

To be clear, every single member of that committee wanted to contribute, wanted to work, and wanted to push the association forward. It was just unclear to all of us how it all fit together.

I did what I could to fight the inertia I encountered. I was asked to chair a committee, and I pushed and pushed to create some real change. But I found that, with every step forward we took, something impeded our movement. Too often, this came in the form of other members trying to make positive changes just like I was, but due to confusion over roles and authority and the resulting communication issues, we found ourselves working at cross-purposes.

I’ve been continuously involved with ALA since my first days in the profession, serving on Council, committees, and task forces, and keeping my state chapter connected to ALA. It all makes a certain kind of sense to me now, and I can speak fluently in acronyms and initialisms. There’s a pride in understanding a complex structure and knowing how to communicate in a shared language. But ultimately, this complexity is not helpful to our members, it’s not helpful to our profession, and it’s not helpful to our library users.

I’ve been privileged to be a part of SCOE and have the opportunity to contribute to the Forward Together recommendations, and I am unapologetically enthusiastic about them. Though the recommendations represent significant change to an organization that many people deeply love, change is needed. ALA is facing new challenges and opportunities that couldn’t have been imagined when our current governance structure was developed, and as libraries face those same challenges, they need a more agile national professional organization supporting them.

Adopting the recommendations in Forward Together will allow us to streamline ALA governance, better engage members, and create a much more welcoming and transparent association. They will, over time, mean that fewer new librarians will hear warnings from experienced librarians about the complexity and bureaucracy in the association. Crucially, these changes will allow us to shift our energy away from process and toward action, and by doing so, make for a stronger and more vital ALA.

A stronger ALA means stronger libraries. In the end, that’s a goal that every ALA member can get behind.

Ben Hunter

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