Scattered thoughts post-conference

Just some scattered thoughts post-Anaheim, potential essays that will for the moment remain seeds….

It is surprising that ALA, being what it is, doesn’t have better control of its own documents. Reports disappear… Council makes decisions that result in internal policies that are available only by request from the offices. It’s 2008 and only now is there a serious move to bring the “current reference file” online, and it seems that it is going to be weeded internally first, using criteria and processes that are not public. We certainly don’t seem to be an association of documentalists…

ALA is a member organization of over 60,000 people. At one time, membership meetings were where all the decisions were made. Today, membership no longer has power to make decisions for the association. At a membership meeting, the only power membership now has is to bring a matter to the attention of Council. The quorum for a membership meeting is now 75 people. This was lowered a few years ago from a slightly larger number due to quorums not being met, and it was only then that Membership lost the power to act for the association. That means that it is not the lack of power that is the reason for the low attendance at membership meetings, but a lack of interest. It is interesting, I think, that in an association of more than 60,000 people, with 22,000 people at this conference, that it was hard to get even 75 people to show up for the association’s membership meeting. Granted, most people interested in governance pursue it through other avenues, such as committees and Council. But still, it is interesting that so few people attend membership meetings, and I think it means something, but I don’t know what exactly…

What Library 2.0 is really about, it occurred to me as I was listening to Stephen Bell advocate e-participation in ALA at a membership meeting, is the transfer of control of the profession to the younger generation. The technology is being used as a symbol of the new generation’s push to take over. Many, like Karen Schneider, object that older people can be far more comfortable with these technologies than some younger people, and that is true. However, there is a palpable sense of urgency in the message that the profession needs to move forward with these technologies, and it is understood that this means a new generation wants to take charge. It is often odd to hear the exhortation to move forward with technology take on a moralistic tone, as though this is our equivalent of the Vietnam War. Really odd when you consider the overriding need to serve all users, not just the most tech savvy. My basic response is that we need to start talking about this for what it is, a generational push to take over, and to think about that in terms of doing it in the best way. Part of the best way has to be to make sure there is a transfer of knowledge that is equivalent to the transfer of control, so that my generation and the next actually know what we are doing and can continue to provide library service in all its dimensions. Key to that will be to avoid shutting the older generation out of the dialog….

Frustration with the SRRT traditions of disorganization and fear of money. Generally speaking, I think it has been to our detriment on the left to be averse to talking about money as though we are above it, and as though our socialist future will be free from economic realities. It is a luxury to avoid talking about money, and it always means that somebody else has to. Going along with that, I’m tired of the aversion to orderliness and efficiency. My generation has mostly not offered improvement, at least within the left, as it has been even more committed to painstaking consensus, anti-hierarchy, and anti-realism in its preference for anarchist ideals. Just saying. I’ll help out as much as I can by publishing books, but notice that I made no attempt to start a collective…

Back to the question of the electronic future… Stephen Bell made a sales-pitch for e-participation at the conference, meaning having our meetings electronically. He argued, essentially, that e-participation lets more people participate and works better. It does potentially allow more people to participate, which is mostly a good, but I think to say it works better involves a bit of willful ignorance. I’ve done plenty of things online – listserv discussions (aimed at making decisions and not), webcasts, all kinds of things – and while the benefits are pretty obvious, I think it SHOULD be just as obvious that in most situations it does not work as well as a face-to-face meeting. I would be much happier about the push to implement e-participation if its advocates weren’t such missionaries about it and instead gave us a realistic cost-benefit analysis, based on the cost of attending conferences, the resources expended, the benefit of involving more people, and the costs in terms of quality, time-efficiency, and the challenges yet to be overcome in order to perfect the tools. I think advocates of e-participation are still too in love with technology and too geeked out. It shouldn’t be about that…

On a related note, it follows from our democratic ideals to consider it an unalloyed good to provide a way for more and more ALA members to participate in the governance of the association and guide its decision-making. However, I think we have enough experience with online communication tools to know that more people in the mix is in fact not always a good thing. Sometimes, in face-to-face communication, when a person is too intimidated to participate it is for a good reason – that they don’t know enough about what is being discussed to be helpful. They can tell it from the experience of being in the room where the discussion is taking place, and what they do is listen for a while, keep coming to the meetings, and then participating only when they’ve learned enough. Most online tools don’t offer the same inhibiting factors. I think we need to start looking at factors that inhibit participation as potentially both good and bad, and not simply as a problem to be corrected…

A quick note about “laundry lists” of categories of disadvantaged persons. The trend now seems to be away from the laundry list with the idea that the phrase “all people” can be relied upon to communicate the desired inclusiveness. That’s what happened with the Core Competencies document now being finalized by ALA’s Committee on Accreditation. The reasoning is that adding more special groups to the list means that any time a new category of identity is invented, it will need to be added to the list, which will become (has become) longer and longer. There’s sense in that thinking; however, there is an argument against it that I would like to state here for the record, because I think it represents an important consideration. Briefly stated, the problem with using “all people” in place of a list of specific groups is that a library can get away with believing it’s being inclusive while ignoring the special needs of a population that it would prefer not to acknowledge. To take the example of a group that is only now being added to many lists of groups, a library could easily think that it is being inclusive of transgendered people by addressing the needs of men and women both. This ignores the special needs of the population in question without taking any special steps to be exclusionary. Being inclusive itself requires special steps, and the “laundry list” can facilitate those special steps while the ostensibly inclusive term “all people” does not.

4 comments on “Scattered thoughts post-conference

  1. Rory-

    The Current Reference File, as noted in the report to Council (by Janet Swan Hill? chair of the E-Participation Task Force, or was it as Chair of Policy Monitoring) is a legacy of the pre-electronic age.

    Back when Karen Schneider (the Free Range Librarian) was still on Council, she consistently agitated for its digitization. Well, all things come to those who watch and wait (a Biblical reference I am too tired to find).

    The ALA staff works really hard to help us to do the Association’s business. I used to be a “young Turk” but have aged into a curmudgeon. It will all come to us!

  2. I wrote an essay during Carla Hayden’s presidency “Rocks in the Whirlpool” wherein I cited some key documents from the 60s,70s,80s that I had to have colleagues find in their files and fax me. At that time I had several conversations about the need for e-access with Mary Ghikas who has made this a priority.
    I believe someone like recent Honorary Member, Peggy Sullivan, who wrote Carl Milam’s biography, would be critical on such an initiative.

  3. Agree re: “E-participation”; People are more apt to shoot their mouths off in an online setting than face-to-face, where they might be more circumspect, partly due to the possibility of remaining (semi-) anonymous online and also because there is less social pressure than one feels being present and in person.

    I didn’t attend ALA this year, nor does my library have enough to send me to the ELUNA conference this year in Long Beach, CA. I was lucky to go to TLA in Dallas this year, and I plan to go to Houston’s TLA meeting next year, but only because I can stay for free at my parent’s home in Sugar Land in the suburbs. If E-advocates would seriously look at the economics of travel, especially with rising fuel costs, airline industry woes, etc, then they could make their case much more persuasively, but as you say, they seem too geeked out to care, or at least to put much serious thought into that. Incidentally, they’re already busy talking in some circles about Web/Library 3.0, so referencing Library 2.0 is already behind the curve again.

    But have they ever stopped to think that the “Library of the Future” will have to share dwindling energy resources with hospitals, homes, and everyone else, and that just keeping the library building climate controlled to protect the health of the books will be a significant budget item…it seems obvious that, with oil becoming harder and harder to recover and total supply being finite, the energy costs of all the high tech digital dreams will need to be scaled back to a more realistic level and that maintaining print on paper as an archival medium will outlast any technology more advanced than it. I know I must sound crazy to some in the profession when I caution ditching ALL the old books, manuals, and rules on the “how to” of physical card catalogs. MARC was originally created to print catalog cards, after all. Just contemplate how well would OCLC WorldCat work if the day ever comes in the future when the power in most American cities stays on with the frequency–at best–of contemporary war-torn Baghdad. I would forsee a lot of frustrated library users clamoring for an offline alternative, and zero patience with “gaming in libraries” and similar frivolities. I am doing my best to get up to speed and learn traditional library cataloging and even I would be intimidated if pressed to start producing library cards on a manual typewriter like my mother did in her school library in the mid 1980s. But at least I have an inkling of how to do it. The new “Metadata” people? Not so much.

    The rationale for all the leaps and bounds of high tech being pushed is simply because it’s “cool” and “because we can”. OK. But “because we can” right now doesn’t necessarily mean we can in the future, or necessarily should.

    Also, the bit about ALA shifting to the phrase “All People” instead of specific under-served communities is disturbing. We know that tends to come out in practice as “All people like us”, which for librarians still tends to mean mainly white middle class heterosexual men & women between the ages of 21 and 65. “All People” is a surrender and a refusal to continue acknowledging diversity because it’s “too hard”, presumably.

    Thanks, Rory, for your thoughtful post-conference posting here.

  4. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on e-participation Rory. Having spent 4 years with a variety of e-meeting and e-learning platforms, I think being a strong advocate for e-participation is hardly a case of bandwagon jumping or technolust. Put simply, it works. We could do more analysis, but I think we do have an urgent matter to deal with – lack of participation and the need to create opportunities for more librarians to be involved in the association. There are tradeoffs with both F2F and virtual, but for standard committee meetings for midwinter I have to say that virtual is better than F2F. More members can attend, it can be even more open to the membership, it’s easy for everyone to contribute, if you want visual cues you can use webcams, and you don’t even have to beg someone to type up the minutes – you’ve got an instant transcript/archive. I’m a big proponent of virtual programs, but as long as they have F2F ALA conferences I’ll be there. So I agree with you that there is still value in meeting colleagues that way. That is why my “sales pitch” was for a hybrid organization. One that can meet the needs of those who want their participation the way they like it (or can afford it).

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