What ALA should REALLY do if they want to engage members
The American Library Association has increasingly received feedback from members saying that it’s unclear how to get involved. Over the past couple of years the association has made an effort to deal with this problem by setting up what are called Virtual Town Halls and Kitchen Table Conversations, which are opportunities for members to share their ideas. ALA is now expanding on this with a new feature on the website at ala.org/engage/. This webpage is helpful, because it does indeed provide pathways for engagement with ALA. However, there is a larger problem at the root of people’s sense that the association doesn’t offer well-defined pathways in, and that is in the fact that over the years it has become less of an association of librarians and more a business serving librarians.
Membership dues presently make up 15 to 20 percent of ALA revenues, as compared to 100% in the first days of the association. (Net profits from publishing activities are greater than revenues from membership dues today.) Years ago, ALA published the ALA Bulletin, which was a monthly report on ALA’s activities that all members received. Today the publication that goes to all members is American Libraries, which is a general magazine similar to Library Journal that reports on the library scene. Speaking only for myself, my copy of American Libraries goes straight into the trash each month, because it is basically a dumbed-down version of what I can already find on the web concerning libraries. The ALA publication I do read on a monthly basis is ALA Executive Director Keith Fiels’ “Monthly Report to Council and the Executive Board,” which, thankfully, ends up getting distributed to a discussion list that I subscribe to. December’s report is 26 pages long, and tells me a few details about what different parts of the association have been up to.
Aside from the impossible, which would be to completely reorient ALA as a professional association as opposed to a business serving the profession, I have one recommendation for ALA to help engage members. That is first to completely drop American Libraries, because it serves no useful purpose any longer, and to replace it with a new ALA Bulletin, whose function would be to take the same information that is in the Executive Director’s “Monthly Report” and share it with all ALA members. Come to think of it, this information deserves to be fleshed out for a wider readership, so that the items in the latest 26-page report, for example, could be expanded to fill out a 90-page bulletin. This would go a very long way to making members feel included in what is rightfully their own association, that is, an association that is constituted by members rather than a separate entity serving members. Some of what is in the “Monthly Report” are summaries of the activities of ALA’s offices, but most of it involves the work of various committees that are made up of active members. Most members have no awareness of these committees, or even much awareness of what ALA does.
Although the new “engage” page is useful, it still has an “ALA and you” feel to it, where it should really tell members, “ALA is you,” and should provide its pathways to engagement based on that assumption. But the first step to engaging members is to include members by informing them better. There is no reason the information in the “Monthly Report” should be for Council and the Executive Board only, and not for the membership.