Although I haven’t the decades of experience of some librarians, I have recently returned from my 26th ALA Midwinter or Annual in a row and have been a member or chair of one or more committees since my first ALA attendance. I’ve been a member of committees at the ALA level and the ACRL section level, and a chair and member of committees at the RUSA division and section level. In that time, I’ve been to a lot of bad meetings and many good ones. I think I can say without too much immodesty that most of the meetings that I’ve chaired have been better than average, at least if the goal is to get the most amount of work with the least amount of time spent. And if that’s not the goal of meetings, then why have them? Below are some tips that I offer freely to anyone who will be chairing a committee meeting at ALA, especially any meeting I’ll be attending.
Remember the Chair is in Charge
The committee chair is in charge, period. Everyone should participate and have a say. Decisions should be the result of group deliberation. But if something derails the meeting, it’s the chair’s job to get it back on track, even if that means being blunt or forceful. The committee is there to get work done, and anything that takes away from that needs to be dealt with. When disorder reigns, people look to the chair to bring things back to order. Don’t let them down. The chair can keep charge of the meeting while still being polite, considerate, and even amusing. While it might seem rude to stop timewasters and squeaky wheels, it’s actually rude to everyone else not to. Members can get away with just showing up, but chairs have to work, and if you can’t do the work, don’t take on the job.
Do Everything Virtually That You Can
This might seem obvious, but the pattern of work of some librarians hasn’t progressed along with the technological capacity for virtual work. Based on my experience, the old norm was for long, multiple face to face meetings, because it was much harder to do group work at a distance. Email has modified that considerably, and tools like ALA Connect and Blackboard Collaborate finish the job. If it doesn’t need some extended discussion, then it can be handled virtually. I once took over a committee that had been meeting twice for a total of 4.5 hours over the course of a conference. I streamlined it to 1 meeting of 1.5 hours and got just as much work done, because everything that could be handled virtually was, and by the time we got face to face we had to deal only with the stuff that required a meeting.
Give the Committee a Structure
Again, it seems like an obvious point, but it’s not. Librarians tend to be nice, democratic people. They want to solicit opinions, gather viewpoints, and then consider acting at some time in the future. But as a volunteer organization, most librarians don’t want or have time to think a lot about the work of a committee until they absolutely have to. They typically won’t respond to general questions like, “tell me what you think.” Instead, don’t ask them what they think; give them something to think about. If the committee needs to come up with a plan, give the committee a plan. If it needs to review a document, review it and submit your suggested revisions. If it needs to create a document, then provide a possible outline. If the committee is between projects, don’t just ask people what the committee should do next. Give them concrete suggestions to consider along with a request for further suggestions. Then give people the options: adopt this, critique it so that it can be improved, or ignore it and propose your own alternative. Make it clear that you have no personal investment either way. Chances are, they’ll choose the middle option, which will give the committee something detailed to work on. Sometimes it’s just adopted. And then every once in a while someone actually proposes an improved alternative. So much the better. Everyone gets a say, but people are more likely to speak if they have something in front of them to critique.
Give the Committee a Deadline
Again, because of the volunteer nature, librarians are prone to procrastination regarding committee work. So, along with the structure, provide a deadline. Something like this usually works (although fleshed out more to sound less brusque): “Here is a possible plan/revision/document that moves us along on the project we’re working on. Please adopt it, critique it, or provide an alternative by one month from today. If I don’t hear from you, I’ll assume you approve.” That last bit is crucial. Always take their silence for assent. If they know this, those who care will respond, and those who don’t care won’t feel bad for not responding, and you won’t feel bad for ignoring them later if 6 months down the line they don’t like something. People will usually respond, often enough with good criticisms of the proposal. Those who don’t respond had their chance, and everyone knows it.
Call for Agenda Items
Agenda items should require in-person discussion and action. Calling for them includes everyone in the discussion. This is important both to be courteous of the committee members as well as to give teeth to the agenda later if you need to deal with timewasters (see below).
Create an Agenda
Regardless of whether anyone submits anything, create an agenda. If you can’t come up with any agenda items that require in-person discussion or action, then you should cancel the meeting. Avoid announcements or anything that could just as easily be handled in an email.
Send out Documentation Well in Advance
Any documentation that’s necessary to understand the agenda items or prepare people for action should be sent out well in advance. A month is a good lead time, because it lets you wait to set the agenda, but gives people ample time to read the documentation. Announce that the documentation needs to be read in advance of the meeting. There are two typical failures here. Sometimes the chair sends out documentation at the last minute, and by last minute I really mean anytime in the week leading up to the meeting. The week before a conference is almost busier than the conference itself. If you send it out that close to the meeting, there’s a good chance it won’t be read, and it’ll be your fault. The other failure is people not reading things even if sent a month in advance. That’s too bad for them, because the meeting isn’t the place to be reading or going over background documentation. Don’t let it devolve into that. The absolute worst thing to do is to bring documentation to the meeting that no one has seen before and then ask people to read and react to it. Save that discussion for another meeting unless it’s an emergency, and really, how many ALA emergencies are there.
Start on Time
Time is increasingly precious at ALA. Also, anyone who is late to a meeting (barring some sort of emergency or alternate commitments) is being discourteous to those who showed up on time. Don’t do a further discourtesy to those people by saying, “let’s wait another ten minutes to see if more people show up.” Unless you have rules about quorums for votes, then who shows up shows up, and start on time. Since you never know why people are late, don’t draw attention to them when they come in after you’ve started. At a minimum, you could just announce, “we’re on agenda item X and the question under discussion is Y,” and then proceed as if they’d been there all along. Given the tightness of the schedule, they probably had to attend another meeting simultaneously anyway.
Stick to the Agenda
After you start, stick to the agenda. You might move things around depending on events, you might even drop something, but don’t add anything or allow for irrelevant discussions until you get through the agenda. People know the time and plan in advance, and respect them enough to stick to it. Focus, focus, focus.
Don’t Talk Too Much
By the time the meeting has started, you’ve sent out documentation well in advance, called for agenda items, sent out the completed agenda, and prepared everyone to discuss and act on the agenda items. You’ve done the bulk of your communicating. The meeting is the time for the members to communicate with each other regarding the agenda items. After introductions, move to the first agenda item and ask an appropriate leading question. Don’t give long speeches about it. Don’t try to fill up dead air if no one speaks immediately. The longer you talk, the less they will. So state the question, ask for discussion, then shut up. Your job now is to guide the group through the agenda and make sure action is taken.
Deter or Defer the Timewasters
Timewasting is relative. In this case, it’s anything that’s not on the agenda or relevant to the discussion at hand. Whether you deter or defer depends on the importance of the timewaster’s point. Committees need to get the work of the agenda done. That’s what meetings are for. Some people like to spend time whining or complaining about the organization, or its members, or something else. That’s what bars are for. Don’t confuse the two. If someone brings up an irrelevant and unimportant issue, acknowledge it but then say we have to move on and we can possibly discuss that after we’ve completed the business at hand, by which time everyone will have forgotten about it.
However, sometimes people bring up important issues that just aren’t relevant to the business at hand. They should be deferred, not deterred. For example, I recall a meeting where the discussion went something like this:
“But I thought Important but Currently Irrelevant Question A was decided in Manner B by Organization C.”
“No, it wasn’t,” reply multiple respondents.
“But I thought it was.”
And so on for several rounds, frustrating everyone. Instead of letting that kind of thing take away from meeting time, a good response might be: “No, I don’t think it was, but that’s an important question, even though it’s not directly relevant to the work we need to do right now. However, because it’s an important issue, after the meeting I will consult with Organization C to make sure what actually happened and will communicate the results to the committee. Perhaps that is something we can take up at a later time.” With this response, the agitated timewaster is recognized as a person with a worthwhile point, is provided an explanation of why that point won’t be addressed at the moment, and is promised further action to follow up and to possibly address the point in more detail later on. (And do the following up; don’t be lazy.) Recognition, explanation, promise of activity. Reasonable people will stop there.
If the timewasters persist, then it’s appropriate to be more blunt and say, “we have to move on now,” and then go to the next item on the agenda. Don’t seem angry or annoyed. Just calmly announce that it’s time to move on. The agenda has strength as a guide because everyone has been invited to contribute and everyone has approved it. Furthermore, not deviating from the agenda shows everyone else the courtesy of not wasting their time. Committee members are reluctant to stop the ramblings of timewasters. That’s okay, because it’s the committee chair’s job. The only person who might be upset will be the person who unreasonably expects to take up everyone else’s time. Everyone else will be silently thanking the chair, just as they were silently cursing the timewaster.
End on Time, or Early
Time is tight and people have other commitments. If they don’t they’ll still be tired of sitting in the same chair for an hour or two. End the meeting on time. If you run out of time, postpone the business. If you go way over time, that means that you planned badly or let things go awry during the meeting. Don’t make everyone suffer because of your errors. There’s rarely anything so crucial that it can’t wait. And if you’re focused and get done early, everyone will be pleased. It’s an example of what Edmund Burke called “the unbought grace of life.” Add a little bit of that to someone’s day and they’ll appreciate it.
An important consideration for all these points is that they show courtesy to the committee members, all of them and not just the squeaky wheels. Members of the committee who want a say in the agenda have it. Members who want to propose alternatives to the chair’s suggestions are free to do so. Everyone has a say at the meeting, and everyone has some control, but that control is regulated to ensure fairness and productivity.