ALA Transparency and Inclusion

Lately I’ve been thinking a bit about the workings of the ALA, prompted by several things. First, I’m running for a couple of offices withing RUSA, RSS Vice-Chair and CODES Member at Large. (RSS stands for Reference Services Section, btw, and has nothing to do with feeds.) I know it seems strange to run for two offices in two different sections of RUSA, but I was nominated to run, and I have a developing history of losing elections, so I figured what the heck. And if I win both, then I’ll have a very busy year and might be able to do some useful stuff. Also, I’m chairing a nominating committee in RUSA-RSS. Lastly, I ran across this post on the ACRLog by a new librarian considering going to Midwinter, but unsure if he should, partly, as I read it, because of the opacity of ALA. He’s not sure what he’ll be allowed to do.

All of these led me to think of what I like and don’t like about the ALA. To be fair, I can’t say much about the ALA proper, since most of my work since taking this job has been with RUSA. I’m a rep to an ALA committee, but I haven’t enjoyed it as much as most of my RUSA work. I’ve liked most of the work I’ve done in RUSA. Regardless, one thing has always bothered me about the entire ALA enterprise–its unnecessary opacity to new librarians and those on the outside.

The blogger at ACRLog was understandably confused by what’s going on, because the ALA doesn’t seem to do a great job of welcoming new librarians, despite the New Members Round Table. By my first ALA conference (ALA Annual in Chicago in 2000), I was already on two ACRL section committees, but I had some professional incentive to dive in quickly, so I just wrote some section chairs and asked them to put me on something. Also, going to library school at Illinois and working as a GA in the central reference department there gave me a good initiation into ALA activities, since many librarians there are so active. That assistantship always seems to be a feeder to academic research libraries and ALA participation.

But even with this, I remember wondering what else to do. I went to my meetings, wandered the exhibits, saw a couple of presentations, and tried to avoid running into my then supervisor, but I still didn’t feel very engaged. It was only when I switched jobs and also switched most of my activity to RUSA that the sense of engagement increased, because I was suddenly thrown into the middle of a big project revising some reference guidelines. Because I knew something about writing and editing and reference, I felt very qualified to participate in the discussions and influence the changes taking place, participation which everyone welcomed. Without this sense of empowerment, it might have taken me longer to realize that at the committee level, many divisions and sections can be very welcoming and even democratic. There’s nothing for new librarians to fear.

It always seems to the neophyte that the old hands within ALA know all the answers and have seen it all before, but I don’t think that’s the case, and I’ve never encountered any librarians in ALA that ever tried to dismiss my opinions because I hadn’t been around for years. Maybe they did it in private, but never to my face. I’ve always felt very welcomed when I showed up, even if I just sat in silence not knowing what to say. As I’ve gained a bit more experience and chaired some committees, I’ve certainly always been welcoming to any guests. As far as I can tell, there’s almost nothing that should be secret at ALA, and hardly anyone treats newcomers badly. But how are the newcomers to know?

That’s one problem of opacity. The other is in the electoral process. I’ve been on two nominating committees so far, and am about to chair a third, and I’ve always been surprised by the insular nature of the process. Last time I was on a nominating committee, I advocated casting our net beyond the usual suspects, and actively trying to recruit people who might not think about running. I wanted to let people know that we weren’t just looking for people who had served their time on a dozen committees, people who might be capable and energetic, but not necessarily in the inner circle.

It would be helpful if all the unnecessarily mysterious inner workings of ALA conferences could be made plainer to everyone, but especially new librarians. I know that a lot of what goes on seems like meaningless busywork, and perhaps a lot of it is, but there are some interesting and useful things to do, even, perhaps especially, in some of the lower levels. It would also be good if there was a greater sense of inclusiveness, though I’m not sure how this can be done when 10-20,000 people show up for conferences. This is where the divisions and especially the sections can be most effective, I think. They can provide smaller, less daunting, more inclusive environments new librarians and others, if only those librarians knew about them.

I guess I’m trying to develop a platform of sorts if I win anything. This probably sounds silly considering I’m running for an office, but I’m not much of a politician. There’s not much campaigning for these offices, and they sometimes become merely popularity or name recognition contests, but if there was campaigning I’m not sure I’d be good at coming up with a program and persuading everyone I was the right person for the job. I’m too shy, and it’s too easy for me to see the other people running, most of whom I’ve worked with, and say, “oh, they’d probably be pretty good, too.”

But if I have any issues with RUSA, and by extension with the ALA, increased transparency and a sense of inclusion would be high on the list. I’m not sure of the best ways to make people feel welcome, or even to make them feel that any organization activity is at all worthwhile for them, but the whole thing should at least be as welcoming and inclusive as it can be.