19 January 2010

Dear ALA, about Midwinter

It’s Tuesday afternoon and I am waiting to board my plane from Boston to DC, going from one huge conference (ALA Midwinter) to another (AACU). Conferences are funny things. I look forward to them a great deal. I love traveling in and of itself but traveling with learning and improving my understanding of issues in my field is especially enjoyable and rewarding. Oh, and catching up with friends while I’m at it is pretty awesome.

This trip, though, was different than other trips to Midwinter. I don’t know about others, but there was something that hung over the conference. Perhaps it was the location. Boston is a pretty great town but you woulnd’t really know it if you stayed in the vicinity of the conference. I would have greatly preferred being at the Hynes Convention Center than in the no-man’s land of the BCEC. Even on those really busy days when I had four meetings back to back, it would be nice to feel the vibrancy of the city like you do at the Hynes.

Perhaps it was the lack of vibrancy in the Exhibits Hall. I took two hours one afternoon and strolled the exhibits. And while there are some cool things to see, what you really could see is smaller booths, more nervous looking reps from vendors, and less fat. Less celebration. And that just felt….a bit depressing.

Perhaps it’s just everyone’s focus on the economy. One of the discussion groups I attended dealt with how to increase morale among librarians and staff during these trying and scary times. (More on that in a later blog post.) I don’t work at a public institution but that doesn’t mean that I can’t sympathize and feel great concern with their discussions of furloughs, extreme cutbacks, and layoffs. Which is why I find it unacceptable that our profession, which is so interested and dependent on serving users through technology, is not offering more in terms of virtual participation. Because let’s face it: conferences are bloody expensive! And a good deal of what we do could be done virtually. I am not suggesting email, because god knows I don’t want to have to write more emails. But Skype is a pretty phenomenal free service. And sitting down to do committee work really could be done via Skype with a few emails thrown in. Believe me, I love coming to conference. And I am a firm believer in the value of face to face interaction. But I really wonder what the thinking is behind demanding attendance at conferences in order to participate in our profession. To me, it reeks of the very thing that eats at us—being viewed as outdated. This really struck me during the Ebsco luncheon. The presenter kept pointing out what they have that “Google doesn’t have.” “Hmm,” I thought (and whispered to Andy, “that’s an interesting presentation style.” Just because Google doesn’t do it, does that make it better? More usable? Valuable? Relevant? Is that supposed to be a rallying cry to librarians?

It’s not to me. And neither is saying that face to face is inherently the better, more productive way to get work done. It’s about determining what is important to us as librarians and professionals, what is important to our users, and what is important to our vision for libraries. That’s what I want to hear about at conference: vision, innovation, collaboration, optimism, creativity. That’s what inspires me. That’s what gets me back into the saddle, ready to rock it out at my library. So, perhaps this is my plea to ALA: let’s get creative about how we can make conference more essential, interesting, valuable, relevant. I have some ideas and I bet you do too. Share em! Here, in your own blogs, on the Twitter, within your libraries, among yourselves. But share them. Brainstorm. I find most people at ALA are interested in hearing suggestions. So let’s come up with some.


Josh said...

Correct again, Sarah. Midwinter is a shining example of what's wrong with ALA - and by that I mean big, overarching ALA. I love going to the LITA and ACRL conferences because I know there's going to be quality targeted content for me alongside all the face-to-face benefits. The TWO big all-ALA conferences just can't help but be useless in comparison. Also, I can't be the only one who doesn't want to get involved in meetings and committees at the ALA level because of the requirement to go to TWO ALA conferences every year. I'm lucky enough to get funding through my institution, but I'd much rather spend that money on a smaller conference where I'm more likely to learn something than at TWO meeting-filled conferences where I'm likely to learn less. I know that the value of these big ALA conferences is that we're supposed to be contributing to the profession, and helping our colleagues, but I'm more than happy to allow those responsibilities to fall to those who can afford to attend TWO ALA conferences a year. Ideally, Midwinter should be a business-only for ALA's Executive Council (or whatever it's called) and nobody else - allowing the rest of us (and the vendors) to save some money in the process. Committee and interest/discussion group work outside of Annual should be virtual if ALA wants the current structure to survive.

Jenny said...

Hi, Sarah -

Can't believe I missed you at yet another conference - bummer.

JFYI, there is no face-to-face requirement for committees that are not process-oriented (boards, nominating, etc.), so there's no reason the groups you're part of can't just decide to go virtual. During the last year, ALA Council formally voted to get rid of the designation "virtual member," which makes all committee members equal.

I just want to make sure that folks like Josh realize that for the overwhelming number of committees within ALA, there is no requirement to meet in person twice a year. If the cost of attending two physical conferences was the barrier for you, it's not anymore.

So the key is to figure out if your group can go virtual and what the best tools are for doing that. I'm looking forward to seeing the various ways ALA committees, discussion groups, etc., go about doing this.

If there's anything you need from the mothership, let us know! (Disclaimer time: I work for ALA.)

Jenny Levine

Meredith said...

Jenny, I wouldn't say the barriers are down to the extent that you're making them out to be. Last year, I was asked to join the ALA American Libraries Advisory Committee and would have happily said yes and contributed if it wasn't for the fact that they required attendance at Midwinter and Annual. It's great that groups can meet online and not require attendance the conferences, but too many of them still do require f2f attendance. And most of us want to join things based on our interests, not based on which groups meet virtually.

Jenny said...

That's true, Meredith, but you're comparing last year to this year, and things are changing. As is true with any organization, the best way to effect change is to propose it and offer to help implement it (that's why I work at ALA).

The American Libraries Advisory Committee might be considered a process committee, so it might be an exception, but look at changes like the one YALSA just made (see bullet point #2 at http://yalsa.ala.org/blog/2010/01/17/yalsa-board-meeting-11610/ where they make all non-process committee 100% virtual) and you can see things changing.

I agree that not every unit has gotten to that point yet, but YALSA has because YALSA members made it happen.

So my question to you would be have you asked about the American Libraries Committee since last year, and have you offered to help them transition to including members who attend virtually?

If not, I'm happy to help facilitate that offer, and LITA has put together a great matrix of tools for virtual collaboration that other units can take advantage of.

The Sheck said...

Thank you all for the comments and discussion. Meredith, the same thing happened to me just a few months ago. I was thrilled to be invited to a committee but when I told them I only attend Midwinter, I was "uninvited." Such a drag, especially because it was the kind of committee where I feel like I could have made a difference! But similarly to Josh, I want to go to conferences where I am learning. And ALA is not always that place.
Jenny, THANK YOU for your comments. We are lucky to have someone like you at ALA and out in the blogosphere supporting us. And I am thrilled to hear that there is not a virtual designation anymore. That said, I would push back on you and say that it is not my responsibility to find out which committees do or don't have requirements. It's ALA's. If those barriers are coming down, I would love for the mothership to do a better job sharing that with the rest of us! Finally, and most unfortunately, the committee work that often has resounding impact is the committee work that still requires attendance. And while I appreciate them reaching out to younger, enthusiastic librarians (like me and Meredith), that requirement is still very much a barrier. Perhaps that is something ALA should discuss and ask members about?

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe said...

It's great that the policy barrier is gone but we're a long way from having new PRACTICES and that is what we need. But, by my observation - many committees "went virtual" this year whether any one realizes it or not. Many didn't meet at MW at all and others had so few people show up that they essentially did not meet.

I'd like to see the LITA virtual matrix very much. What worries me is that the groups that "went virtual" also seem in some cases to be groups where nothing is happening. So, we need to build practices now that we have removed barriers (which, ironically wasn't even a barrier before technically since - while people were obligated to say they would attend meetings in person at conference most groups weren't required to meet ... ACRL Instruction Section had a virtual committee in the late 90s ... with just EMAIL!)...

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe said...

P.S. Sarah - what's your talk at AAC&U? I'm giving sessions at the AAC&U Gen Ed Conference in Seattle in Feb and the Faculty Practices one in Philly in March - both with Deb Gilchrist.

Jenny said...

Lisa, the e-participation matrix from LITA is at http://wikis.ala.org/lita/index.php/EParticipation_Task_Force_Recommendations, and LITA members are proactively seeking to help groups that want to go virtual.

The piece I was really responding to was Josh's assertion that everyone has to attend two physical meetings a year and that ALA needs to change that. It's frustrating to see that change happening from the inside and still see these sweeping assertions made from the outside.

If someone is basing their generalization on an interaction with one committee (out of 1100), then I think they're limiting themselves in the opportunities available to them.

Is every group 100% virtual? Of course not. Are many groups headed down that path now? You betcha. I can easily name a dozen new-ish members off the top of my head who were unhappy with the answers they were getting from ALA, so they decided to jump in feet first to change things. And it's working - they're making a difference in an amazingly short amount of time.

No one can change an 800-pound gorilla overnight, but together we can keep things moving. If you don't like the answer you got from one committee, let us help you find another one. I guarantee you if you contact ACRL, they'll do their best to help you find something that meets your interests and level of commitment. LITA and YALSA are making strides. PLA has flattened its structure, and others are working towards change.

If you don't have the energy for this or just don't want to do it, that's totally cool. Please just recognize that other people are working hard on it, and sweeping generalizations that nothing has changed can hurt what they're trying to accomplish. I admit my bias, because Sarah, we need all the smart, dedicated people like you that we can get. I'm sure I sound like a cheerleader, but that's because I see momentum. And that's from someone who was on the other side of the fence just a few years ago.

I also wanted to note that ALA is indeed having these discussions, and I hope you'll join in. Some places where you can do that:

* Most recently, the Executive Board Report on E-Participation. This is a really important document that too few people have seen. Among other things, it proposes tiered levels of commitment.
* 2015 Environmental Scan group on ALA Connect - this also includes feedback from state conference across the country
* The Young Librarians Working Group, which also includes their "Do You ALA" campaign. In their Connect group, they have a think tank roster of 78 members discussing this stuff and helping them shape recommendations - you're more than welcome to join.
* And finally, I'll note that we're planning to build tools that help match your interests to potential volunteer opportunities (not just committees).

I'll reiterate my offer to help anyone find their place within ALA and/or support any efforts to help move things forward. When you're ready, there are people waiting to work with you.

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe said...

Jenny - Sorry if I came off sounding critical of the work that is being done since that was 100% not my intention. I meant to be pointing out the next steps now that we've made the policy progress (which is quite significant in the 800-pound-gorilla way - I'm honestly beyond thrilled that happened).

I certainly didn't mean to imply that "nothing has changed" - please let me know what sounded that way since I not only am working on helping keep the change going but join you as a cheerleader for the great work!

And, yes, I can assure everyone that ACRL in particularly is happy to work with people to find a place for them - particularly since as ACRL Vice-President I've given guidelines to my appointing folks that they should make sure that every committee has at least one member who has never served on an ACRL-level committee before and that they shouldn't worry about conference attendance (except in a few cases - e.g., people responsible for putting on events at conference probably need to be there but even then some virtual member would be fine).

I'm actually enough of a believer in a dynamic future for the Association that, not only am I a life-member, but I still think that radical change is possible "practically overnight" - ACRL isn't quite the 800-pound gorilla of ALA but it is hefty in its own way and major changes have happened in the past couple of years!

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe said...

P.S. And, Jenny - thanks for the matrix link. Great doc!