September 3, 2014

Why I stick with ALA | Blatant Berry

Despite my frustrations with The American Library Association (ALA) Council, I voted in its election. The ALA Council’s email list (ALACOUN) has been endlessly repetitious for weeks. It was spurred by an array of fatuous messages from a chapter councilor fixated on cutting the number of at-large councilors in that august body.

I made the mistake of posting my opposition to his idea on a Facebook group called ALA Think Tank. That error brought days and days of the same mindless debate to ALA Think Tank, to my everlasting regret.

These process debates are common in the postings on ­ALACOUN. Usually they are interspersed with a lot of self-congratulatory palaver about the hard work and achievement of the Council and endless complaints about how councilors are unable to get their conference rooms and registrations straight on the online devices the ALA staff set up for them. Other gripes and occasional requests for information or parliamentary guidance punctuate this ongoing postings parade. Once in a while a message brings a link to a useful report, article, or comment on a major issue facing libraries.

The most idiotic of the messages on ALACOUN and ALA Think Tank helped me decide which council candidates would not get my vote, although I couldn’t penalize that absurd chapter councilor because only chapter members have votes there. (I wonder how many votes got him elected?) That we can’t vote against these chapter councilors is another good reason the ALA Council should have more at-large members.

Later that day I received a letter from the ALA president urging me to vote for a proposal to raise ALA member dues automatically by tying them to the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The problem to me was that it would eliminate the right of members to vote on every ALA dues increase. In a message to an ALA councilor, the ALA president said no messages would be broadcast to members giving views opposed to that dues proposal. It was a red flag.

You might think nearly 40 years of ALA membership, 40 years of so much misguided argument in the name of democracy, would leave me apathetic and uninterested in ALA, its elections, and its various units, debates, and activities. That is not the case!

Sure, the Council’s usual focus on trivial pursuits is frustrating, but its history is loaded with moments of which I remain proud. They prove how much the profession needs ALA to amplify the voice of librarians and their allies on the issues governing our profession’s future and of the society we serve.

After all, ALA led the battle to integrate U.S. libraries and library organizations. ALA always led the fight to expand freedom of expression for all citizens, even children. ALA, with sister associations, fought and still fights to ensure that copyright law does not become a prison in which we lock up the information that society needs in order to function. ALA campaigned for federal funds to build more libraries than ­Andrew Carnegie. ALA even joined other professions to support the Equal Rights Amendment and oppose the war in ­Vietnam.

Most important, ALA provided an open structure in which members could organize units to advocate for the information rights of women; gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals; the incarcerated; the poor and homeless; indeed every citizen. That structure allowed activist members to force the old association to be more democratic a few decades ago.

That’s why I stick with ALA. Librarians and libraries need ALA, and right now we need more ALA members willing to engage in the conversations and activities of the old group. The issues on our agenda mean we need that traditional ALA activism as much now as ever.

Of course, there are still some activists in ALA, and many of them are organized. My only hope is that the murmurs of discontent I hear so frequently will not become the voices of more disaffected ALA dropouts but, instead, will bring on the next wave of activist members, ready to reenergize the old ALA to address the challenges it faces today.

John N. Berry III
Editor-at-Large

john berry signature Why I stick with ALA | Blatant Berry

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

John N. Berry III About John N. Berry III

John N. Berry III (jberry@mediasourceinc.com) is Editor-at-Large, LJ. Berry joined the magazine in 1964 as Assistant Editor, becoming editor-in-Chief in 1969 and serving in that role until 2006.

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  1. I was interested enough in a tweet that said “Why I stick with the ALA” to come and see. After reading your letter I thought of the story of King Agrippa who said to Paul “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian…” (sadly I had to use Google to find out who was involved in that little exchange). I came to librarianship as a second career and unfortunately I can’t get past the behavior of the ALA you described in your opening lines. I will not support people like that or an organization that doesn’t rise up and kick them out. There is no end to the challenges facing libraries, but right now there are more opportunities for libraries to make a real difference than ever before if we can quit wasting time, money, and effort on ridiculous maneuvering, political gamesmanship, and self aggrandizement. How can I trust an organization like that to fight for the right causes when I have no faith in them to clearly see the big picture?

    I will focus all my energies on serving my library’s community and attempting to inspire those working here to take an active part in our community first rather than focus solely on creating the perfect catalog record, or acquiring that one volume, etc. You can’t serve the patrons if you don’t understand their needs. A lesson I hope the ALA learns sooner than later. I’ll be watching, but until then I’ll be paying my dues and attending disciplinary organizations and conferences with my patrons.

  2. Joan Goddard says:

    Thank you, John!

  3. I also was drawn here wondering what the reasoning might be. But then, after my general annoyance brought me to the end of the page, I discovered there that JNB3 wouldn’t have passed the comment policy, item 1. Be respectful, take on the idea, not the author.
    Fatuous, indeed, JNB3. And the very definition of self-congratulatory palaver.
    ALA could be so much more, and could do so much more for libraries, librarians and those who use our materials and services. And part of the problem is the leadership processes of ALA, the elections and groupthink that must be in place to allow for anything to be considered, for anything to pass. I’ve been engaged in many aspects of librarianship though a long and complicated career. But I have not been a member of ALA since some time in the early ’90s and while I pay some minor attention to what’s {not} going on, I can’t imagine ever joining again.
    So take your cheap shots at a notion you disagree with, 3. But the stagnation and small-mindedness of the ALA turn many of us off to the whole thing.

  4. “In a message to an ALA councilor, the ALA president said no messages would be broadcast to members giving views opposed to that dues proposal. It was a red flag.”

    Yet another reason why I’m glad I don’t waste my money on ALA. All the leadership wants to do is raise revenue. That is why they don’t stand up to corporations (including, and especially non-profit ones) that supply services and products to libraries and whom really do not have the best interest of libraries at heart. If they sponsor a conference, no criticism can come! That is why they don’t stand against the removal of faculty status of academic librarians (and even help make it happen).

    If ALA ever changes, I’ll be hapy to support them, but until it does my money and time are better used supporting other orginizations.

    • ALA can’t, as a 501c3, engage in trade restricting behavior. Boycotts etc, are out. So when they don’t criticize vendors, that’s why. I’ts got nothing to do with revenue, it’s simply the law.

  5. Regarding John’s question about the number of people who elected the CA chapter councilor: there are approximately 1700 CLA members and turnout in CLA elections is 10-20%. And yes, you are correct that only chapter members can elect (their own) chapter councilors.

  6. Also, for a longer discussion of chapter representation and its impact on ALA governance, see my blog post, http://freerangelibrarian.com/2013/03/23/ala-councilor-at-large-recommendations-and-some-council-tidbits/

  7. Rob Tambini says:

    Mr. Berry writes, “ALA … support[ed] the Equal Rights Amendment and opposed[d] the war in Viet Nam. … Most important, ALA provided an open structure in which members could organize units to advocate for … women; gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals; the incarcerated; the poor and homeless … That’s why I stick with ALA … The issues on our agenda mean we need traditional ALA activism now more than ever.”

    It seems Mr. Berry has stumbled across an accidental insight and that he answered his own questions and concerns when he wrote, “Of course, there are still some activists in ALA, and many of them are organized. My only hope is that the murmurs of discontent I hear so frequently will not become the voices of more disaffected ALA dropouts.”

    Those “disaffected ALA dropouts,” among whom I count myself, are so because they came to ALA believing it to be a professional library organization, but learned that – in fact – it is a political advocacy group that supports positions that are not necessarily those of ourselves or even a majority of those in the profession.

    ALA has far less in common with true professional organizations than it does with political lobbying groups. The problem with that? ALA’s membership is not made up of people who joined to support political causes; it is made up of people who believed they were joining a professional group (or who were required to join as a condition of employment) that would and should remain secular regarding politics and social issues.

    But, ALA acts more like a Political Action Committee or a lobbying group than it ever does a professional organization. And, so long as that remains the case, more and more people who disagree with ALA’s politics on social issues will continue to leave the group.

    Like I did.

    ALA does a lot of good things for our profession. But, it also advocates for political positions that its membership don’t necessarily subscribe to. Why, then, should those members be forced to choose between the lesser of two evils: Joining in spite of ALA’s inappropriate political advocacy, or withholding membership dues and possibly negatively impacting the good work of the organization? It’s a Hobson’s choice, isn’t it?

    Or, ALA could get out of the business of politics, especially regarding social issues, and reflect the interests and concerns of the majority of its membership, not just the vocal, apparently organized minorities.

  8. Greetings! I am pleased with the discovery that John Berry III is still alive and kicking more than 40 years after he provided me with professional comfort – and that I can once again get a mention in Library Journal! Some may remember that back then I raised hell at a couple of ALA conferences. Working at Stanford, I became active in the Social Responsibilities Round table. With my late wife June (a wonderful Japanese American, extremely supportive of library political initiatives) we did street protests against the Vietnam War and joined the March on Washington. So it was almost inevitable that when the Chaves County Librarian post became available in Roswell, New Mexico, things would become exciting. Some may wonder what happened after the Roswell bookstore proprietor was persecuted by the D.A.R. – and about all us being run out of town – then wonder about the further trouble I got into in Callifornia supporting John Forsman fighting political censorship in Richmond. Being librarians, you perhaps may want to read about that – you may find a copy of my memoir RUNNING A MESSAGE PARLOR (Rampart Press, 1977) or the LP recording WHAT SHALL THEY READ (Pacifica). I have had another life since then – and have a new, fond family here in New Zealand. I went to NZ because I felt few people in the US wanted to know me; I accepted an academic post in New Zealand (taking advantage of my agricultural background), and later administering public housing mediation. So many years later, I’m writing to express my surprise at discovering that activist librarians still exist. People in the New Zealand library profession, I’ve discovered, find it difficult even to acknowledge me socially (and my local library will not carry RUNNING A MESSAGE PARLOR). They do have my first autobiographical book, OPERATION NEW ZEALAND (published as BUM TICKER in the US). The also carry my most recent memoir, RETIRED TERRORIST (Trafford, 2011) which tells of my OTHER life – about the wild things I got up to as a Scottish Nationalist (Scotland is having a referrendum this year). Let’s hope that I can still share my enthusiasms with some folks somewhere!