The American Library Association (ALA)’s burgeoning budget crisis and dip in membership show the group is having a tough time thriving as a multitype library organization. It might be easy to cast a net of blame across the tepid economy, the aging profession, even entrenched leadership in ALA itself. But we think ALA’s membership woes are caused by a lack of unity across librarianship, a problem that is reinforced by ALA’s organizational structure and too narrow publications. In the tradition of thinking such as Andy Woodworth’s “big tent” librarianship, we believe the leadership of ALA should be at the forefront of unifying librarianship, working to link our academic, public, and school libraries and librarians. Instead, we shudder as we see ALA working to reinforce silos that separate public, academic, and school libraries from one another, rather than bridges to connect them.
ALA membership figures rose almost 100 percent from 33,208 members in 1975 to 66,075 in 2005. Since that high-water mark in 2005, however, ALA membership has dropped 13 percent, a loss of over 8,500 members. That decline is contributing to a growing budget problem for ALA. Executive Director Keith Michael Fiels noted recently that publishing revenue dropped by 22 percent and that membership goals fell short of projections. Conference revenues are projected to decline this year in Las Vegas. Outgoing ALA treasurer Jim Neal reflected on its budget issues and noted that “ALA operates with a number of units which are income centers and others which are cost centers.”
ALA was founded in 1876 as a library association. In 1939 it began forming type-of-library and type-of-activity divisions, which were expanded in 1955. The development of standards for the various types of libraries exacerbated this disconnect by reinforcing the need for each type of library to respond to its respective standards. Today, that pulling apart continues as ALA divisions and their separate conferences focus tightly on the audience they are perceived to serve, rarely looking outside of their own comfortable walls.
Many universities are now adopting performance-based funding models, in which units are expected to generate enough revenue to cover their own expenses. If ALA were to adopt such a strategy, then its financially successful divisions would be self-sufficient. But what is the incentive for the successful division to remain in ALA when it could form its own separate association and no longer need to subsidize its less-profitable brethren? It’s an idea that has emerged in the past but is more and more a realistic alternative for financially successful divisions that already call themselves “associations.”
ALA could well face the dissolution of its membership into separate associations. Special libraries were at one time connected to ALA, for example, but have successfully forged an independent organization to address the specific needs of its members.
We need not risk similar secessions if ALA leadership can act to reunify our organization so that each member feels that the professional conversation they’re involved in overcomes any boundary of library type and speaks to the shared principles binding our profession. To reestablish itself as an association for all librarians, ALA must foster mechanisms that allow librarians and libraries to unite and share their common concerns. It’s not too late to the turn the trend around: there are ways we think the organization can create unity among members while also combating falling membership rates and declining revenue.
A glance at ALA’s 2013 conference in Chicago shows the walls among types of librarianship standing strong. Of the 253 major programs offered at that conference, only 11 (4.3 percent) were sponsored by more than one division. Academic librarians seem especially out in the cold, as there were no programs that were cosponsored by the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) and either the Public Library Association (PLA) or American Association of School Librarians (AASL).
This needs to change. At its conferences, ALA promotes the unity of librarianship when it addresses its key action areas in a multitype library context. At that Chicago conference, we were able to identify at least five programs that could attract a multitype audience. Two things became apparent in reviewing the rest of the programs at this conference. The process-focused divisions (Association for Library Collections and Technical Services, Library Leadership and Management Association, Library and Information Technology Association) were more likely to sponsor multitype sessions. Yet, most did not address issues beyond technical efficiencies. This missed an opportunity for communication among librarians of different disciplines. Also interesting, many library vendors could cut across type-of-library divisions in attracting customers. If vendors and exhibitors can appeal to everyone in the room, why should we expect any less of event programmers?
Planning for publishing
It’s not just conference scheduling that reinforces these silos—stovepipe offerings are also reflected in the recent titles published by ALA. “Type of library” books predominated, with a few exceptions in functional textbooks such as cataloging and reference. Several ALA journals do address the issues of different types of libraries at functional and technical levels but often without the bigger picture views that would bind those different libraries together.
ALA’s publications can be excellent, but, with few exceptions, they are either type-of-library specific (e.g., Public Libraries, College & Research Libraries, School Library Research) or are topic or service specific (e.g., Library Resources & Technical Services, Library Technology Reports, Library Leadership & Management), rarely providing in-depth treatment of the unifying key issues of the profession.
The faculty of our accredited LIS programs conduct an important percentage of library-oriented research, but there is little incentive for them to publish in ALA’s flagship publication, American Libraries, since it is not peer reviewed . We propose the creation of The Journal of the American Library Association, which would publish substantive articles and conference presentations spanning the various boundaries of librarianship and addressing ALA’s eight key action areas. ALA could use this to provide a mechanism to reconnect the different facets of librarianship under a single, unified, scholarly publication.
A shared foundation
In some ways, it’s not surprising that an organization of the size of ALA has been slow to evolve. The vast number of committees, specialized publications, and massive conferences that are the hallmark of the organization are not built for quick change. Many members are reluctant to leave familiar pastures as the library landscape shifts around them.
Moreover, as librarians are rethinking what their libraries are about, the answers they come up with often look different from library to library. Today, public librarians embark on innovation with Maker spaces, while academic librarians confront the reality of teaching information literacy to more students than ever before. School librarians, if they are lucky enough to survive budget cuts, are increasingly focused on Common Core curricular issues and the classroom.
But while it may look like they’re growing apart, different types of librarians still have common ground. We must identify those commonalities to build a more unified ALA.
Whether we work in a school, university, or public branch, librarians share a few core values. We value unfettered access to quality information. We share a belief that order is a necessary precondition for access. Inherent in the idea of access is diversity: we do not discriminate in the provision of service or in the provision of materials. We respect intellectual freedom and protection of users’ privacy. We act on these values by being careful stewards of what has been entrusted to us: the collections, the facilities in which the collections are housed, the services provided by staff. Thus, we value preservation. Librarians act both to preserve the past for the present and preserve the present for the future. Libraries are physical—and now virtual—representations of a community of inquiry in which people ask questions of one another, of data, of texts, and of images.
These values unite us and provide the solidarity we need to move together during the turmoil of a technological age that challenges many of our cherished principles. They separate us from all other professions, in turn helping to define our own. They are the things librarians of all stripes can agree on, areas on which we, and ALA, should focus in the future.