Despite what appeared to be high registration for the Midwinter Meeting of the American Library Association (ALA) in Philadelphia this January, we heard low rumblings of discontent. Although the count topped 11,000, that number included a thousand or more who came only for the exhibits and several thousand who staffed the show.
These comments were usually voiced late in the night at the parties and barroom gatherings, where the obvious enjoyment was undiminished by the lubricated shop talk that always dominates ALA events and by the new ALA Code of Conduct for conferences.
Some of the discontent was typical, the usual shots at ALA’s elected governing bodies like the Council and Executive Board. We heard a lot of “process is our most important product” commentary, and it was true. All but three or four actions of ALA Council were process items, the referrals and parliamentary moves that delay or block substantive action. But that is the way democracy works.
Some suggested that ALA look more closely at its mission and governance. They felt that budgetary concerns are forcing ALA into the bad habit of measuring the success of its actions by their impact on the bottom line. There is a growing danger that ALA will be driven more by the potential for revenue than by the needs and concerns of its members. For example, the Allied Professional Association (APA) was originally created to allow ALA to address working conditions and compensation of librarians while protecting its tax-exempt status. APA has been perverted into selling certification and credentials to library workers seeking accreditation as professionals, apparently driven by the desire to make APA pay for itself. APA is just one of several initiatives driven by revenue needs.
Another example is the movement to provide more “programs” at Midwinter to attract more registrants. This would be a good idea if the Midwinter schedule wasn’t already overloaded with so many meetings that participants find it hard to visit the exhibits. Several major vendors complained about the lack of traffic at their booths. All blamed it on the Midwinter addiction to meetings. They want ALA to set aside time slots with no meetings, so attendees can visit the show floor.
Several of us on the left side of ALA politics were again disappointed, as the specific content of resolutions on issues like supporting whistle-blower Edward Snowden were watered down from specific actions to general principles. This is an old complaint about battles we only win occasionally. We were encouraged by ALA’s vote to award Patricia Schuman its highest honor, since her career included founding roles in the ALA social responsibilities movement, and the memorial resolution for Major Owens, who was also an SRRT founder.
Because some of ALA’s divisions have stashed a lot of money, there is talk of renegotiating the operating agreement that holds the association together. Money is again the driving force, even though any change will only mean moving it from one ALA pocket to another.
The dicey dollar issues are triggering action and noisy commentary by the ALA junkies who have a lock on ALA leadership. These old hands control ALA Council, dominating debates in the meetings and on the Council’s electronic discussion list. Lately, they have brought high levels of discomfort to ALA’s top brass like executive director (ED) Keith Fiels and associate EDs Mary Ghikas and Greg Calloway. A lot of pressure is on ALA Publishing, which doesn’t deliver revenue equal to the strength of the ALA brand.
A few asked why ALA needs a Midwinter Meeting at all, comparing it negatively with division gatherings like those of the Public Library Association and the Association of College and Research Libraries.
These are the low-volume noises, the night music of ALA Midwinter. Much said at such gatherings never moves into the formal deliberations of ALA legislation. That is too bad. Some of it deserves attention and might even help ALA remain as strong as it is today.