I’m concerned that the Canadian Library Association (CLA) has decided to disband. It isn’t just that I remember many of the top Canadian librarians I befriended and the good times I had at CLA conferences. The Canadian librarians I recently talked to were very unhappy about the dissolution of CLA (though they were too few to be a valid sample, and their views are too close to mine to help me understand what brought about this drastic action).
I have little faith in the model of a federation of library associations that the organizing committee has put forward to replace CLA. I developed this view from years of watching the very sparse productivity that has come from the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA). Still, those IFLA sessions did convince reluctant U.S. librarians to adopt the now-outmoded MARC record, a great achievement at the time. The idea that we should support international understanding in librarianship won the day.
The very word federation tells me it is an organizational model useful for integrating disparate and disagreeing members of a group of bodies without forcing them to accomplish much. It is kind of like what Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once said about organizational uses of the word umbrella: “Good for rain, not much good for anything else.” About federation I’d say, “Good for making big ones out of little ones, not much good for anything else.”
The problem with the new model is that it doesn’t really offer much in the way of democratic participation by individual librarian members. Isn’t that one of the main purposes of a national organization, to bring together from the farthest reaches of a huge nation like Canada or the United States people who do the same kind of work? Together they develop standards of practice and share their most effective tools, services, and policies while celebrating their field’s proudest efforts. They tell national governments that they have a responsibility to ensure that access to information and library service achieves at least a minimum standard for every individual within the country.
Association members learn about the strategies and traditions of service and government in democratic systems such as ours, in which the political debate has oftentimes deteriorated into total dysfunction and open hostility.
When we belong as individuals to a political or professional entity, we are forced to listen to one another and learn from that experience. We function as a professional participatory democracy. Oh, yes, we also learn we have to contribute to the cost of the organization.
The current plan for the Canadian federation includes an appalling structure whereby member organizations get more or fewer votes based on the amount of their financial input. Apparently, there is no route to membership for individual librarians.
I won’t try to recite here the mission or all the aims of a national organization—we know what most of them are. Yet surely one of the most important of them is to unite professionals nationwide in discourse and activity to strengthen their work and to convince citizens and authorities of their legitimate need for political and fiscal support.
It would be arrogant of me to try to tell Canadian librarians how to organize themselves. Maybe I’m wrong about the federation model; maybe all of that participatory democracy takes place in library organizations at the provincial level.
I can only observe with great interest from down here and hope the Canadians come up with a replacement for CLA that can carry out the crucial work that the future of our profession demands at the national level. Proceed with caution, our northern colleagues; we want and need you to be gloriously successful!