February 17, 2018

The Wrong Umbrella: In search of a stronger model | Blatant Berry

John Berry IIII’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!

John Berry

This article was published in Library Journal's March 1, 2016 issue. 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.



  1. Jenny Fry says:

    All of the participatory democracy takes place in our provincial library organizations, correct. The only thing that is missing is that national advocacy voice – which is the goal of the new federation.

  2. Maybe the association was not meeting the needs of its members; sort of how I feel about ALA.

  3. I’m a Canadian librarian, though I’ve lived and worked in the US for the last few years. During over a decade as a librarian in Canada, I was an active member of CLA and 2 provincial library associations. I held 2 executive positions. I agree with you, Mr. Berry. I know well that the existing model was not financially sustainable; it was in trouble when last I was in Canada. But I do think the federation model is unlikely to be effective or good for much of anything, and I dislike the suggested model for votes, since it marginalizes everywhere but the rich provinces. Ontario will be fine. So will BC and Quebec and Alberta. Everyone else will have a minimal voice. It’s pay to play. I don’t know what the solution is, and in the CLA’s footsteps, I’d likely have done the same – but it’s sad, and I do think it’ll diminish the effectiveness of library advocacy on a national scale.

  4. I have to agree with you too Mr Berry. I joined CLA in the early 2000s as a personal member only to witness a slow demise. The inability to do things differently has meant an inevitable downward spiral. My decision as to whether or not I should continue paying dues came as a result of reading about the lack of courage to make recommended changes in the MacDonald White Paper; I think that was the beginning of the end. I agree with the previous comment on paying to play. I don’t see myself with a personal voice on issues that matter to me in my work and profession in this “new and improved” association.
    All that’s left is to have the wake and be done with it. I’ll be watching Librarianship.Ca to see how it will take on that personal voice for me in Canada.