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ALA Election Results: an Authority Crisis?

These are exciting times for the ALA. The election results are in! And there’s nothing more exciting than ALA election results! Because, as the press release says, it is "the oldest and largest library organization in the world" and "has a membership of more than 62,000 librarians, library trustees and library supporters." Wow!

Okay, I can’t keep up the excitement anymore, and apparently neither can the ALA membership. Molly Raphael defeated Sara Kelly Johns for ALA President. "Raphael received 5,857 votes. Johns received 4,399 votes." As the LJ article on the election noted, "of 55,330 eligible voters, 11,069 (20.01%) voted, compared to 23.41% last year."

However, the numbers for ALA President are different. Based on the figures above, only 10,256 members voted for either candidate, which is only 18.5% of eligible voters. The winning candidate for ALA President received 10.6% of eligible votes. It makes one wonder why anyone bothers, because most people certainly don’t.

Compare the last two United States Presidential Elections, where over 60% of the eligible voters voted. When the voter turnout drops below 50%, the pundits start worrying about voter apathy and the fraying of the republic and other such things. I think our ALA republic is quite frayed.

18.5% of eligible voters voted for ALA President. What does this say about the ALA? There are at least two possibilities, neither of them pretty.

First, it could signal a legitimacy or authority crisis of sorts. The government’s there, but it doesn’t do anything useful anymore and no one believes in its authority. If 80% of eligible voters don’t even have the will to click on a a link in their emails and look at a ballot page, it doesn’t say much about their interest or faith in the ALA. If the ALA elected officers actually controlled anything in the ALA, this would be a disaster. Library pundits would be frothing at the mouth about how the ALA was totally disconnected from the membership and how it had no governing authority as a democratic body. The low voter turnout makes any claim that the ALA acts on behalf of its members absurd.

Then again, it could show that 80% of ALA members just don’t care about the ALA President or any other part of the organization. Why might this be?

Possibly because neither the ALA President nor the ALA Council do anything useful for the membership, nor do they do anything harmful except make librarians look silly sometimes by passing ridiculous resolutions.

They get together a couple of times a year, pass some resolutions, debate some trivial points, bore everyone except the masochistic, but never seem to do anything meaningful. ALA members don’t care who "governs" the ALA because nothing relevant ever comes of it.

It gets even more ridiculous when one looks at the list of ALA Councilors. Members can vote for a huge number of councilors, but usually don’t. Why? Because they’ve never heard of any of these people. I looked down the long list of winners, and the only one I’d heard of was Bernie Margolis. Most of these Councilors were elected with fewer than 2,000 votes. That means that if just 3% of the eligible voters voted for them, they could get elected to Council.

10.6% of eligible voters voted for the winning Presidential candidate. 5% of the eligible voters voted for the Councilor with by far the most votes. This is hardly a mandate for change. It’s not even a mandate to govern.

Given this turnout, what are we left to conclude about the ALA governance? First, it’s certainly not a democratic body in any meaningful sense. The vast majority don’t care enough to vote, and we don’t really know why. If some African strongman got this sort of turnout, the belief that the "elected" leader had authority to govern would be laughable.

The harder question is why so few bother? I suspect it’s because the ALA governance doesn’t really matter. The President and Council get together and feel important, but it’s very clear that a super-majority of the ALA membership doesn’t care what they do. That’s because they don’t do much, even with the tiny amount of power they have.

A crisis of authority? It might be, if the ALA President or Council were a legitimate governing body in the first place. If it is, and if the members of that body consider themselves such, then they have no democratic authority to do anything. They should just all resign and we’ll start over.

On the other hand, if they don’t consider themselves a governing body, but just some sort of puppet organization designed to mimic a democratic governance of the ALA bureaucracy–which is where most of the real work gets done– then they should all resign and we won’t start over.

Either way, there seems to be no support for the claim that the President and Council act on behalf of the membership. The membership doesn’t care, and they have no reason to care. Keep that in mind the next time Council passes some irrelevant resolution. Or even a relevant one. Democracy depends on the consent of the governed, not the the complete lace of concern of those who aren’t really governed anyway.



  1. almost a librarian says:

    Where is Acorn when we need them?

  2. Barb Thompson says:

    As a fairly new librarian, this article depresses me for many reasons. But I am left with a big overall question – who is lobbying for libraries in Congress and in state legislatures if it is not the ALA? My expectation is the president and other officers of the ALA would be making their presence known in the halls of Washington so that public libraries and librarians in particular had some say in decisions impacting funding and speech/access rights. If not the ALA, then who?

  3. “History is made by those who show up”

    That should put a new spin on the percentages of those involved.

  4. Apathetic librarian says:

    “A study of the voting proclivities of ALA members: trends in apathy” sounds like a great article for a tenure-track librarian. The librarian could send out a survey to members of ALA asking them if they did or didn’t vote in the election, and if not, why didn’t they. Imagine the methodology: “We sent out 1000 surveys to a random sample of ALA members. 12 were returned, 10 were valid. From this we concluded that the membership is just all-around apathetic.” Sound about right?

  5. schuyler says:

    Bear in mind that your percentages are for ALA members. Factor in those librarians who are not members of ALA and the numbers shrink even further. I became an ALA member for one year out of library school. After I saw what they did and how they did it I cancelled my membership and stayed away for the next thirty years of my library career. To me ALA is ridiculously hypocritical and left wing. They believe in intellectual freedom only insofar as you believe along party lines, being quite willing, for example, to hang Cuban librarians out to dry. I want absolutely nothing to do with these grandstanding featherweights. A pox on them all.

  6. Post Postmodern Librarian says:

    What this shows to me is that the other non voters are just members in order to have it on their resume. Why because the Council tells all employers to look for the ALA membership on resumes. The worse part about it is that most employers wont let you do official ALA activities on the job. This is not so bad if you were not forced in the first place to have the membership. I say employers makeup your mind. To those people who get the support to carry on ALA activities or have time to do it off the clock I say way to go!

  7. Book Chick says:

    Quoting the wize and wonderful Oz–“The low voter turnout makes any claim that the ALA acts on behalf of its members absurd.”

    They certainly don’t represent my interests and I certainly don’t give them my money.

  8. commented: says:

    In regards to libraries lobbying, I work in a library adjacent to the legislature in my fair state. The worst lobbying group, hands down? Libraries. They are always bringing up issues way too late in the legislative season. You want more money, you have to start BEFORE the sessions begin in January.

    And the way they lobby, they go with the old idea that libraries are the greatest thing since sliced, canned bread and if you don’t know that, you are beyond hope.

    They do condescending presentations, and don’t address anything that the legislators are remotely interested in.

    You want stuff done at the legislature or Congress, keep the sensible shoe crowd home and get some sharkskin lawyers in there who know what they are doing.

    ‘nuf said.

  9. Branch Manager says:

    I too joined ALA while I could get a student rate. I thought it would help in my job search. After one year in the profession, I let it lapse and joined my state association instead. They actually work for issues in our state. The national association is so concerned with left-leaning political issues that it long ago ceded its right to speak for me. What good is a “right to read” if no one is left to check out the books and to recommend them? And what good is a pie-in-the-sky professional code that is completely one-sided and doesn’t take the community at large into account? Meh…no thanks.

  10. Dances With Dogs says:

    I have managed to enjoy a 37-year and counting career as a librarian without the aid and comfort of the ALA circle-jerk. At the same time, I have been a member for 38 consecutive years, starting as a library school student. My dues have always been paid by my libraries, and the the paid professional part of the organization, the one that publishes helpful journals, has a good purpose. I agree with most of the above posters that ALA is a left-wing politically correct dumping ground for such library misfits who wanted to propose an ALA foreign policy. (What an Oxymoron). The members of our profession who indulge in these masturbatory rites are pathetic. Unfortunately, the media invests ALA with the right to speak on behalf of the membership. This is sad indeed, when a flock of losers feels they represent the profession, while once again the vote bears out that hardly anyone providing good local community service cares.

  11. How about this for a reason: there is nothing to choose from in the pool of candidates. They are all pursuing the same core agenda, and the core agenda has nothing to do with my concerns. Either no one wants to be identified as being against the dominant political views of the most visible and vocal members of the ALA, or those who want to run against them cannot get on the ballot. Maybe the 80% silence is 80% against the political status quo, but with no alternative candidates to vote for abstaining from voting is the only way they can express their disapproval.

  12. “What this shows to me is that the other non voters are just members in order to have it on their resume.”
    Well I can tell you that’s exactly why I have a membership. I am a student and my university is in the process of applying for accreditation. If my degree ends up not being ALA-accredited, at least I can have ALA on my resume by being a member. Past that, I’m fairly apathetic about it all (though the weekly emails are sort of interesting).

  13. Eloise says:

    How about this: If you don’t like the ALA representation, do something about it. Get involved yourself. If you didn’t even bother to vote, what right do you have to complain about the biases or level of competence of the leadership?

  14. fldenton says:

    Run for ALA office; you’ve got a following who also wants to shake things up. Do it from the inside…become part of the problem, then fix it.

  15. Dances With Books says:

    They had an election? And as for not voting and complaining, I like George Carlin’s answer better (go look it up, but don’t blame me for the mess you made by voting for the incompetent ones). Anyhow, like many here, I dropped my ALA membership after library school pretty much. For all the ALA promo, having it on your resume is not that big a deal (if you have your state association you are likely ok, though state associations do vary in value too). As far as I am concerned, ALA governance can keep having their fancy meetings and elitist proclamations. I get to actually work for a living.

  16. Dances With Books says:

    How about this? I, who did not vote, did not create the mess you and your voting ilk created. Thus, I can’t be blamed, but you can. (George Carlin says it so much better though. Go look it up). Anyhow, like others here, I dropped ALA as soon as I got out of library school and saw that, in spite of all their self-promotion, it is not that big a deal not having it in your resume. So the governance can go on having their self important meetings, circle jerk-offs, and irrelevant resolutions. I have to work for a living. Come back when you have something.

  17. pcsweeney says:

    As a first timer and newly elected councilor-at-large, I agree with a lot of what is being said here. In fact, most of this is exactly why I ran. I was simply tired of complaining. I can’t do it on my own though!! Come and help me.. Please!!

    And, for those of you who are giving up with ALA because you have complaints but refuse to work to change it, I ask you- What else in your profession would you give up on? Which programs? Services? Advocacy? Don’t be a quiter, be a fighter!

  18. M. Jackson says:

    Sorry, pcsweeney, I am a lover, not a fighter.

  19. S. Smith says:

    I am a member of ALA only because I am required to be a member of ALA if I want to be a member of ACRL. As ALA mostly serves the public library world, and ACRL serves the academic world, I would much prefer to be able to simply join ACRL and not mess with ALA.

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