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Is the ALA Council Useless? Ask the Members!

Two different kind readers alerted me to a “nasty discussion” happening on the ALA Council listserv. I don’t know about nasty, but there are certainly some councilors who don’t like the questions one councilor is asking, or the way he asks them.

To get an idea of what people are upset about, check out the first couple of paragraphs of the offending email:

Dear Division and Roundtable Councilors:

I have an honest question for you all, and I am in need of an honest answer
from each of you, please: What is your opinion of the ALA Council? Would you
say that it is functional, efficient, and relevant to the everyday
professional concerns of libraries and librarians? Or would you say that it
is inefficient, frustrating, irrelevant, hopeless, etc.? I would appreciate
hearing your thoughts, observations, and stories about it.

I ask because the amount of wasted time and effort I have witnessed in just
the past three Council conventions spanning three cities, is truly
staggering. Fully half of the people in room are completely disengaged from
the proceedings at all times — people checking email, posting to social
media, online shopping, even playing video games for entire meetings is a
common sight. And I don’t really blame them, because the proceedings are
tedious, and the comments from the floor endless, filled with tangents,
irrelevancies, and self-aggrandizing commentary by individual councilors.

The smiley face befor the first paragraph is precious.

The email goes on to suggest the Council is “bloated” with at-large councilors, which constitute 100 out of 187 total councilors (I think).

The same person had previously suggested the Council was too large, especially compared to other professional organizations, and asked that a committee be put together to examine the issue. Instead of just doing that and then ensuring that the issue would go nowhere indefinitely, people responded that it wasn’t, leading to the email quoted above.

That one is definite more forceful. It would be hard to focus the issue more bluntly than to ask people whether they thought the Council was “functional, efficient, and relevant” as opposed to “inefficient, frustrating, irrelevant, hopeless, etc.” Especially when it’s clear the writer thinks the whole process is a big farce.

All the old hands on Council responded, often at great length. Their conclusion? Of course the Council is functional, efficient, and relevant! They don’t even know what he might be talking about.

And when people are checking email, tweeting, or playing video games the entire time? Why, those people are just good at multitasking!

Apparently, if there are any serious problems with the ALA Council, they’re all in the head of the poor fellow who just isn’t wise enough to understand the importance and functioning of the democratic process that the ALA Council is all about.

It’s especially amusing to watch someone defend the Council’s relevance to the everyday professional concerns of the members. The best strategy seems to be asking, “who can say what’s relevant?”

That’s pretty easy to answer. The members say what’s relevant, and they vote with their feet. How many ALA members show up for Council sessions unless they have to? Almost none. How many discussions have ALA members ever been in where they’ve cared what the ALA Council was up to? I mean, unless they’re trying to pass some ridiculous resolution that I criticize. Almost none. 187 people go into a big room every ALA and talk, and nobody listens.

Instead of putting together a committee to investigate whether the Council is too large, or deciding whether it’s relevant to the professional concerns of librarians, we should try an experiment.

The ALA Council should cease meeting or discussing issues for an entire year. The budgeting stuff can still go on with a few people, and the members can be apprised of anything happening there. Otherwise, Council is effectively abolished for year.

Then, see if anyone notices, other than the Councilors who now don’t have numerous tedious hours of meetings to attend, or the SRRT which will have no body to try to make its mouthpiece.

If that’s too drastic, try a truly democratic approach. Put a vote to the entire membership asking if the ALA Council is of any usefulness or relevance to their professional concerns. If the vote is no, abolish the Council. If yes, keep it.

Or keep it either way, but have an answer to the question from people other than the dedicated Councilors who would weep if they didn’t have the illusion of power and influence they now have.

Then we’d might know for sure what many of us already suspect. ALA members don’t care what the Council does because the Council doesn’t do anything for them.



  1. Hi there. I’m the councilor who raised this question at ALA council. I’ve served on the board of directors of the California Library Association for the past five years, and for the last year-and-a-half as the ALA Chapter Councilor for California. And like many other committed library professionals, I also serve on a handful of other local nonprofit boards such as PTA and Rotary. As far as board dysfunction goes, I’ve seen my fair share in my day — but ALA Council takes the cake. Thanks for taking the time to raise these questions in your column.

    My initial statements on the ALA Council list outlined several of my observations of its dysfunction in some detail, such as that fully half of the room was surfing the web and holding side conversations during key agenda items. Or that allowing self-nominations for at-large seats, backed by petitions signed by other at-large councilors, is poor practice and lacks accountability. Those were my plainspoken observations, and I stand by them because they are true. Sometimes the truth is hard to hear — sometimes it can be even harder to be the one who has to say it, believe me — and unfortunately some councilors have responded by denying that a problem exists, as you note in your column. But those things, while important, are only the atmospherics of the situation. They are symptoms of a deeper problem, not the true root of the issue. The real issue is the imbalance.

    In my opinion there is one very specific, clearly observable, long-standing issue with ALA Council we need to address before all others, which is unequal representation. No other professional association of ALA’s size even comes close to having 100 at-large councilors. It is unrealistic to expect ALA members to evaluate, vote for and then track the performance of 100 at-large councilors (not to mention the 100+ other competitors for those seats). That is crazy! Not even the U.S. Congress, in all its dysfunction, expects you to vote for 100 representatives, most from outside your geographic district– and then to track all 100 and hold them accountable at the ballot box. Even worse, ALA has 50% more at-large councilors than all the chapter/division/roundtable reps combined. No one group should outnumber all others combined. That is neither fair nor democratic.

    All I am asking the ALA Council to do is simply to restore the balance, and bring our association in line with the best practices of other large professional associations. ALA Council can and should phase in simple, modest reforms that can take effect over time without anyone losing their duly elected seat. Every councilor who has a seat now, should keep it through the rest of their term. That’s only fair. Then at a future election, the number of open at-large seats would simply be adjusted. Nothing drastic. Councilors who want to run again, would have a fair shot at those seats. Over the course of two, maybe three election cycles, we would complete the phased adjustments until the total number of at-large councilors is balanced and consistent with the number of chapter and division reps. It’s simple, and it’s the right thing to do.

    This would require change to the ALA bylaws, which must be ratified by vote of the ALA membership. Please let your council representatives know that you support restoring the balance in ALA Council. (In case you don’t have the names of all 100 at-large councilors committed to memory, here’s the list: Bring ALA back in alignment with the best practices of other professional associations, and ensure that your voice — all voices — can be equally heard. If you are a library professional then ALA is your professional association, whether you are an active member or not. I hope we can count on everyone’s support — your support — for this modest resolution.

    Sorry for the long comment. Thanks for your time.

    Sean Reinhart | Director of Library & Community Services | City of Hayward | 510.881.7956
    ALA Chapter Councilor | California Library Association

    • Sean, Bravo to you for raising the issue and boo on those who attacked you so viciously for having done so in a manner they didn’t approve. I’ve no dog in the fight but the way you were treated was shocking considering my assumption free speech is a big issue on the Council. And let me remind you how Greg of Shush was intentionally left off a ballot because the person in charge hated his conservative politics, or Susan who as a conservative Christian was repeatedly attacked by members of ALA Council when she commented on some non-library topics they were addressing, and Walter who wrote about intimidation of Council members and librarians. If Council membership is to change, allow me to suggest that such abuses (free speech, election fraud, basic politeness/comity) be considered and addressed as well.

      By the way, ALA Council liked this post I wrote: “Fried Librarian Giblets Awakens ALA Council to Take On Yet Another Non-Library Issue”

      AL, You beat me to writing this story!

      Any librarians who are being forced to follow ALA diktat but who are afraid to speak up for fear of adverse job action, please contact me confidentially as I know an author writing a story on that topic who will maintain your confidentiality and publicize your concerns.

  2. Stephen Michael Kellat says:

    187 member ALA Council? Even the Ohio General Assembly has only 33 Senators and 99 Representatives to represent an estimated 11.5 million people.

  3. As one of the longtime ALA councilors-at-large that Sean is trying to get rid of, I can definitively say that his pointless and foolhardy initiative will never go to a ballot. Why? Because it would require a vote of Council to do so. We like Council the way it is, and Sean does not have the support he needs to make this happen. Now stop fussing over this and let me get back to my tweeting and online shopping.

  4. What about the NH House of Representatives? Truly just kidding, probably the only assembly of its size that gets anything done, and it is not pretty at times. But somehow it works for my home state. Keep up the good fight Sean, I know that there are, and will be many detractors, but many serious changes need to be made in the ALA. We need courageous people like you very much.

  5. Maybe someone should actually ask if the ALA itself, as it is now constituted, actually worth having. Councilor’s reply shows the typical bureaucratic mentality (keep us because we like the way we are) which, to me, indicates that Councilor shouldn’t be anywhere near any sort of lever of power. I find very little about the ALA which is worth spending any time on. While I’m sure I’d find something I’d miss ALA for, my gut feeling is that librarians would be no worse off then they are now if it ceased to exist.

  6. Midwest SciTech Librarian says:

    The best way to be noticed if a large contingent of members failed to renew their membership for one year. You can always rejoin later. Skip the conferences for one year. Let them know why you are doing it. That will get the ALA’s attention. ($$$)

  7. It’s really a sad state of affairs when the governing body, so to speak, of the champions of open access refuse to take a critical look inward. Where would any library be now if it refused to adjust with the times? We’d be exactly where all of our naysayers have been suggesting we’d be for 50 years, out of business and obsolete.

  8. Ann Crewdson says:

    Councilor Reinhart, The solution to one of your questions–“How can you tell what a councilor has done in the last 3 years since elected?” doesn’t have to be hard. First, propose a new field be created named “accomplishments on council” on the candidate bio for the election ballot. Second, apply to be on the “election committee” so that your ideas are heard. Good luck! I think you’d be surprised at how very busy we are helping the association and aiding communities. They aren’t necessarily visible. As for the size of council–people have already responded to you quite eloquently. I respectfully disagree with your assessment that council is too large. It is inappropriate for me to present my argument here so I won’t elaborate. Good luck. If you haven’t joined a council committee, I sincerely hope you will. That was how I eventually found value in being on council. Best wishes.

  9. Ann Crewdson says:

    Because I strongly believe in transparency and in demonstrating integrity and honesty, please do visit the ALA Council website where you can listen to the recordings of all the past council sessions. ALAM 13 Council III isn’t up yet, but when it is, I will send you a link to the exact time so you can decide for yourself whether allegations of such “viscious attacks” toward Councilor Reinhart is true. Please feel free to subscribe to the council list as well–you don’t have to be a councilor to subscribe. It’s important to understand where this is all coming from. Councilors are held accountable for their actions and should be. You’d be surprised to learn the truth.

    • In response to Ann, as I first used the word “vicious” about which she complains, let me say this:

      At least regarding the ALA Council email exchange started by Sean about ALA Council, here’s a response that is an example to me of a vicious comment: “If you are interested in reform, and I think you’ll find a lot of people are, you should consider trying to build coalitions rather than making bombastic statements that have no real purpose other than to make people upset.”

      Later in that same exchange, here’s an example of someone expecting vicious statements: “Before I get flamed, I accept that this may not be true….”

      To be clear, almost everyone is professional and polite on the ALA Council email list while addressing the various issues that are raised on ALA Council over the years. But that is not always the case, as Ann implies. Pobody’s nerfect, so this is not a serious problem, it just is what it is.

      Now Ann, stop making bombastic statements that have no real purpose other than to make people upset. Not really, but I hope you see how that can be very hurtful, and that was the very first response to Sean for raising a legitimate issue that was and still is discussed by many, relatively speaking. I was shocked to see that response. I viewed it as vicious. You view it as “allegations.” It is what it is.

  10. Ann Crewdson says:

    Pardon me, Mr. Kleinman, I wasn’t addressing you, I was addressing the important membership. They can make up their own minds about who is being “bombastic” by reviewing the council records. You will note that Councilor Reinhart and the councilor who made the statement about him being “bombastic” have since had friendly exchanges. I was simply stating that your allegations are unwarranted. Read a couple of threads down and don’t take it out of context. Good day, sir.

  11. I Like Books says:

    Can’t help thinking of this one:

    Anyway, librarians seem to enjoy distributing surveys and then writing about them. Have they done any studies on the impact of the ALA in their daily practice? You don’t even need to be an ALA member to do it.

  12. For those who are interested in following this issue and making your voices heard, there is now a Facebook page for the cause:

  13. “If you are interested in reform, and I think you’ll find a lot of people are, you should consider trying to build coalitions rather than making bombastic statements that have no real purpose other than to make people upset.”

    This was me, in response to Sean’s first email,and I stand by it. I find a great deal of the time that people like to complain with no proposed solution, and I find it incredibly frustrating. Sean has now put forth a potential solution. I don’t agree with it, but at least it’s a proposal. In my professional work, I have to build coalitions with people on a regular basis, and I have generally found that; soliciting opinions, making suggestions in a respectful tone, and not throwing around generally negative statements are what really works.

    I would like to note that my suggestion of having a members’ forum to directly address the issue of what members think of Council, was rejected by Mr Reinhart. And that in suggesting it, I offered to co-organize one with him, even though we disagree on the issue.

  14. FYI, see “Restore the Balance to ALA Council” on Facebook:

    See also:

  15. It is interesting that the AL blog provides a forum that gets to the heart issues in librarianship, in a more contentious, but also much more effective way than the ALA council or other ALA organizations. I think it may be time for librarians to break from the ALA, as many have hinted at, and create a social media driven organization that better represents professionals. I wanted to support the ALA for many years, but at this point I simply cannot do it.

    • Once I get tenure, I am done with ALA. I don’t feel they do anything for me or do that much for librarians. I have to pay dues personally (my employer does not pay) and frankly, I don’t see the return on investment.

  16. Luxembourg at Neerwinden says:

    “I find a great deal of the time that people like to complain with no proposed solution, and I find it incredibly frustrating.”

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with identifying a problem even when you don’t have a suggested solution right away. What’s your definition of “complain”?

  17. Justa Goodwill says:

    How about complain and whine? I saw the councilor stomp out and slam the door in the council chamber when he didn’t get his way with the dues proposal resolution.

    He’s exhibited physical anger.. What if he decides to go ballistic? Is there ALA security in McCormick Place? Seriously. He takes the word “bombastic” to a whole ‘nother level.

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