Wednesday, January 17, 2007

ALA Democracy

John Berry had an editorial in a December issue of Library Journal about promoting more democratic governance of the ALA. Berry criticizes the ALA for being unresponsive to members and for not making more of an effort to get members involved in the voting of the organization. "I've been a member of many divisions for decades," he says, "and have rarely been asked to get involved or do anything other than pay to attend conferences and other events and vote for preselected slates for offices."

It's worth a read. I don't normally read LJ, though, and I found this through SHUSH. See SHUSH's response here and more from Berry here.

SHUSH finds it hard to take Berry's criticisms seriously considering his progressivistical politics and his close association with Cranky Marxist Dude. I can understand those reservations. I'm not going to express an opinion on the messenger, and I'm pretty sure I'd disagree with him on desirable ends for the ALA and the profession in general, but I have to admit I agree with the message and the means. The ALA and its divisions are generally unresponsive to member concerns, and are run, as Berry notes, "by well-heeled administrators, elites whose participation is subsidized by their institutions."

To a small extent, I myself am one of those well-heeled administrators whose participation in ALA is completely subsidized by my institution, which, as Berry notes, sends only a select portion of the staff to the conferences. I go to the conferences because it's expected of me. I do a bit of work because I need to do something to justify my presence there. I've been dragged into positions of leadership despite myself, and do absolutely nothing that makes any difference to anyone. I might as well be on the ALA Council. If I had any passion for the work, I could be just as irritating as all those progressivistical librarians who work so hard to bring on the revolution one library card at a time. Pity the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

From the outside the ALA and its divisions can sometimes seem like a monolithic, deadening bureaucracy with no interest in its members. There's a reason for that. But even given this image of ALA, a lot of people still go to the conferences. And it's obvious that even most members who do make it to the conferences don't care what goes on at the level of ALA governance, which is why the membership meetings are so small.

The question is, even if participation were made easier, which I agree is a good thing, would that make people any more concerned with the fate of the organization? I've read some of the comments on the ALA Council listserv about the editorial, and I've read statements from some of the Councilors elsewhere. Some of them seem to think that the Council is the only thing that matters about ALA. In the words of one Council member, "Remember, Council is ALA." Some of these people are just obsessed with their self-perceived importance and with the importance of the organization in general. I suppose they must think it's strange that nobody listens to them or shows up at their meetings.

I think I can honestly say that if the ALA disappeared tomorrow, my job would barely be affected. I think the better work of the divisions, where I get what little benefit there is to be had from ALA, would go on somehow. Oh, and I'd miss having a chance to go drinking and dining with my friends twice a year on the library's dime. And it's just possible that a lot of other librarians feel the same way, that ALA governance and the ALA Council just aren't very interesting or important. The members of the Council might take themselves very seriously, but for me they exist to provide blog fodder. Easing member participation might make no changes whatsoever, because people just might not care. I certainly don't.


Anonymous said...

The irony being that the truly well-heeled have a coat of red lacquer on their soul/sole.


contrarian said...

Berry is disingenuous. He touts democracy just like SRRT touts democracy. He's one of them, and like you say, he's an ally of cranky-Marxist-dude. When the messenger is so tainted it's really hard for me to take the message seriously.

AL said...

Yes, but that's just what he'd say about me!

Anonymous said...

It's hard to take part in a democratic process when you get an email from ALA saying you MUST renew your membership online in TWO WEEKS (end of January) in order to be eligible to vote in the upcoming elections, but oh, if you need to pay by check as in if your institution pays your membership, your paper renewal will come IN 4-6 weeks. HUH??? Or, I'm welcome to print out the email and send it in with the institutional check, which of course, takes time to process. So I'm screwed if I want my institution to pay my membership. Now, I'm lucky and grateful that they do, but I can't take part in the election this year if I wish my institution to pay my membership. Why haven't I received a renewal notice a month or two in advance? What's going on? Now *I'm* the annoyed librarian. Grrrrrrr. Sigh. What the heck is going on over there??? And I've been a member for many years.

contrarian said...

AL said: "Yes, but that's just what he'd say about me!"

He probably would say that about you. So would cranky-Marxist-dude. Does that make them right? C'mon AL.

AL said...

Of course they're not right, that's why I don't play the same game. What matters is the argument. Everything else is ad hominem.

Dances With Books said...

Oh yea, I got that e-mail too about renew or else in two weeks. Almost sounded like the Mafia was coming to break my legs if I did not pay. And they always send those notices late.

Unfortunately, I work for Bootstrap Metro U., so I am not one of the well-heeled who get paid to go to a conference. At least I am fortunate not to be faculty, or then I would have to come up with another "we did a survey" article for a library journal plus some presentation at an ALA conference. Though for the well heeled, I am sure that pain is diminished.

Anyhow, I take it people go to the conferences for the drinking? I mean, they are not going for the business meetings, barely to the sessions, and avoid vendors like bearers of the bubonic plague. Well, a bit pricey for me to have a couple of drinks. Anyhow, you keep feeding that blog. I may need a couple more drinks to decide if I renew or not.

AL said...

I don't want to give the wrong impression. My days are booked with committee meetings, but that's the stuff I do to keep my job, professional service and all that. My nights, on the other hand, are just a long round of dinners and drinks with good friends. But I'm also fully funded for everything.