Category: SLA

SLA and its discontents: Disagreeing with grace

flickr photo shared by wwarby under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

(I feel like this should be unnecessary, but let state for the record I want nothing but the best for SLA and its long term survival.)

This week reminds me a football match that’s kind of ugly with little to show for it.

This has been a very busy and significant week in SLA. On Monday SLA President Jill Strand emailed the membership to announce that SLA Board has decided to engage association management consultants (AMC) following recommendations from the Transition Committee. There has been some discussion about this, with some welcoming the change while others have reservations. Some wonder about the implications for current SLA staff. Others have felt this move should have been taken a while ago (when Janice Lachance first left) and it’s too little too late. Still others are deeply unhappy but cannot constructively articulate their concerns. It’s been rough.

Part of the fall out of this announcement was that Juanita Richardson withdrew her candidacy for SLA Treasurer in the election next month. She disagreed with the board and did not feel if elected she could serve on the board in good conscience, and did not want to be potentially involved with the implementation of this decision. This leaves Nick Collison running unopposed in the election. It also made for today’s candidates webinar short and surreal.

(I will not link or directly quote email listserv discussions, aside from the announcement. The barrier citation is another issue to tackle.)

Richardson’s withdrawal from the election has spurred others to comment. Many longtime, veteran members have shared their similar concerns and dismay. There has also been a call to recognize the board is made up of members volunteering to guide the association through this difficult period, and we need to assume their good intentions. We should also trust them that they are doing what they can to help SLA survive.

There was also a call to be mindful of tone and to remain respectful and professional, lest you make a name for yourself as a troublemaker or your personal brand is tarnished. That’s well intentioned, but also strikes me as a silencing tactic to control/squelch debate. By this point in my career people have probably already made up their mind about me, so I don’t really have much incentive to change course.

I think difficult times benefit from healthy, respectful, thoughtful debate and discussion. Yes, assume the board is doing the best they can but you can still question their actions and express concerns. It’s not going to make SLA weaker, if anything we will be a stronger association for it. Debate can be a productive form of engagement and honestly if the board’s actions don’t stand up to questions from the members, that concerns me. At the same time, none of this should be made personal. There’s nothing professional about personal attacks. Disagreement needs to be articulated pointedly and constructively, rather than immediately veering into hyperbole.

To make my position clear, I’m not fully on board with hiring the AMC at this time though I’m not really against it. What I am against is the lack of information about the process leading up to this and what’s ahead. I want to trust the board, as I’ve stated before, but more transparency and details would help me trust them more. That said, I don’t envy their position and do recognize they’re not doing this to hurt anybody, so I don’t want to give them more troubles. I just don’t really agree with them on this issue given the information we have, but of course there’s probably a lot that we don’t know about. (That’s a problem for me.) They need to trust members to be able to handle it and the lack of details is troubling for many of us. What will happen to SLA staff? What will the first steps be? I don’t know and if the board doesn’t know, which would be OK given the scale of the situation, it would be reassuring to hear that.

So to the SLA members who are respectfully engaging in a debate about this important topic, please continue the discussion! To those who are getting personal and nasty, stop it. We don’t need more negative librarian stereotypes. To those of you who feel that any questioning, especially difficult yet professional questions, is causing trouble, do you want members to be engaged or just pretend to get along?

SLA is defining itself now. We’re not in agreement and if we all want to move forward together, we’re going to have to work it out. Healthy debate needs to happen.


Thoughts on the Revised SLA Recommendations

flickr photo shared by ierdnall under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

Nothing says “Friday afternoon in July” like an email from SLA about the Revised Recommendations and the proposed Roadmap for the Future of SLA. (You’ll need to login to access the documents.)

So I read them and I’m still not really happy or comfortable with the recommendations. The revisions make them more coherent and easier to understand, but I’m still not agreement with the tenor or direction entirely. I understand the association’s in a tough place, and I agree that we need to move quick and show value to members to survive. I still feel like the Recommendations skew corporate and focus on the value SLA can provide for members in service. The Recommended Strategy in 3.2 is a good example of the language that makes me uneasy: “A viable niche for SLA in the marketplace of associations for information professionals is created by defining SLA as being the place for individuals who care about their professionalism.” First, the overuse of professional does seem like an acrobatic stunt to avoid saying “librarian” which really only shows up in the section comparing SLA to other associations, which in turn sounds like buzzwords. Second, and more importantly, what does focusing on “professionalism” actually mean? Is it about my ability to be a nimble information professional in a changing landscape? Is it about my ability to operate in an antiseptic corporate world? I don’t know but it gives me the visions of people in business suits. Am I not an information professional when I’m wearing faded jeans and a t-shirt?

But that’s kind of nit picking. Really, the main concerns I had are still there. I don’t agree with the language to “adopt a competency based board” (7.1.e) because it implied the Nominating Committee doesn’t currently do that, which is insulting. I also have reservations about giving weight to self-nominations, but that’s because I fear we’ll be an association of thought leaders. I also don’t like the parts about “business partners” because the relationship still seems one sided. My reservations about the conference planning also remain and educational offerings, but some of that has to do with do with the mechanics given resource constraints.

So basically go read my other blog posts for that.

The Roadmap however is a much more interesting read and somewhat more reassuring. I like that it proposes assessment of what we have to see where the gaps are. Do we have the resources to get there (right now? probably not), do we have the skills? If not, what steps need to be taken. Let’s have contingency plans. That’s realistic.

So I guess overall, I still have major concerns but the roadmap gives me an idea of how it’s going to play out. I still do not want SLA to be an organization focused on passive learning. I am a member for the community and I want that community to thrive and interact and learn from one another. I still worry the emphasis on formal offerings and programs from HQ might be stifling and not what I need, but I sort of hope that it might support the rest of SLA to do cool things together.


Listen closely: Can we bridge communication gaps?

flickr photo shared by lizkentleon under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC ) license

Something I’ve been ruminating on for the past few weeks are communications issues I’ve been facing in my professional spheres where decorum and harmony matter quite a lot. One of the big issues with the SLA Recommendations Report was that it didn’t effectively communicate some of the goals (it’s not well written in parts), and its poor use of language was threatening and off putting to many members. I’ve had many tense conversations since then trying to explain why I (and several others) found the language condescending, and discussing what the actual intent might have been. I don’t think anybody’s mind has been changed, but I know a few of my colleagues listened enough to know that when a many academic librarians say, “The language in this report is dismissive to me and others,” they understand we’re making it up to be dramatic but that we have concerns they weren’t aware of. These conversations are easy to ignore and really hard to have in big settings, but are hugely important in one-on-one interactions. One big obstacle is how you get the opportunity to have these conversations?

I’m seeing a similar thing happening on Twitter (an often horrible platform for these discussions) about Open Access and proposal that libraries should just walk away from journal subscriptions to make something happen. It’s a fun thought experiment, but the discussion also highlights many divisions within the scholarly communications ecosystem which makes the conversation frustrating and usually unproductive. (Well… more of the same really.) Part of this is the failing of Twitter as a platform, but a more important part is the competing interests of the participants and the lack of listening going around.

So many of the proclamations about how we should reform publishing come from people in great positions of privilege that are comfortable enough to make bombastic statements. They won’t be dealing with the fallout directly. This is true for librarians, publishers, and academics/authors. I’ll confess that I often feel like there’s no point in trying to participate in some of the circles because I know the big wigs driving the grand agenda won’t listen to my world of messy use cases. I get it though, because they’re focused on high level policies that are discussed in rarified air. It’s an important part of the landscape for sure, but only one section. I listen to them though, to see where things are headed and that’s valuable. It’s frustrating though because way too often the message is drenched in condescension. The way forward is so simple! (Because the details like staffing, funding, and local culture aren’t their problem.) For those reasons, the conversations I gain the most from are with others who are also in the weeds. They know their challenges and want to know mine. It’s hard to find these people though since it’s often across many boundaries — discipline, sector, profession, etc.

Now, there are lots of people in the publishing ecosystem who aren’t listening to anything because they’re not paying attention. They’re like ostriches in the sand. Trying to have the conversations with them are frustrating because they need the message tailored to them and their specific situation, which is exhausting. People who engage them have my respect.

So I guess the way forward is to be more mindful of all the players and really listening to one another. This means giving the blowhards some space to bloviate, but then also asserting your voice. We need to have these conversations to establish better understanding across many sectors, which leaves little room for podiums, soapboxes, and inflated egos.

OK, so this probably won’t happen in schol comm circles but can we at least make it happen with subject-based information professionals?

More thoughts on SLA: Love and Madness


Well I’m back from SLA 2015, kind of caught up on sleep, and detoxed by going to the Alameda County fair and fairing it up. (Air brushed shirt? Check. Brick of curly fries? Check. Tigers Blood snow cone? Check. Tour the collections? Check. Also if you don’t understand why I’d get a shirt saying “Hate Mike Love” made, you don’t know how much of a dick Mike Love is.)

But now I’m back at work and my thoughts drift from thoughts of the musical abomination of “Kokomo” and back to the state of SLA.  So let me dump more thoughts.

First, I’m happy that #slarecs is still being used to discuss the consultants’ recommendations. This conversation needs to continue and the hashtag is one easy way to keep it going. Use it.

Second, I was happy to see how many people stuck around for the Business Meeting at the end of the conference. I was also kind of disappointed at how many dedicated, opinionated members left to go drink or relax during the session. Attendees were clamoring for copies of the 2014 SLA financial report, which made for some sobering reading. Such as:

So we have more information, which helps clarify the situation somewhat, but we’re still in a tight spot. Nobody knows what the way forward will look like, so this is really our chance to speak up and make it our SLA.

That’s the thing that really stuck with me from this conference: there are a lot of opinions about what SLA is, who the members are, and what we should be doing. I also met a lot of people who were ready to dig in and help – so many people care and want to do something about it. That’s what really stuck with me. I think it’s easy for people to forget the people on the board are SLA members, but they’re of us and we elected them to represent us. This isn’t to say I am totally supportive of the board right now because I think their collective actions of the past few years have made it hard to trust them, but I recognize they are trying to do what they think is best for the association. I don’t agree with all of their actions though, and I think it’s more than fair to ask them how we got to this precarious financial position. It’s also our chance to speak up and let them know what we want instead. It’s also our chance to step up and make change happen. (I’ll be pushing out some of my ideas in the coming weeks.) If you have an idea of something SLA should be doing now that you could start in your own way? Do it. I’m talking about building community. I think we need to do that now more than ever across unit boundaries. So let’s make it work.

SLA Real Talk – It’s bad, so let’s do something.

flickr photo shared by abernmf1 under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC ) license

I told some people I would write another blog post about what’s going on at SLA after the Open Board meeting (which should have been better attended). I write this as somebody who has been involved with the association and hopes to continue to be involved in SLA. It’s from a place of care and I don’t want to cause trouble for trouble sake, but if Harold Hill was here he’d say “Ya got trouble.” I also want to change, because let’s face it – we’re broken.

So let’s just be honest – SLA is in major trouble. The Recommendations Report was a response to the major financial pressure the association is facing. There is a projected  $200k shortfall from this annual conference, and the association will probably need a bridge loan to get through the rest of the year. In short, we are broke and we are out of time. The proposal for SLA HQ to take money from the units isn’t really to bolster the SLA brand, it’s because SLA needs money to survive. It’s really grim.

That said, I still don’t like the idea of financially responsible units being forced to give money to the association to get out of this mess. I do agree that units need to get out of the mindset that sitting on reserves to be financially safe without offering a lot of programming isn’t great. I also think that the units together make SLA strong and that while some might talk about breaking off and going it alone, that isn’t really a feasible solution for a lot of the units.

What I could see happening is units helping to get SLA through this extremely painful transition, either by supporting HQ directly (which has been done before) or by decreasing/forgoing allotments for a year or two (it must be a fixed amount of time). Yes, for some of the units this will be very painful and catastrophic but the financial situation is a catastrophe. However, if units do step up in this way, I think they are certainly within their rights to demand transparency and accountability. How did we get to the precipice and how can we make sure to never be in this position again? Members have always had a stake in the association’s finances, but I think now many are realizing that we need to speak up and do something about it.  We don’t have the luxury of time to make new committees and investigate – that’s been going on for the last few years – it’s the time for action. Big action and small action.

So members, I think you need to do it. Talk about it in your board meetings and come up with things you can do now. How we can help the association get through this very dark period. If we work together, I think SLA has a shot but the solutions can’t be retracing the past. In some ways I think us trying to go back to the 1990s, were we had more vendors giving us money and more members paying dues is very much like people in the 1930s trying to go back and live like it was the 20s before the stock market crash. We’re not in the gilded age anybody. I think everybody’s scared. Fuck, I’m scared but I also know that instead closing up shop and jumping ship I’d rather actually do something to move towards a new future. Hey newer members, especially those in the beginning of your careers, speak up! If you don’t like what’s offered, let change that. Let’s do something to make your place here. We’re going to have to change and I think it’s time for the next generations to push for it.

To quote two bands from the 90s, we need to “Create Action” to get through these “Troubled Times”. I’ll probably have more to write after the cabinet meetings tonight and in the coming weeks. If you want to get involved and make shit happen but don’t know where to start, email me. I want to work with anybody who wants to fix this mess.