A Manifesto for Professional Associations like SLA

I have threatened, hinted, and joked about writing a manifesto for SLA. This is a very brief and measured version of my thoughts about the association and other professional associations for information and knowledge workers. As such, it’s more general than a pointedly SLA treatise would be, but at the same time it’s important to recognize this is shaped by my experience and the current trajectory of SLA.

Don’t be surprised if there’s a longer version some day, but for now… here it is. I have some physical copies to distribute at the conference. Let me know if you want one.

A Manifesto for Professional Associations like SLA


I have been an SLA member since 2006. I first joined as a student in library school. I have remained a member because I believe in the power and value of SLA for me to be the best librarian I can be, but it has been difficult. After the economic collapse of 2008, our industry and association has struggled to figure out the best path forward. The old approach to membership, engagement, and finances was no longer sustainable as a huge portion of the industry vanished. SLA tried in many different ways to react to those changes, but it’s struggled and continues to struggle.

I am writing this manifesto to propose how I think professional associations, like SLA, should radically change their approach. I don’t think I have the answer, but I do think these could help in achieving necessary changes. Much of my language reflects my work in labor organizing, as it has greatly influenced my views on how professional associations should be relevant today.

1. Professional associations are organizations for library and information professionals, not their employers.

It makes sense that we spend a lot of energy communicating the value of associations for our employers, since they traditionally paid for membership and conference travel. While the value of associations for members is present in the marketing material, it usually ties back to how to add value to our employers. This is misplaced effort which should have been focused on helping members continue to grow, build and refine skills. Employers will value information workers’ involvement in professional associations when the value is readily apparent. We have lost that value to the members in the thirsty attempts to woo our employers — many of whom value library and information professionals so little that they eliminated those services in the last decade.

2. Professional associations need to be member driven and member centered organizations.

With any volunteer-run organization, there’s a balance between structured governance and member driven action. When there is tension (and confusion) on how to operate within the bureaucratic structures of the organization, it disempowers members which leads to disengagement. This dynamic breeds the attitude of “what can the association do for me?” because it’s not clear what members can actually do for themselves.

Is SLA here for the members or is it here for SLA?  At times it seems like professional associations continue to exist through inertia and as a result their purpose is muddled by competing interests. Is the purpose of an association to enrich members in their professional growth through education and knowledge sharing? Is the purpose to give vendors an audience with potential clients and customers? Is the purpose to enforce professional norms through credentialism?

The focus needs to be the enrichment of the members first and foremost, and while associations need to strike a balance to achieve that, it must always focus on that goal.

3. Professional associations needs to serve all members, at all stages of their career. Remember where you started from.

Nobody is born a fully fledged professional. Nobody is born an expert. Associations need to be welcoming and supporting of those entering the profession, and continue to support them throughout their career’s ebbs and flows. This means we need to have opportunities for members at all stages, at many different levels in their career. We cannot take advantage of new professionals eager for opportunities to grow, only to cause them to burn out and drift away. We cannot let people in the middle of their career flounder, looking for opportunities that fit with their skills and obligations. And while we do also need to address the needs of seasoned and experienced members, that cannot be at the expense of everybody else. Lots of groups talk about mentorship and learning from one another, but few actually succeed at that goal. The barriers of opportunities for students and new professionals to participate – at conference, locally, etc. – makes mentoring efforts fail. Mentoring cannot save an association, but it is an important component of sustainable membership engagement. Associations and their members who are committed and engaged need to create opportunities for newer members to participate, feel connected, and respected.

If the only people who can regularly attend and contribute are those who are at the higher end of their career, then they need to work on re-establishing arc for others to reach that level. The ladder has been pulled up and we need to rebuild it.

4. Members create value for other members – not just the association.

In our numbers-obsessed world, there is an intense focus on the “value” of everything. Marketing tries to communicate the value of being a member of an association to attract and retain members, but it’s never clear what the value actually is.

Is the value of the association financial through offering education opportunities for those in the profession? Is the value professional through the opportunities created by a network of colleagues? It seems that many associations are leaning towards the former to address financial constraints, all the while the latter suffers. The community suffers as people drop memberships for more affordable and comparably enriching opportunities. It’s hard to argue with people who take that course of action because it makes sense. It also makes it hard to attract and retain new members who don’t have any reason to have an attachment to the association.  

There is tension within many associations because of the different types of expectations members have of what they want out of an association and the levels of engagement. Some join to stay informed of current trends in the profession, but are not inclined to volunteer (for many reasons – lack of time, resources, or interest). Others see it as an opportunity to contribute to the profession, take on the challenge of working with others to discuss foundational topics, and providing opportunities for knowledge and skills sharing. This is a service-oriented mindset. Others engage for primarily personal benefit – connecting with potential clients or raising their profile for career opportunities. Members likely exhibit some combination of all of these behaviors and should be expected to change and grow over time. Problems arise though when service-oriented members, those focused on creating opportunities for others to engage, are disempowered to do so.

5. Conferences and other programming needs to be relevant and accessible for all members. (Accessible to those with disabilities, by cost, and geography.)

If associations are going to be inclusive to as many people as possible, programming cannot be location dependent. Offering opportunities for members to collaborate, share, and learn is the core function of professional associations (outside of credentialism). The focus cannot remain on in person events tied to specific geographies, as these are cost and time prohibitive for many people, which may have been acceptable before but no longer is the case. For in person meetings, costs must be kept to a minimum so that more people can be able to attend. There also needs to be a culture of inclusion in terms of logistics, physical accessibility of the space, and selecting locations that are welcoming to all members. (This is extremely difficult in the USA, which currently is not welcoming to those from many other countries and cultures.)

Technology provides the tools for collaboration, lowering the barrier for participation for members, but those platforms need to be accessible to as many people as possible as well – to screen readers and other assistive technologies, on many different computing platforms, and available in different languages.

6. Professional associations needs to reckon with how capitalism and neoliberalism affect access to information, research, and society.

This is a very heated issue for society and we need to confront it and discuss it within the context of information work. This is one of the key tensions we face, and until we come to a common understanding it will continue to impede how members can interact. Members from the public sector, or non-profits are likely to be more resource constrained than those from the private sector. There is also the mistrust between customers and vendors due to limited budgets and rising costs. In this context professional associations suffer by skirting around these issues in attempts not to alienate people, particularly the companies that associations rely on for financial sponsorship, but as a result the members whose dues and work actually make associations valuable are left feeling less important.

More philosophically, it can be distilled to how one feels about the phrase, “information wants to be free.” Those who believe this is the goal we should achieve, limiting the barriers to access (and cost) as much as possible. Others see it as a problem, that information can be difficult to contain and they must ensure to protect its security. (Most people agree information is difficult to manage.) Capitalism is a root cause of these differences and it can’t be ignored.

Terminology matters: When the personal informs the professional – safety edition.

Ghost Bike – Emeryville CA flickr photo by roger jones shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

(If you aren’t familiar with them, go read about ghost bike memorials.)

I’ve been meaning to write a blog post about this topic for a while. There have been discussions in library circles about the need to change the language we use to describe things (a cornerstone of the profession) to better reflect society today, and to start to dismantle structural biases. The focus has largely been around race for good reason – like the 2016 example of Congress intervening to prevent the LCSH term “illegal alien” to be deprecated in favor of something less charged and racist, like “noncitizens” or “unauthorized immigration”. Some of my colleagues presented their work in this area at the 2018 JCLC, and also wrote about it for the 2019 ACRL President’s program – how they use “metadata justice” to better connect and reflect the communities their library supports.

And I didn’t really think much of social justice and metadata for my direct work until this year, when I noticed my colleagues — transportation librarians, other transportation professionals, librarians, whatever — using incorrect terminology. I was used to pushing back on outdated terminology around mobility, working on the SAE shared mobility glossary and continuing to bring those terms to the TRT and the larger transportation community. I work with cutting edge researchers pushing the boundaries of the field, so I kind of expect to be leading the charge when it comes to classification. It’s one of the functions I bring to the community. But then, through a discussion on a transportation librarian listserv it was clear we also had to have a communal discussion about safety, after somebody posted something about getting into an “accident” with a pedestrian or a cyclist. I didn’t want to engage, especially because I didn’t want to diminish any trauma my colleague might have experience when they hit the other person, but it became clear after some exchanges that my colleagues (mostly from highway focused state DOTs) were still using accident – a term we took out of the TRT in 2015, opting for crash or collision as appropriate. This came after a movement from safety circles to use “crash not accident”, a move that was promoted by the FMCSA. Here is most of their statement, which is so clear and rational:

Changing the way we think about events and the words we use to describe them affects the way we behave. Motor vehicle crashes occur “when a link or several links in the chain” are broken. Continued use of the word “accident” implies that these events are outside human influence or control. In reality, they are predictable results of specific actions.

Since we can identify the causes of crashes, we can take action to alter the effect and avoid collisions. These are not Acts of God but predictable results of the laws of physics.

The concept of “accident” works against bringing all appropriate resources to bear on the enormous problem of highway collisions. Use of “accident” fosters the idea that the resulting damage and injuries are unavoidable.

“Crash,” “collision,” and “injury” are more appropriate terms, and we encourage their use as substitutes for “accident.”

“A Crash is Not an Accident” by George L. Reagle, Associate Administrator for Motor Carriers. Updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Furthermore, through the research I help support and catalog I realized it’s also important to change the way we describe the participants in crashes and collisions. LCSH still uses “accident”. One of my new projects is to work with my cataloging colleagues to start the process of changing that. I know this will be a hard slog, but it’s just too important not to engage in the process.

Cars don’t hit pedestrians, drivers do. (Unless it’s a fully autonomous vehicle, but there is still so much to be worked out with liability and responsibility and that’s just a distracting edge case.) By ascribing responsibility to the vehicle, it erases the responsibility and the agency of the operator. Transportation safety advocates are pushing back on this idea, highlighting how pedestrian safety declines despite vehicles being safer for drivers. In 2019, there have been several cycling deaths because drivers were reckless – one notable example is of DC cycling advocate Dave Salovesh who fought for safer biking conditions and was killed by a speeding driver. (Another cyclist was killed on the same block days later, and Salovesh’s ghost bike has already been wiped out by a negligent driver.)

I bike commute most days – rain or shine. I do this because I prefer it to driving and parking, but also because I think it’s the most responsible way for me to travel given my geography and the climate emergency. It’s hard not to think with every pedestrian and cycling death or injury at the hand of a car or truck, “That could have been me.” And then yesterday, it almost was me.

That whole Twitter thread is basically me freaking out as I rode away, angry crying to pick up my kid. I’m so thankful they weren’t with me, because it could have been so much worse. At the scene, both the driver and the passenger kept saying it was an “accident” that the driver couldn’t clearly see if it was safe to turn left yet kept going for it. I was ready to go into a long, angry rant about how there was nothing accidental in the situation, that it was their responsibility to proceed with caution if they couldn’t see oncoming traffic, and that they didn’t look for bikes in the bike lane on a bike boulevard – well, their disregard for the safety of others was very clear.

And the next morning, I’m still angry about the incident but it did get me to finally post thing thing about why we need to change the way we describe traffic collisions and crashes, and that we need to assign agency to the people involved. As I noted above, this is a social justice issue. It touches upon environmental impacts, public health, public safety, accessibility to opportunities, mobility. If we continue to prioritize single occupant vehicles (private or shared) at the expense of active modes of transportation or transit, nothing will change and people will continue to die.

I just hope that I won’t be another bike fatality at the hands of a careless or impatient driver.

Thank you all for your help in reaching mid-career.

1950s — Children’s Librarian Hazel Keedle with Reading Club birthday cake, at OLD Ann Arbor Public Library on East Huron Street, Ann Arbor, Michigan. flickr photo by In Memoriam: Wystan shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

A couple of weeks ago over lunch with a colleague, I decided it was really time to call myself a “mid-career” librarian. I’ve been feeling kind of mid-career for a while, but it wasn’t until making some comment about not sweating a lot of the small stuff (like presenting at any conference that will have me or serving on any committee that asks) because it doesn’t actually matter, that I realized I’ve attained that point of not sweating the small stuff the way I did 5 years ago. It was liberating to admit I’m old.

Then this week the SLA 2019 Awards Class was announced. Congratulations to all who are being recognized! You should go read the whole list of award winners. It’s a pretty good class! And then there’s me. This isn’t false modesty – it’s really kind of weird to become an SLA Fellow, but a recognition I was mildly prepared for having accepted becoming mid-career. See, long ago… I gave up expectations or dreams of getting awards for my work because it was inherently selfish and lead to disappointment. I engage because I value those connections and want to help the information profession evolve and grow in a way that benefits society. I saw so many others working hard for the betterment of SLA and the profession without much of a personal agenda, with a genuine commitment to service, and I decided to follow their path.

And that’s the thing that has been the most rewarding thing so far about being named an SLA Fellow – the outpouring of support and recognition from all of those colleagues who have helped me out over the years. Those who gave me advice, gave me opportunities, gave me their time and feedback. Many of them are SLA Fellows, and to join their ranks is a huge honor. (I do feel kind of like a fraud – have I actually done enough work for the association to join this cadre? – but I will try to let those feelings pass and accept that others value my work with SLA.) I can’t really give a full run down of all the people I especially want to thank, since you are numerous and I would hate to leave people out, but I know most of my conference in Cleveland will be thanking you all in person. I couldn’t have reached this point without your support and belief in my abilities.

This also has reaffirmed my commitment to the profession though, and sustaining pathways and opportunities for new professionals to contribute for the betterment of all. I still strongly believe that as you progress in your career, you owe it to those coming after you to help them in the ways others helped you. Like writing letters of support. Or giving people opportunities to present and share their knowledge and perspective. The people I have grown to respect and admire in SLA are those who continue to do that hard work, even (or especially) if there is no direct, immediate benefit to themselves other than satisfaction in helping others. (I’ll save my screed for those who pull the opportunity ladder up behind them for another post.) And I’m excited to see this new crop of Rising Stars and what they will continue to do with SLA.

Let’s go have some library cake.

Can You Calculate the ROI of Academic Freedom and The Public Good?

Angela Davis at UCLA in 1969

On Monday UC-AFT Unit 17 Librarians ratified a tentative agreement on a new contract with UC. I’ve talked about the contract campaign a lot on here, social media, and the local media. Also on Monday, UC issued a proposed new policy on academic freedom for non-faculty academic appointees – librarians, researchers, clinicians, and more. This came about partially because UC-AFT raised the issue in bargaining, and it became clear that all non-faculty academics needed some process for adjudicating issues around academic freedom. The proposed policy does that. (And yet another example of union power… kind of…)

Last night I went to a discussion about academic freedom with Joan Scott, who spoke about her book Knowledge, Power and Academic Freedom, Hank Reichman, who spoke about his brand new book The Future of Academic Freedom, Wendy Brown (tenured faculty), Khalid Kadir (contingent faculty) and I-Wei Wang (librarian and a member of the UC-AFT Unit 17 table team). It was a very interesting discussion that imparted a sense of action and urgency – academic freedom will only exist if we continue to fight for and defend it. Particularly as the notion of the public good has eroded over time, and the creation of knowledge is measured and valued in economic terms.

I flew to Philadelphia today to attend a meeting, and I took the opportunity on the flight to read Scott’s book. It’s a very tight collection of essays exploring the history and different facets of academic freedom, and what it means in today’s Trumpian world. It’s clear that the more things change in this regard, the more they stay the same. The essay about academic freedom and the state (Chapter 4) resonated with me the most, because it touched upon many topics that I’ve been particularly concerned with, given the tension between research in academic settings and funders, and how that influences the production of knowledge. Academic freedom is supposed to reflect the separation of academia from the state (funders). One of the early examples of academic freedom Scott presents is that of Edward Ross at Stanford in 1900 – who was fired for making remarks criticizing the practice of importing workers from China and calling for the municipalization of the railroads. Leland Stanford, who started the university and was at one point a governor of California, made his fortune building railroads in the western United States with cheap Chinese labor. Ross’ comments were too much for Stanford’s widow Jane, who called for his resignation. He was fired, faculty protested and this eventually lead to the creation of the AAUP. I use this example to show how long this has been happening (and also because people who know me, know I despise the legacy of Leland Stanford and the Big Four).

Another, more recent example is that of Angela Davis at UCLA in 1969 (as pictured above). She was a member of the Communist Party, and then Governor Reagan urged the UC Regents to fire her and they did. Students and faculty protested, citing a violation of academic freedom. There was a lawsuit. She was allowed to teach a few classes in the 69-70 academic year. I think this part of her story is usually obscured by what came next. This example hits close to home because it is the UC Regents interfering at the request of the governor (particularly one who actively tried to dismantle the growth of UC under Brown/Kerr!), something that worries me still.

And given today’s state of public higher education and research, and the lack of autonomy for academia because state funding comes with clear and explicit strings, it’s hard to see how academic freedom isn’t being defined and dictated by the state. Knowledge production is regarded as a means to the end of productivity. Students are in school to get jobs, to feed back into the economy. Research is measured by its impact in society, but largely that impact can be distilled into economic factors. (But also remember, Thatcher famously said “there’s no such thing as society“.) Inquiry, research, critical thinking, and the collective notion of the public good are becoming after thoughts to the neoliberal need to have an ROI. This is evident by the politicization of research topics, and became very clear how high the stakes were during the transition from Obama to Trump. Many federally funded programs and projects looking at ways to protect the environment, moving to clean energy, were soon gutted. Programs had to shift their focus, not because the facts and science called for it. No. It was because that was how they could get funding from those programs. Funding they desperately need since guaranteed, baseline state funding doesn’t really exist anymore. This makes me think that despite the new UC proposed policy, academic researchers will never really have academic freedom as long as they need to keep pleasing funders with an eye on the next grant. I’m not arguing that there should be no accountability in how public money is spent on research, but that it shouldn’t be focused on bottom line ROI with the greater good as an after thought (if it’s mentioned at all).

But I don’t think this is really news to anybody. It’s important to keep that in your mind as we all fight for scraps.

I’m going to read Reichman’s book tomorrow on my flight home, so expect another post next week.

Many names means many access points.

Howard Jarvis eating a sandwich

A personal anecdote before we get to the meat of this post – At home we’re teaching the kid about names and how you can call people different things and all of them are correct. Like I am Kendra and mommy. Or they are Eddie or Edmund (despite their fierce protests). It’s a hard concept for a toddler to grasp, which is kind of cool to see unfold and try to explain.

This week I’ve been thinking about the mess of talking about government legislation and rules because the names are either too generic to be useful, repeated and therefore confusing, or have multiple names that shift overtime. Not every piece of legislation can be ISTEA (sounds like “ice tea”). When my editor asked me to clarify what I meant when talking about SB1 in a recent thing I wrote, I realized that though I could call it the Road Repair and Accountability Act nobody really does. It’s SB1. Like there will never be another piece of legislation in California called SB1.

And you can’t confuse AB375 from 2018, the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018 and SB375 from 2008, the Transportation and Land Use Planning and the California Environmental Quality Act. (That’s kind of meta since it’s an act that references another act!)

Last week somebody asked me for material related to the Transportation Development Act of 1971, which was SB325 but also frequently called the Mills-Alquist-Deddeh Act. So looking for it requires a few different avenues and hoping people get it right. That’s easy.

This reminds me of some confusion I had recently when reading contemporary sources about California politics in the 1970s. They kept talking about the danger looming about “Jarvis Gann” in terms of the state’s finances. A little bit of context and knowledge of history makes it clear they’re talking about the 1978 ballot proposition Proposition 13 (colloquially known now as just Prop 13, there is only one Prop 13). But of course, growing up in a California where Prop 13 has been around the entire time, Howard Jarvis (seen above eating a big sandwich) and Paul Gann are sometimes obscured by it. (Prop. 13 did just turn 40, and it still is messing with the state is so many ways. The current teachers strike in Oakland is a symptom of it.)

I think there was a hope that linked data and semantic searching would make this all so easy. So that you wouldn’t have to know if you want the full discourse around Prop 13 in the mid to late 70s, you need to search “Jarvis Gann”. Or that if you want to know more about TDA before it passed that “Mills-Alquist-Deddeh” was the ticket (it rolls off the tongue). This leads me to a passion project I would love to tackle: Using text mining to curate resource guides and bibliographies on topics with evolving terminology.

Stay tuned.