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.

More coherent thoughts on the SLA Consultants’ Recommendations.

flickr photo shared by Royal Free Archive Centre under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC ) license

It’s June, which means the club football seasons are over and it’s time for cricket! (At least in my narrow view of the world.) I’m using the sport metaphor here to haphazardly say I like being part of a club/team/squad, and I’m a team player. In footy I’m a defender (outside back is  one of the least glamourous positions despite people like Dani Alves or Branislav Ivanovic), which reflects my mindset of helping out for the greater good of the whole team. So let me use this as a starting off point for a more concise, coherent follow up from my post yesterday about the SLA consultants recommendations.

I also want to state up from my SLA bona fides to demonstrate this is coming from a place of love and concern for an association I have been deeply involved with and benefited greatly from: I have been a member since 2006 (when I enrolled in library school). I have been a conference planner for the Academic and Transportation Divisions. I have been Chair of the Transportation Division and Secretary of the Academic Division. I have been on the SLA Nominating Committee. I was on the 2015 Annual Conference Advisory Council. I was a Rising Star in 2013. I am currently on the LMD Professional Development Committee and the SLA Professional Development Advisory Council. I am very involved and willing to speak up when I disagree or have concerns. So let me do it some more.

The biggest issue I have with the consultants’ recommendations is the fast pace for huge structural changes, namely consolidation of units and the probable dissolution of the Chapter and Division Cabinets. In my mind, this takes away the clearest mechanism for members to provide actionable feedback to the board. I’ve sat through some very tetchy and contested Division and Joint Cabinet meetings, and while they were painful in the moment I think they reflect the need for members to be heard. Frankly, most of the frustration in those meetings stemmed from members not feeling valued or included in the process. So the proposed changes seem to address the problem by just removing that outlet, which will further detach most members from SLA governance in the name of streamlined expediency. This will probably kill whatever goodwill exists with many frustrated members like myself. That’s a terrible route for a member organizations and that sends a message that it doesn’t value grassroots participation beyond benign efforts that make SLA look good and generate revenue.

This also goes back to the issue I tried to articulate yesterday about the proposed process to recruit new Board Members. Honestly, anybody who has the mix of self confidence and arrogance to apply for the board will make me suspicious but that’s because I really worry that it will attract glory hunters in search of branding their legacy, rather than helping the association. When I was on Nominating, I was keen to tap members who have demonstrated thoughtfulness, and capable dedication to SLA. I really don’t want self-appointed thought leaders and I really worry that a lot of great potential board members will never be nominated because they won’t play the game. We’ll probably end up with a self-selecting club that represents a narrow view of information professionals.

The lack of details about restructuring really worries me and other SLA members and I think creates concern that the Board and HQ will effectively rule by fiat. As I stated yesterday, I’m not against unit restructuring and I think it is required for us to continue. I think it will have to be done carefully and really be driven from participation and understanding from the members of the units so people can sit well with it. Being forced to make these alliances without clear benefits when it’s obvious what members and units will lose is a hard pill to swallow. This needs to be address and the process needs to be open and inclusive to all – not just people who know the system or larger units that will absorb smaller units. I mean, I’ve been a leader of one of the smallest and oldest divisions. I would be OK with us merging with other divisions, but we have to have input with how it goes down and not just be told “You’re part of the Engineering Division now because highways are engineering.” That shows a total lack of understanding of what we do.

These issues I think come from who wrote the report and I feel remiss in not stating that I do have an issue with the process to select the consultants. The whole timeline of Janice Lachance’s stepping down as CEO and the hiring of Ulla de Stricker and Cindy Shamel as the Change Directors (or whatever euphemism they’re using) was very quick and members were not aware of anything until they were in place. That generated a lot of suspicion for good reason. While I think they and the board have tried to be as transparent as (they love to remind us) they can legally be while still moving with a quick timeline, I really think they’ve done a poor job engaging members in the process. I understand that it’s very difficult to get the message out there and solicit feedback, but I think emails to the SLA Leadership list, a few to members, and the blog posts have not been enough. Some of this reflects the lack of resources at HQ for direct communication with members. There isn’t enough bandwidth to go around and SLA didn’t really have a PR person for a long time. I also think this reflects the disconnect a lot of people involved have with the grass roots. They have been involved long enough to know board members and are involved with large units that get it. But what about members on the fringes? How to engage them? I haven’t seen it happen, and the timeline to basically end the discussion at the Annual Conference, rather than start the discussion there, is a missed opportunity to really get the whole association involved. No. This really rubs me the wrong way because it smells like at best a clear disconnect from members and at worst cronyism.

It also shows the narrow view of “information professional” that tries to sound inclusive but really just reads as corporate information centers and independent information consultants. That explains the ham fisted proposals for division consolidation. It also reflects an outdated view of SLA membership. SLA used to be a bastion of corporate libraries but, especially since the Great Recession, many have disappeared. Membership demographics have shifted and there’s been a rise of academic involvement. Why? For one thing, SLA is great for subject specialty academic librarians to be involved in their subject areas and prepare students for researching after graduation. For another, academic librarians are required to be involved in professional activities for our jobs. When the slate for the 2014 Board came out many were upset there were so many academics on it. “It doesn’t represent SLA!” they cried. It’s true, but that’s who said yes because they need service for their job and their employers will support it. It reflects a change in the system and I don’t think the consultants and their recommendations see it as an asset. If ACRL got its act together to make it better for subject librarians (like myself), I wouldn’t be surprised if there was an exodus, but I also know lots of old school SLA members would be OK with that. These are also the same people who think that government librarians should just go join GODORT. Those attitudes reflect their lack of familiarity of what many special librarians actually do, which does not give me confidence in the final product.

So there you have it. I will probably email these two posts to my SLA leaders and the Board and they might read them because they know who I am. I really encourage more SLA members to write and speak up before and during the Board meeting in Boston. These changes are huge and I think we need to slow the process down so it’s more inclusive and represents all of SLA, not just a handful of old timers with their own vision and biases.


My scattered thoughts on the SLA consultants’ Recommendations Report

flickr photo shared by she was under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC-ND ) license

I’ve been meaning to write up my thoughts about the SLA consultants’ Recommendations Report for a while, but I’ve been busy. The conference, and the board meeting where this will be discussed, is next week. Time’s running out.

Here are my scattered thoughts on it. That little orange creature really captures my feelings about the report. I understand SLA is in a tough position and really needs to change, but I will admit that the changes outlined in the document don’t sit well with me. The TL DR: I welcome change, am ambivalent about some change, and vehemently opposed to other change. The proposed changes in structure of the Board of Directors reads as exclusionary and a consolidation of power, which is antithesis to a member organization. The proposed relationship between the Board, HQ, and the members also seems out of balance and limits opportunities for professional development. In fact it makes me question my continued involvement with the association more than anything. I am having a hard time seeing my place in SLA if the recommendations are carried out, but I guess that’s as much about me as it is SLA.

Edited to add: I’ve written up some more coherent and pointed thoughts, you can read them here

So here are my haphazard thoughts.

“Vendor Partners” – SLA needs to rethink the way it approaches business partnerships since there’s been a massive decline in revenue due to loss of sponsorships. Some of this is the result of consolidation in the information sector, some of it due to changing business models, and we can’t ignore the drop in SLA membership and conference attendance. Association leadership, especially those who work for vendors, has been calling for improved relations and rethinking how we approach “vendor partners” for a while. The recommendations want to centralize the association’s relationship with vendors, which would make sponsorship more streamlined. It also proposes that “geographic units” (chapters) should split sponsorship for local events with SLA HQ 50/50 for the value of leveraging the SLA brand. I see why it’s controversial but also why it’s proposed. (3.1)

My main issue with the section is the tone with regard to “vendor partners” , that the “strategic direction is to introduce a new understanding that vendors are valued partners in SLA’s mission to assist members in being the best they can be professionally.” (3.1) This statement rubs me the wrong way because it seems to me that members might be too naive to appreciate how vendors can help us. One of the other aims is to “educate SLA members that business partners are valuable and valid contributors to professional development and deserve a ‘seat at the table’ when SLA plans educational events.” (3.1) Again, this seems to assume that members don’t feel that way. One strength of SLA membership is that so many vendors are members, and we work together as members. I don’t know many members who really don’t think vendors don’t deserve a “seat at the table”, but many do have legitimate concerns that education sessions are just product pitches. Section 3.2 (Benefits and Drivers) addresses those valid concerns, but really focuses on the benefits to the vendors not to the practitioner member. This makes the challenge statement come across as chastising the average member: “SLA’s greatest challenge in the are of business partnerships has been its inability to engage in truly mutually beneficial relationships.” (3.2) Of the proposals, it’s clear how vendors will benefit but the not so clear how average members will beyond the opportunity to hear more about vendor products and have vendors subsidise SLA. I would love to have a real partnership with vendors. I want to learn about how they develop products and their insights beyond polished press releases and training materials. I want to have a relationship where they can be honest with us and we can be honest with them. I know there has to be some selling in exchange for sponsorship, but they also have the opportunity for valuable feedback and insights. The tone of this section really makes me uncomfortable because it reads more like “be nice to vendors and let them sell you stuff” without the palatable “and feel free to give them respectful and honest feedback.”  

Professional Development – This section cuts to the heart of why many people remain members of SLA. We want to learn new skills, stay up to date with trends, and get the training to stay cutting edge information professionals. SLA needs to revamp the way it delivers this content and I think a lot of these recommendations are headed in the right direction. The tone and lack of details do worry me though. I don’t know how they actually plan to “leverage effort already invested” because there are no details. (4.2) There has been considerable work in this area done by units, many of which have robust professional development programs for their members. Bringing all of these resources under a centralized SLA umbrella will not only take a lot of coordination and work, but it also threatens some of the strategic plans of the units that were developed after recommendations from the SLA board. This isn’t enough of a reason to impede change, but I do think these valid concerns of units need to be addressed with more detail. SLA will have to hire somebody to coordinate this work for HQ and I do have concerns that the person will have the perspective to really meet the needs of many SLA members and help us grow in the direction we need to go. I worry that we will look for opportunities that raise money over opportunities that really keep us vital. (Not that it’s mutually exclusive.) 

The benefits are described as “SLA gathers to itself members who care about enhancing their skills and who will pay for the opportunity to do so.” (4.2) (emphasis is mine) The need for SLA members to value their professional development enough has been a recurring theme of these discussions over the last few years, and while I am somebody who does pay out of my own pocket for some professional development, this discussion always makes me uneasy. To my ear, it puts down members who will not or cannot pay for these opportunities if their employers will not cover it, which is increasingly more common. We’re told that our SLA memberships are such great value for the money, but at the same time it’s still a significant chunk of money. I totally understand why people with student loans, retirement worries, mortgages, medical bills, families, or a life outside of work, might not be able to afford all of the membership activities and educational opportunities. I really worry about these new offerings not actually being reasonably affordable for the reward and question if these business models take into account many SLA members who work in the public sector with extremely limited budgets. I do appreciate the proposal for more virtual content and web-based educational opportunities, as I think this will help broaden their reach.

Conference Models – Let me start off confessing I was on the 2015 Annual Conference Advisory Committee and have been a unit planner for the annual conference 3 times. I am intimately familiar with how the conference works.

I think the recommendations in this section have some of the biggest impact but also give me some of the greatest pause. The recommendation to remove unit board and business meetings from the conference overlooks one of the reasons people go the conference – networking. (5.1.b) I did this with the Transportation Division because we needed to cut costs and we wanted to be nimble. Division members were upset at the loss of the Business Lunch because they liked to opportunity to meet face to face and talk to eachother. The recommendations focus on quality of learning opportunities but really neglects networking opportunities for units that aren’t geographically based, which concerns me as that’s a pretty fundamental way to engage with members.

My concerns about relying on one or two professionals to develop the content of the conference program worries me for the same reasons I stated above about the professional development proposal – I worry they will not really meet the needs of all SLA members and probably narrow the focus of education offerings. While this might be what SLA wants to do to survive, it will leave people outside the tent. I also worry about the balance of topics that will get people to come and the content we actually need. As much of a mess as the current system is, I do like that it represents a wide range of member interests and perspectives. I do like the suggestion to make topics more broadly accessible for members, but I think there’s a middle ground.

Centralizing the other aspects of planning like room configuration, AV, and sponsorship is a great idea that I wholeheartedly welcome. The administrative aspects of conference planning are thankless and require a lot of attention to detail. The unit planners don’t fully appreciate or understand the scheduled deadlines the first time around and it creates many headaches for HQ staff who ultimately have to make sure things are taken care of. Centralizing those functions and giving the task to people who better understand the conference planning system makes a lot of sense and would give unit planners more time to focus on conference content and not how many appetizers they need to order for their open house.

And as for the gamification proposal… please no. I get why they put that in there, but it really just makes me think they’re trying hard to be engaging without actually engaging members. It’s low hanging fruit and faddish and while some gamification can work, I would want to see the content drive any reforms and outreach.

Organizational Review – This section has some of the biggest recommended changes to unit structure, some of which I think could be beneficial but others I find troubling. Restructuring divisions to consolidate them along subjects seems like it could be workable on the face of it, though I do disagree with the specified proposed breakdown in 6.1.a because some of the groupings seem to be based on a superficial knowledge of the subject. I think restructuring divisions to be along broader subjects, leveraging existing synergies, could really help with membership engagement and give members more manageable volunteer opportunities. This would also broaden member experiences and perspectives which would make education opportunities more accessible to more members. Speaking from my experience as a member of a small, tight nit division I do understand why some groups might not welcome this change but I think it is necessary. Transportation, though it isn’t just engineering, will benefit with stronger ties to other cohorts. The proposal to have divisions operate with less autonomy under the SLA brand is fine, but I must say I think a lot of divisions have been operating like that because HQ hasn’t been responsive enough to member needs. If big SLA can fill that gap and make it easy for divisions, things should be fine.

The structural changes to the chapters (6.1.b) is more drastic and I can’t really speak to them as I’ve never been involved in my chapter. I’ve heard concerns about the revenue sharing from chapters and a lot of my concern for the recommendations is the same as the concern for the divisions – will SLA HQ be able to bridge the gap? The proposed changes for geographically spread out chapters is probably welcome, but I can also see why large metro chapters are not comfortable with the recommendations. There needs to be more detail about the actual benefits these chapters will receive other than the vague “strong SLA”, otherwise this seems like messing with one of the things that’s kind of working right now.

The recommendations for SLA HQ (6.1.d) sound good as well, but I also am not clear on how they will be achieved, especially with looming and controversial building sale. It’s clear that HQ needs more staff and we definitely need better IT infrastructure. My hesitation is that a lot of the changes hinge on these upgrades being successful and it’s not easy. The whole process has been rushed and I’m worried we’re going too far in the “INNOVATE OR DIE!” mode that we might be rushing to slightly better and not really changing enough or intelligently.

Buried deep in this is some of the most important and drastic changes in the recommendations for the Board of Directors (6.1.e). Having been on the Nominating Committee, I understand the need to change the process. I worry that while changing it to be more of an application-based process sounds democratic, I think this is really a consolidation of power with people who know how to play the system (and dare I say making it?). We’ll get people who feel confident enough to apply, which will exclude qualified people who might suffer from imposter syndrome (which is super common in the profession). I get the desire for having specific competencies on the board but the proposal seems on its face to me exclusionary. Add to this the proposal to eliminate the cabinet and past-president roles, just seem even more like a consolidation of power. While I can see the argument that this will be procedurally more efficient, it really strikes me as undemocratic and cutting off the board from the members. To put it plainly, this part of the plan stinks and would only really benefit those who are lucky enough to get on the board. I don’t see how it will benefit members other than the board wouldn’t have to waste their time interacting with membership as much. The same could be said for HQ I guess. Honestly it’s fucked up if the way forward to save the association is to make it harder for members to be involved with the governance. Maybe it’s because I cut my teeth in the punk scene but volunteer associations that are so top down really don’t make me want to be involved.

Revenues and Finances – I don’t like the idea of a bridge loan, but I also don’t know of what else we should do. The proposal for the realignment of dues and fees makes sense on its face, but the proposal to set the dues at “a rate that compares with other organizations” (7.2.b) does worry me because based on past discussions, I worry we’re not on the same page at all. Some of this goes back to the culture class between people used to corporate expense accounts and consultants who see it as the cost of doing business, and people working in the non-profit/public sectors where cost is a huge barrier. Rolling in more services for a flat dues rate sounds promising. The revenue sharing arrangement for sponsorship is not surprising, and I understand why people are not happy with it but I know we’re in tough times.

Market Viability – Oh man… I know this will piss some people off but I don’t care. It’s laughable that in this section discussing the role of SLA in the market the word “library” only shows up in this sentence, “Whether we call ourselves librarians or work in libraries becomes moot.” (8.2) This is a nod to who the consultants are: they’re information professionals. The condescension that SLA members might still use the term library is tiresome and offensive to me. Hi, I’m a librarian. I am also a “career minded information professional.” (8.2.a) The two aren’t mutually exclusive but the continued efforts to bury the L-word and promote info pro makes me think of the failed name change. This also gets to the heart of SLA’s existential quandary. Who the fuck are we? We can’t be all things to all people, I get that. This report was clearly written by private consultants for corporate information professionals and consultants with some slight nods to all of the others that actually make up the association. As an academic librarian who works at a research institute and works with mostly government agencies, it’s hard to see how they value me and my colleagues in this new definition. It’s also hard to see where else I should go though IASSIST looks better each day. I think the message to make members better advocates for themselves (8.2.b) is great, and agree with a broader definition of information professional for membership. I think we would be stronger with a more diverse membership that captures more aspects of the information lifecycle. I don’t think this has to be done at the expense or denigration of existing members who are librarians. Seriously saying librarian once in a while won’t turn off new potential members. Never saying it even though we’re still called SLA is kind of a sign to existing members that we’re not what you want, except you do because you need members.

Speak up. Create Action.


One of my favourite albums in high school was The DecibelsCreate Action. (They had a brief reunion in 2013. You might be able to see me dancing to their cover of “That’s When Happiness Began” by the Grains of Sand in this video.) The title track, “Create Action”, is a good anthem of actually doing something. Yesterday when I was writing about SLA signing on to COAR, this song popped into my head. (A nice departure from “Wichita Lineman” which is usually in there.) That’s it for the rock and roll lesson.

So the good news from yesterday is that this morning I received an email from Doug Newcomb, Deputy CEO of SLA, that the association has joined all of those other groups and signed on to the COAR letter denouncing Elsevier’s new sharing policy. This is fantastic and I really appreciate that SLA took this action. I will renew my membership this month after all! You know what I’m happiest about though? Not just that they’re taking a stand for members on an issue that directly affects our mission and values, but that they responded to my letter.

Building upon my earlier post about showing you’re a radical through action, one of the most important ways to affect change is to speak up and create action. I don’t know if groups like ALA, SLA, SPARC, the EFF speaking out against the new Elsevier policy will make them change their mind but not speaking up will definitely yield no change. It’s why I took the time to write to the SLA Board of Directors and the Public Policy Advisory Council to ask them and take action on the issue rather than just leave it at my snarky, dismayed tweet. The tweet alone would have just been a small public stunt that would be lost in the void and there would most likely not be any further action. Emailing a lot of people I knew who could and probably would actually do something created the action.

This is a skill I think we all need to develop – the ability to listen to our conscience and speak up. In the case of this issue, it wasn’t just saying, “Hey! SLA, do something!” but taking the time to figure out appropriate channels and craft a message they will be receptive to while still communicating my intent. It’s totally a “the change your want to see” idea. There’s still a lot of work to do around the issues facing publishers, authors, and libraries with regards to Open Access. (John Dupuis just posted a good summary of where we are with the Elsevier policy.) So create action.