Professional associations: maybe we should start from scratch?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the structures, roles, and necessity of professional associations since it seems like every one is going through some existential issues. TRB has its Strategic Alignment, to update the structure and make it less bureaucratic. SLA is going through a major realignment that will likely see a name change. ALA has its Core Question, and there’s several more.

I put forth my vision for professional associations last year in my manifesto. I should probably rewrite it because I think it’s a bit too safe. The thing that I keep thinking about is in remaking associations that we basically need to start from the ground up. Without a common understanding of the mission, vision, and purpose there are lots of not entirely productive arguments. Some of this requires hard truths, about the lack of resources or major blunders, but I think also a clear articulation of how we are similar or different.

Within the SLA context, I haven’t weighed in much in the official channels because I (of all people) just don’t have the energy. I don’t want to litigate the past, but I also don’t really find a lot of the old information useful. I understand people are invested, but I feel like we (the old timers) had our chance and it didn’t really work. Why not focus on what the future could be, not tied to the present. I worry in the SLA case that we’re going to waste energy and burn any goodwill with those who are still members and who still care in the process. That’s one of the reasons I haven’t engaged much. I don’t have time for grudges so old most people don’t know the players. It’s not moving us forward.

But then we need to get to the point. Do the associations exist so that they exist? (Then what’s the point?) Or do they exist for the members? And then what do members want? I want to connect with others doing similar work. I want to learn what they’re doing. I want to share what I’m doing. I want to advocate for a democratic information ecosystem. I want to support others in the profession.

The worrying thing is I might not have an organization like that anymore because SLA will go in a different direction. And then I’ll be reminded that the real value isn’t a certificate or the lines on my CV. It’s the friendships I built along the way…

So anyway I think it might be most efficient to start from scratch, rather than try to retrofit organizations that are still stuck in the 1990s.

You know why metadata matters.

Beauty queens with time capsule rock, Dana Point, 1966 flickr photo by Orange County Archives shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

I often forget that information workers (librarians, archivists, what have you) have a different way of viewing the world than others. How things are described and presented so that people might be able to find something at a later date is something I think about a lot. It’s metadata. It’s preservation. It’s a time capsule. It’s a should be deliberate part of anything (online), but it’s often overlooked and assumed that search engines will take care of it or something.

This weekend Rachel Swan, a journalist I know, discovered that their bylines from a previous publication were erased:

It’s frustrating. It’s erasure. It’s also (as Swan seems to understand) likely just an oversight through likely a number migrations of different content management systems (CMS), without thinking about how to preserve all of the metadata from migration to migration because it’s messy and hard.* So much time is spent moving over the content, stuff like authors who no longer in the system as creators might get lost in the cracks or get turned into “staff”. Whether that’s nefarious or not. *cough*Deadspin*cough*

But I see this a lot from other sources. Like white papers or tech reports that don’t have any context – Who wrote it? When was it written? Who sponsored it? Where is it being published? The internet has made it so easy to publish stuff, and I guess people have a lot of faith in major search engines and webarchives to take care of their stuff. Making sure your work is minimally described makes it so much easier for people to find it at a later date (unless you don’t want people to see it). Even then, we can get into where your stuff is indexed to be found, and ensure that the link won’t be broken with next CMS upgrade. Someday AI and machine learning will take care of it all I guess, but even then it will only be successful if the building blocks are deliberately in place.

So my call to action for you is if you’re publishing something – a blog, an email blast, a paper, a report, an article, a mixtape – include attribution and a date at the very least.

* Also important to note that the SF Weekly is an alt-weekly who probably doesn’t have the resources or staff to think about these issues because it’s often all overhead. It’s hard not to think about that fresh on the heels of news that the OC Weekly is shutting down. Or remember when Gothamist and DNAinfo were shut down with no proviso for an archive or anything.

#MeToo, Redemption, and moving forward without forgetting in the Library Profession

Royal Australian Air Force in Australia during World War II flickr photo by State Library Victoria Collections shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

In the post-#MeToo era, it’s hard not to think about sexism in the form of abuse, assault, and harassment. What started in the entertainment industry has spread. We’ve seen it in academia, in science, and kind of in libraries. The discussion in libraries centered mostly on public library users against library workers stopped short of dealing with these issues in the profession, particularly professional associations. 

The library world did have a conversation around this before the #MeToo era but post GamerGate. That context is important when going back and looking at the record for this discussion because much of it reflects the MRA zeitgeist around GamerGate, and pulled in commenters outside of the library world, using it as an example that fit their agenda. (And hindsight has made this whole thing more chilling, since this kind of sexism has been used to lure men into white supremacist groups.)  Through that noise, there was a discussion among library folk that talked about issues around sexual assault and harrassment in professional settings – particularly conferences. The conversation was cut off through the chilling effect of a SLAPP lawsuit and public retractions/apologies. Those who spoke up are no longer in the profession and the person who was accused pivoted to a different, tangential field. In the intervening years many people moved on and the episode faded from memory. Or they didn’t really forget but didn’t really talk about it.

Some recent conversations have made me examine what would be necessary for any kind of reconciliation or redemption. Would it even be possible for people who may have behaved inappropriately to be welcomed back? (If they actually went away). I think the bare minimum would be some acknowledgement of harm, which would also accompany an apology. (Like when Dan Harmon apologized to Megan Ganz.) I recognize that many (men) cannot even do that. Any kind of redemption has to start with some basic accountability: acknowledge the harm that occurred, sincerely apologize for that harm, stop the harmful behavior, and take action to repair or mitigate damage to those who were harmed. The ABA has a really good post discussing restorative justice in the wake of #MeToo that has many excellent points. But here is how they summarize the path to redemption: 

What is required for those called out by #MeToo to rebuild their moral and social identities may depend, in part, on the nature of their offense – its severity, intentionality, and pervasiveness. Attention to these nuances is important in order to avoid moral flattening, the temptation to conflate crimes and behaviors that are meaningfully different. But insufficient attention to building a foundation for redemption can cause efforts at reintegration or “comebacks” to fall flat. As actress and early Weinstein accuser Ashley Judd has noted, “There’s an appropriate sequence. Accountability, introspection, restitution, then redemption. You don’t get to skip the stages that lead to redemption.”

So bringing it back to now, and facing so many issues that many of my colleagues have swallowed, buried, and tried to forget, many inappropriate and upsetting situations that we have witnessed and did nothing about. There has been no accountability and I don’t know if there really can be since many of these situations took place long before #MeToo, and it a more difficult environment for people to speak up. And a lot of these kinds of transgressions happen in those murky grey areas, where somebody with influence and notoriety (and thus power) abuses their stature to behave inappropriately. It could be groping, it could be unwanted advances, it could be sexually suggestive jokes in professional settings. That kind of behavior is silencing, makes people feel unwelcomed, makes people complicit, and drives people away. 

When I was a young librarian, fresh out of library school and trying to get a foothold in the profession, I went along with moments of inappropriate behavior because I wanted to stay in favor of those in positions of privilege. I laughed at wildly inappropriate and offensive jokes in bars of conference hotels because they were told by leaders I looked up to. I tried to hang with that crowd because I thought it would help get ahead, but in hindsight it didn’t (outside the fact I came to see many of the “leaders” as flawed humans like the rest of us). I am fortunate that I was spared some of the worst behavior, but that makes me feel more complicit. It also makes me wonder about how many rising stars, movers and shakers, and other great librarians we lost because they were driven away by this kind of behavior. I am writing this to hold myself accountable and to encourage others to hold the whole system accountable. (Nevermind that there’s also likely a correlation between men abusing their privilege and getting speaking gigs to promote innovate-or-die hucksterism.) We live and work in a time where codes of conduct are standard, which we sadly need to remember. I feel like we take it for granted that #MeToo was a watershed, but then also forget that it just means we have the vocabulary and tools to address inappropriate behavior that never really went away. 

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.