My scattered thoughts on the SLA consultants’ Recommendations Report

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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.






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