Leadership and ALA

I got back from #ALA11 tonight. I had a good five days — a great preconference, two successful talks, and wonderful conversations with friends, colleagues, and vendors. And a whole lot of amazing food.  But I’m left with a bad taste in my mouth, largely because I cannot make sense out of the ALA.

No one has ever been able to convince me that I should contribute my time and energy to the work of the ALA. Several very good friends are giving their all to build on the ALA’s successes and do good things for the profession, but they can’t seem to sell me on joining up and jumping in.

I try to figure out how committee work could be satisfying.  People I respect tell me it’s worth it, that I should use my voice to make the organization better.  I’m an idealist, so I listen.  And I got an email that said that the volunteer form was on the website.  Awesome.  I clicked through.  And was paralyzed by the nine zillion arcane options, none of which tells what the committee is, does, or who’s on it. And it has a four-page help document that doesn’t really help much. And I guess you can only volunteer once a year? So I promptly gave up. I don’t have time to waste on figuring out a path in and through, not when I have other places that could use my skills and not treat me like a valueless number.

But I’m a good speaker, so if committee work isn’t going to be my thing, I can try to present. Colleen and Mary and I propose a preconference for ACRL, and it’s rejected, but we try again. Leadership in LLAMA says, “Oh, that’s right in our wheelhouse.  We want you to do that.”  So we gave them an application for ALA.  They accepted it.  And it turned up on the ALA conference registration form before anyone notified us that it had been accepted. So we initiate communication.  They say, “Oh, yes, right, you’re accepted, but we need to talk to you first.”  Mary went to Midwinter to have a meeting.  They told her we were only provisionally approved for the precon, because we failed to get a committee to sponsor us.  Even though they solicited the precon from us, and people were already paying for it.  So, at their request, we went to LLAMA-SASS, and they not-at-all-graciously agreed to sponsor the preconference “in name only.”  And then we were told we had to find vendor support if we wanted any supplies like markers or paper, and if we wanted anything more than coffee on the coffee breaks. We tried, but decided in the end that it wasn’t worth the effort.  As it turned out, the preconference sold out. We showed up early to prepare for the day, and discovered that there mysteriously were muffins and coffee and cookies and soda, despite what we were told, but that our supplies — which we double-checked and confirmed — were not available, nor was anyone in attendance from LLAMA (as promised and expected) to greet and check in our participants or to introduce the day, speak about LLAMA, or introduce us as speakers.

Regardless of the complications, we did our thing (nicely summarized by Colleen in this post; a post with my own slides and commentary to follow), and at the end, out of 20+ positive evaluations from the 50 participants, there was one negative one. The one negative response was based on my approach of blunt honesty and use of the phrases “basically, don’t be an asshole” and “know which things you suck at” and thus my “unprofessional” behavior.  It also seems to have been written by someone on the LLAMA planning committee. As a result, it appears that I have been blacklisted for presenting for LLAMA, despite my generally solid reputation, my accomplishments, and the positive evaluations from most of the attendees.

That’s the state of leadership  in the management arm of ALA.

Someone tell me: Given the explicit attitudes of the powers that be within the organization in question, the heavy responsibilities of work for my home institution, and the many other organizations that I could contribute to, why should I give my time and energy to the American Library Association?


  1. Hi, Jenica…

    In the spirit of blunt honesty, there are areas (and people) in ALA and the Divisions which hold to the traditional definitions/descriptions/expectations of professional appearance and behavior. (which is why I have worn pants to the last 5 ALA annual or midwinter events)

    It is what it is, and I feel I’ve sold out my feeling that it*is* about the ideas shared and the sercices provided — not about (and should not depend upon) how one dresses or expresses oneself.

    In my experiment (pants, nice shirt, tie, and blazer or jacket in place of shorts and Hawaiian shirts) I’ve noticed that even though I remain my outrageous self, I am taken much more seriously and appear to be much less threatening to many people.

    I’m certainly not telling you to clean up your language, but if word choice is an impediment to doing what you want/like to do where you feel it will do the most good, what’s the harm in trying to make a small change?

    Fwiw, LLAMA is not ALA (and it sounds like the resistance is from LLAMA by you description), though there are still places at the ALA level where you might experience similar, too.


  2. Aaron, the harm is that I’ve already made as many concessions as I think are appropriate. Part of what i truly believe in, and was talking about in that precon, is integrity, honesty, and transparency. I can’t be those things if I’m lying about who I am. My analogy regarding changing myself for public consumption in a leadership role would be that yes, you’re wearing long pants, but you haven’t cut your hair. I’ve already made my approach more palatable to the traditionalists, but I’ll go no further.


  3. I can’t say much about how to get involved, since I’m just starting to look into that myself. But I like your bluntly honest approach and word choice. I don’t know if it’s a regional thing or a generational thing, but you speak much more powerfully to a lot of readers because of the way you speak/write. Toning it down further for a conference would be a disservice to those who relate to you because of your bluntness. If the ALA is going to represent a hugely diverse group of librarians, we (members) need to have access to a diverse group of speakers and leaders.

    I hope that the headaches you faced were not representative of the whole. I filled out the long form to volunteer with the New Members Round Table when I got back from the conference, so we’ll see what comes of that. I’m also not a fan of ramming my head against a brick wall, so hopefully my point of entry will make things go more smoothly!


  4. Jenica, your experience was not a one-off. I only kept up my ALA membership because you could not be a member of ACRL without being a member of ALA. When I left academic librarianship, I dropped ALA and don’t plan to rejoin. Ever. It is a hot mess. As you’ve already discovered, your voice is better used in other (more organized, efficient and open) groups.


  5. Angela, yes: If I show up for a speaking engagement and am not what I am here in writing, then I am lying somewhere… and I don’t lie. My identity is pretty consistent. I think Jessamyn’s earlier comment about “setting expectations appropriately” is a very good one for this context, too. My writing here and my presentation history should clearly set expectations for people, as I am as consistent as a human can be about my views, my style, and my tone. The people whom I offended — had they done any research about the presenters before they paid their $200? If they had, they would have found this blog, and it would have told them precisely what they were going to get.

    Good luck with NMRT! I hope your experience contradicts every single thing I encountered. (I really do.)

    Ranger: For serious. I think I’m done.


  6. LAMA (or LLAMA as they’re styling themselves these days) has got to be the stalest of the stale in this association. I used to be a member when I was young and fresh and got out because I was just so annoyed at them. And then they gave me a special award. I think the way your pre-conference was treated was par for the course there–it’s all about us doing things for them and they feel free to be hyper-critical of us while we’re doing it.

    I think that ALA still hasn’t gotten into the virtual world where committee work is concerned. We still get things done just in time for conference and it’s far too easy to go a year without doing anything. One section that I’m a member of doesn’t meet at midwinter. And I didn’t do anything for that year–what a waste. That being said, there’s been times when I’ve had a bad year and have been guilty of that myself.


  7. The issue of making concessions versus not (i.e. being authentic) reminds me of some TED Talks I heard this past year — namely Brene Brown’s talk. So along with Educause, I think you should be a TED speaker at the next TED conference.


  8. I suppose it’s just my nature (I feel the same way about OCLC) but I think ALA is OUR organization, and we can change it to be what we need it to be. I do think there are some generational things about ALA that will start to change inevitably, and if people like us, who believe in transparency and authenticity, ideas and openness and sharing, keep poking at ALA, we can make it ours. Also, ALA is huge; I have to believe there’s a niche somewhere for everyone. I mean, look at the group at Battledecks. That happened, so there’s a space for us somewhere, right?

    Or maybe I am just naive. This is my first year being involved in committee work; perhaps my experience will be very revised after next year’s Annual. (PS – I got into committee work for LITA just by emailing someone randomly and asking. It took awhile, but eventually, I got placed on a committee where my skills and background will be useful…I hope).


  9. Hi Jenica – sorry, though it sounds like the precon went well, it also sounds like the communication/logistics info were bad on our part. Disappointed to hear because I’ve actually been touting your precon as example of making something work outside of our normal planning process. I don’t understand the requirement for a program sponsor and will get it changed with our Program Cmt – btw, they really do work very hard trying to support our program planners. The info you got about vendor support was just wrong – we supply a basic break for all precons, with or without vendor support (few ever have support). Again, I’ll have to make sure our communication to planners is better. With the smallest division staff (2 of us) we can’t cover everything onsite so I was launching our library tour, Fred was at our second precon, and our student volunteer was supposed to cover yours. Another arrangement I’ll have to think about for the future. Since I got to LLAMA I’ve been working with members to focus on creating value instead of process and we’ve had some success: new bylaws that streamlined decision making, recruiting new voices for our board, a new partnership with NMRT, moving LL&M online with open access; but clearly there’s lots more to do. At any rate, as director I can tell you one thing for certain: you are not “blacklisted” since that’s not how I operate. With the strong evaluations I’d be happy to have you offer the precon again (better communication promised) or do it as a regular program. If you don’t want to that’s ok too, but either way I appreciate the work you did on this one. Thanks, Kerry Ward, LLAMA director


  10. Kerry, thanks for responding. I will say that the whole process was incredibly disheartening, but that my intention in writing this was not to assign blame; what I hope for is that there’s something to be learned from it. The fact that you’re listening validates that. And while I’m glad to hear that the Director isn’t against me, the membership working on planning appears to be another story entirely… to quote my co-presenter, “Later in the conference while pitching a program, those same folks [who were horrified by my language] happened to be in the room and asked that the *who* that had said it be stricken from future speaking proposals.”

    I’ll drop you an email next week. I’d like to talk more. 🙂


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