Creating a Participatory ALA

March 3, 2014

Barbara Stripling

ALA is in the process of reimagining itself. We have engaged in conversations with members, Council, the Executive Board, and division leadership to understand what we, as a profession, want from our Association. In a nutshell, we have found that we want a welcoming, inclusive, engaged, and supportive organization. 

Taken at face value, these attributes do not lead to an organization that matches the transformation of libraries and librarianship that is occurring in all types of libraries across the country. All of the terms suggest a one-way culture, that ALA has the responsibility to build a welcoming environment and that members need only to embrace and be supported by the Association. What we should instead envision is a participatory culture in our Association that provides opportunities for members to act and to change ALA and, indeed, our profession.

Building a participatory culture is a pretty tall order for an organization of more than 57,000 members. I have been puzzling over the possibilities since I became president. Certainly we have to think beyond the traditional structures of committee appointments, elected offices, and occasional task forces. We have to understand how our members connect to the Association before we can provide pathways of action for them.

One of the complaints we hear about ALA is that it is too complex for members to understand how to navigate and engage. Is that true, or do we need that complexity to enable our very diverse members to find their perfect niches of connection? Perhaps our issues are actually that the complex organization is not transparent enough for members to find their niche and that we don’t give them outlets for acting on their interests and sharing their own ideas once they have connected. Many of our members are already pushing the Association in the direction of participation by forming their own social media groups, attending unconferences as a part of ALA events, using multiple platforms to debate critical library issues, and creating discussion and social action groups. And we encourage it.

Perhaps ALA can be guided in its reimagining process by some of the thinking in our field about libraries and librarianship in a participatory culture. In 2011, an international group of innovative thinkers in libraries and museums came together in Salzburg, Austria, to develop a curriculum framework for the education and continuing professional development of library and museum professionals in a participatory culture. The curriculum conversations were guided by core values that included the essential dispositions of openness, self-reflection, collaboration, service, empathy and respect, continuous learning, and creativity and imagination. Those are the very values that should form the core of the culture of ALA, and we need to build that culture together.

The Salzburg Curriculum identifies a number of imperatives for libraries and museums in the era of participatory culture, most of which can be equally applied to ALA: recognizing the importance of diversity, creating innovative partnerships, emphasizing value and impact, co-creating content, incorporating social media, collaborating, breaking down barriers, becoming a hub of communication, and acting with passion to effect permanent change. What needs to change as we reimagine ALA is how we empower our members to collaborate with others in the Association across divisions, library types, years of experience, and library roles to create a transformed ALA and librarianship for the future. The power to change ALA is within our members: Our responsibility is to listen to their voices and build a participatory Association.

BARBARA STRIPLING is assistant professor of practice at Syracuse (N.Y.) University. Email: bstripling[at]