Modernizing Our Association

Working together to create an agile, more effective ALA

June 1, 2018

Mary Ghikas, ALA executive director

Ten months ago, I stepped into the role of interim executive director of the American Library Association (ALA) and then into the executive director role. Much of my focus during the past months has been on working with the Executive Board, ALA members and staff, and professional colleagues in many areas to examine the Association and its mission during a period of significant change and challenge.

In the November/December issue of American Libraries, ALA President Jim Neal issued a call to ALA members to consider the 21st-century effectiveness and agility of an organization with governance documents dating back more than 140 years. He called for a review of ALA’s organizational effectiveness with the aim of revitalizing the Association.

At the 2018 Midwinter Meeting, members of ALA Council, members of the Planning and Budget Assembly, and others responded to three questions: What does our ideal organization do? What does our ideal organization look like? What are three ways we can get there?

We received more than 300 responses, which were reviewed by the Executive Board’s working group on governance and organizational effectiveness, a group that includes me, Andrew K. Pace, Lessa K. Pelayo-Lozada, and Patricia “Patty” Wong.

The Midwinter discussions largely confirmed—and extended in important ways—earlier findings from a series of “Kitchen Table Conversations” held by ALA: People want a welcoming, inclusive, engaged, relevant, and supportive organization. But they’re also concerned that ALA’s complexity makes it difficult to navigate and that the Association needs to be more welcoming to new members and new ideas.

As people talk more about these concerns, they talk about silos, bureaucracy, having too many choices, and there being too much “noise.” They say we need to concentrate on building relationships and developing a sense of community, we need more focus, and we need to continue the conversations. They say members need flexible ways to participate meaningfully and that ALA should be a safe place to learn and grow.

If we—ALA leadership, division leadership, round table leadership, and staff—worked on this together, members report they would be more likely to step forward to help. People are more likely to trust leaders who can work collaboratively in stressful times. Overall, people believe we are stronger together and have more in common than we realize, but they also want their differences heard and acknowledged.

The 2018 Midwinter discussions also indicated a need for ALA to be relevant to everyone who works in libraries, does work related to libraries, and supports libraries. There was a clearly expressed desire for stronger attention to the needs and interests of library workers, suggesting that a comprehensive look at ALA might involve a look at the ALA–Allied Professional Association. Those 300 responses also pointed to a focus on advocacy and education, consistent relationship development, collaboration, and a reduction in complexity and redundancy. At the same time, there is a clear tension between reducing complexity and redundancy and providing a home for everyone.

At the upcoming ALA Annual Conference—and in a series of web-based conversations—there will be opportunity to explore a range of “what if” questions. Over the next 18 months, we will work together to accomplish the difficult work of negotiating a solution in a highly participative and multifaceted organization. This work is important. As Maggie Farrell, a member of the Budget Analysis and Review Committee, noted: We need “a modern Association for a modern profession.”

See you in New Orleans—and online.


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