The Pivot and the Path

Charting ALA’s plan for transformation

September 1, 2021

From the Executive Director by Tracie D. Hall

There is a symbol called nkyinkyim in the Adinkra iconography of Ghana that translates to the proverb “life’s journey is twisted.” This primary mark in the West African visual vocabulary reminds us that persistence requires versatility.

I visualize nkyinkyim’s lines moving one direction, then the opposite whenever I hear the word “pivot,” by now one of the most overused (and misused) terms bandied about since the start of the pandemic.

For the LIS sector, where our mission is more important than ever despite changes in external conditions and internal resources, business strategist Eric Ries’s definition of an institutional pivot as “making a change in strategy without a change in vision” is still particularly salient.

Almost a year ago, guided by member leaders and staff, ALA began work on a pivot strategy. Titled “The Pathway to Transformation,” the five-year plan culminates in 2026—the year ALA turns 150—and is guided by ALA’s mission, core values, and a commitment to deepening ALA’s equity, diversity, inclusion, and social ­justice–centered work and impact.

In those early days of planning, the largest liabilities the Association faced included aging revenue streams and ensuing deficits; static membership numbers further affected by the pandemic; and gaps in public visibility as well as reach in the LIS sector. These gaps existed despite the Association’s defining leadership in intellectual freedom, copyright and intellectual property issues, protecting the right to read, advocating for ubiquitous and free information and digital access, and, for the past 23 years, being the single largest driver of diversity in the LIS workforce.

Rather than shift away from the liabilities, ALA’s new pivot strategy meets them head on and has already guided the Association to a financial position that is $5 million better than our position last July.

There is a Zen proverb that says, “The obstacle is the path.” This wisdom in many ways undergirds the road to transformation envisioned by the pivot strategy, with its direct emphasis on revenue diversification and stability along with membership engagement and growth.

ALA’s operational strategy must center the indicators most critical to its stewardship capacity, financial health, and member engagement as it works to expand the reach and effectiveness of libraries in helping generate socioeconomic mobility and justice in their communities; achieve information and digital access (including universal broadband); build equity, diversity, and inclusion in the LIS workforce and practice; and preserve library services.

By bright-lining and connecting revenue and membership, the Association recognizes the need to optimize the ways its programs and operations work together and strengthen its relationships with and between members, as well as with nonmembers and advocates.

Achieving the envisioned transformation will require intensive assessment of ALA’s current program outcomes and deeper investment in the ALA–Allied Professional Association to expand its capacity to advocate for the “mutual professional interests of librarians and other library workers.”

My next column will look at the new strategy and the contexts that informed it. Until then, I leave you with author Octavia E. Butler’s seminal instruction on directing the pivot and shaping the path of change, from Parable of the Talents: “Alter the speed / Or the direction of Change. / Vary the scope of Change. / Recombine the seeds of  Change. / Transmute the impact of ­Change. / ­Seize Change, / Use it. / ­­Adapt and grow.”

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