American Libraries Advisory Committee Looks to 2010 and Beyond

July 17, 2009

The central concerns expressed by the American Libraries Advisory Committee, which held one of its two annual face-to-face meetings July 11 during the ALA Annual Conference in Chicago, related to the magazine’s ever-changing role as a communications vehicle, a membership perk, and a revenue generator. The objective was to advise the editorial and marketing staff in matters of content development, strategy, and reader engagement. Associate Editor Sean Fitzpatrick, who joined the staff in February, gave the group its first glimpse of the redesign of the AL website, which he is overseeing. The redesign will also serve as a test case for Drupal as a possible replacement for Collage, the current content management system for ALA's website. The objective of the redesign is to present a more magazine-like look with the complete contents of the print magazine available with comment capacity in HTML (as opposed to PDF, as it is now). Much of the discussion was devoted to the future of American Libraries and how it fits into the Association’s long-range strategies and with the reorganization of ALA Publishing that is currently underway. Members of the committee were well aware that AL is more of a suite of products than simply a print magazine, but these products warrant continuous evaluation to measure their success, both in their ability to deliver content as well as generate advertising revenue. The message I took away from the meeting is that the development of valuable professional reading for the magazine should take top priority—with the delivery mechanism, print or electronic, secondary. In other words, American Libraries will maintain its central role by delivering what members want and need. It must also position its various forms, including the new themed quarterly digital supplements, as part of a "brand" that is not paper-centric. I talked with the committee about our decision to combine the forthcoming August-September issue of print AL, which was partly a one-time response to the financial crunch and staff reductions ALA recently experienced. But it also means that in 2009 there will be nine print issues. Members of the committee cautioned that there may be a perception on the part of some readers who may think that they are getting less from AL for their membership dues. The same is true for advertisers, especially the handful whose ads appear in every print issue. Since I became editor of American Libraries in 1996, everything about publishing has changed. Technology enabled us to bring production in-house; we developed a website, created an online news feed, started the weekly AL Direct e-newsletter, began producing videos, blogging, and so on. Change has been constant and will continue, but the major change we've made in print is to make everything shorter. That may not be the best idea for the future. More and more, I'm hearing that readers want more depth and breadth from print reading, and the future of print is likely to be longer features, more trends and analysis and less trying to present pure "news," most of which will be old by the time it hits print. Of what real value is it, the members of the committee seemed to be saying, unless we can present it less as "this happened" and more as "this happened and here's what the best minds in the profession say it means." What an emphasis on depth infers is that we need to look at fewer, fatter issues of AL print and a more vibrant website to back up the weekly AL Direct. More and more, the central question for us is going to be: What kind of content really needs to be delivered in print, and how frequently? Noting that American Libraries sponsored Auditorium Speaker Wanda Urbanska of Simple Living on PBS, some of the people at the committee meeting pointed out the need for American Libraries to pick up on the momentum created by her April articles (one for print, one for the spring digital supplement) on greening in libraries and to deliver more and simpler methods whereby ALA members can convince the powers that be to support environmentally friendly buying and programming at the local level. Content doesn't start or stop with print, it's part of a dialogue that should move between print and online. Meanwhile, we also began negotiations at this conference with JSTOR for the retrospective digitization of American Libraries back to 1907, when it was first published as the Bulletin of the American Library Association. Members of the Advisory Committee present at the meeting were Laurel Minott (chair), Jill Grogg, Melanie Metzger, Amber Prentiss, and Andrew Pace, along with incoming members John Sandstrom (2009-2010 chair), Jim Teliha, and Paul Signorelli.