It’s been almost a year since I wrote some posts about gripes I had with ALA and suggestions of how the ALA could do better. At the time, I was seriously considering letting my ALA membership lapse in the Fall of 2006. Yet last week, I put $200 on my credit card to renew my membership in ALA, LITA and NMRT, and to become a new member of ACRL (which I was a member of as a student a while back). What happened? Well… a lot. Since I wrote those posts, the ALA has been working overtime to improve itself and I have gotten to know some of the wonderful people who are working to make ALA better. It’s not as if all the problems I had with ALA last year have magically gone away, but when I saw that so many people were working so hard to move things in the right direction, it gave me the hope I needed to stick it out. I know my $200 is a mere drop in the bucket for ALA and that whether or not I remained a member was probably not of great concern to anyone else, but I’m glad to have regained a glimmer of hope for the major national organization for our profession.

What ALA did right

Explored new ways to serve its users – Ok… I know a lot of folks had complaints about the ALA 2.0 Bootcamp of last year. And many of them were totally deserved, especially criticisms of the way that a certain organizer of the Bootcamp dealt with criticism. Those aspects aside, that was ALA’s first public foray into the world of “library 2.0″ or whatever else you want to call it. It was the ALA saying… ok… we want to get our members and our employees together to explore these 2.0 concepts and tools and see what the ALA could be doing better. And the groups involved in this made some really valuable recommendations, especially in terms of serving new and student members, providing online education and collaborating better online using the tools available. And, while I’d been toying with the idea of doing an online conference or course for a long time, the bootcamp really motivated me to get off my butt and make Five Weeks to a Social Library happen. It motivated me because I wanted to show the ALA and everyone else that it could be done better. I can’t think of anything in this field I am more passionate about than equal access to continuing education, and I hope our course will show everyone that a great online course doesn’t have to cost a lot of money and that most of it can be done using open source software.

People like Mary Ghikas and Leslie Burger have really made a good faith effort to understand what ALA could be doing better and they are acting on many of the things they’ve learned. While they may stumble from time to time, the fact that they are asking and are trying really gives me a sense of confidence in the future of the organization.

Started incorporating social software tools – At this time last year, there were no blogs or wikis living at ala.org. Any blogs that existed were usually started by a few enthusiastic members and were not really tied to the ALA’s online presence. The folks at ALA Headquarters didn’t even know that someone had created a wiki for the 2005 ALA Annual Conference. Things began to change when Michael Stephens and Jenny Levine visited ALA Headquarters in the winter of last year. I don’t know about everyone else who listened to their talk, but I know it got Mary Ghikas excited about blogs and wikis, about building transparency, about communicating better with ALA membership and about collaborating more effectively, both within the divisions and between divisions. Soon after meeting with Michael and Jenny, Mary contacted me about working with ALA to create another wiki for the 2006 Annual Conference, something I was more than happy to do. While at the time they weren’t at a place where they could host their own wikis, they now have a whole bunch of them living at wikis.ala.org with many more in the pipeline. Now the division blogs are listed on the ALA’s homepage along with a whole mess of other ALA-related blogs that have been started over the past year (though not all the links seem to be working and the list seems to be out of date). The Member Blog was a particularly good idea, giving the ALA an avenue to directly communicate with members in a format that lends itself well to friendly and informal communication.

The ALA is just beginning to explore how to use social tools to build communication, collaboration and community. I expect that they will make more mistakes along the way, but that’s how we all learn. I think the LITA Wiki is suffering from a serious lack of purpose for people to collaborate around, but maybe they’ll find one in the future. I also think this might have been better as a blog post that people could comment on or just a plain old static Website (using an entire wiki for a one page info sheet is like swatting a fly with a bazooka), but it’s a valid experiment. I just hope ALA and the divisions can avoid the trap of implementing social tools to be “cool” when they really aren’t the right tool for the job. Blogs and podcasts are great for communications. Flickr is great to build transparency and a sense of community. Wikis are great for collecting knowledge from a group (of any size) of individuals. None of them are great for the sole purpose of looking cool and with-it.

Reached out to new members – Slowly, but surely, the ALA is working to engage new members. In spite of the grumblings in the blogosphere associated with the ALA Emerging Leaders Program, I think it is a definite step in the right direction. I wish I could have taken part in it, but involvement in ALA is neither supported (monetarily) nor encouraged at my library. I think so many of us join ALA and have no idea what to do after that. We want to contribute to the profession, but we don’t know how. I think engaging new librarians through a program that teaches them leadership skills, teaches them about the organization and allows them to network with other new leaders is a terrific idea! I agree that it’s not for everyone and many of us don’t have the ability to meet their requirements, but at least the ALA is starting to recognize the fact that there is a large contingent of newer librarians who feel like the ALA doesn’t represent them or really want them. Hopefully they’ll continue to do more to make us all feel a part of things.

Better programs at conferences – is it just me or have the programs at ALA and division conferences started looking better? I remember hearing what people were talking about at PLA 2006, and it was light years away from what people had been talking about at ALA 2005. ALA 2006 seemed to have a much more tech-savvy program as well. I’ve actually been invited to give three different talks at ALA Annual 2007, which is certainly not something I thought would ever happen given the talks I’ve been to at ALA in the past. I could barely find anything I wanted to go to in Chicago in 2005, so the fact that the divisions are now this interested in social software and library technologies really does excite me.

What still needs improvement

LIS Education… is it still in crisis? – The only thing about Michael Gorman being president that I liked is that he wanted to reform library school education. We didn’t exactly agree on how we wanted to make it better, but at least we both wanted to take a long hard look at what library schools are doing right now. And what have we accomplished? Ok, there were a few talks and stuff, but did anything else happen? Perhaps ALA Presidents should serve for more than one year so that maybe something concrete could come out of some of these more ambitious presidential initiatives. I think libraries transforming communities is a great theme too, but have we totally abandoned the issue of education now that Michael Gorman’s reign is over? I can think of few things more important than the way future librarians are being educated and how variable the quality of that education is from school to school. This is something our professional organization should really be focused on.

Online continuing education wants to be free – I’m not saying here that all continuing education online should be free (though wouldn’t it be loverly?). I don’t think the ALA divisions should be losing money to offer continuing education programs. However, I think that at the very least, in addition to the programs they are already running, they could offer some free programs. I did my talk last week for the ACRL Fall Virtual Institute for free, and I know there are a lot of people in this profession who are happy to speak on their area of interest for free. I know how much something like GoToWebinar costs, and the ALA could easily invest in something like that (which is far more robust than Elluminate) and recoup its costs doing one or two Webinars a year. Why not then make the rest of them free?

I also think it would be very cool for ALA and the divisions to offer monthly Webinar orientations to new members. They could explain how this behemoth we call ALA is organized and how newbies can get involved in different divisions. Heck, I’d go since I am still confused by it all! What a great way to engage new members and make them feel a part of the organization.

Reaching out to new members (more) – I remember in library school when I joined the ALA… I had no idea what to do after that. I was a distance learner so couldn’t get involved in a student organization. I couldn’t afford to go to Midwinter AND annual (and I only went to Annual because it was in my state that year). And I never got any sense of how I could serve given those limitations. I still don’t know quite how to get involved. I just re-upped my membership, but I’m still not clear on what the next step is. How do I know what opportunities are available? How do I know what the requirements are of each committee? After I filled out my membership form, I didn’t get any messages saying “welcome to ACRL! Here’s how you can get involved!” I would love to see something like that. The divisions shouldn’t make it so hard for people to figure out how to get involved.

Not only should they show members how they can get involved, they should offer different levels of involvement. My library does not subsidize my ALA membership and they really don’t encourage involvement in ALA. So I can’t exactly afford to go to both Annual and Midwinter, which leaves me out of most opportunities for involvement. I think the divisions need to look at better ways for working together online, meeting via tools like OPAL, and not requiring committee members to be physically THERE all the time. I know some sections are doing this “virtual committee” thing well and some not at all. Frankly, more would likely get done throughout the year anyways by having more synchronous and asynchronous collaboration online. This would allow people who don’t have the institutional support to get more involved in ALA and that would benefit everyone. I’m certainly someone who is willing to work hard to serve the profession, though I do it in my own way. And maybe less structured contributions should be encouraged from people who are willing to make the effort. I’m sure I’m not the only person who would like to get involved, but feels like there isn’t a place for them. And maybe there is a place for me, but it certainly isn’t apparent when I look on the Websites for the divisions I’m a member of (omg, I just looked at ACRL’s site and came out even more confused!).

There’s more than that, but these are the real salient points for me. I do believe that in most areas, the ALA is working harder to, as Michael Stephens would say, “get on the Cluetrain.” With people like Mary Ghikas, Jenny Levine and many others pushing the organization forward, there is hope.

I vacillate between wanting to serve on a committee to wondering if my time isn’t better spent developing free online courses and developing collaborative tools to benefit the whole profession. Wouldn’t it be great if I could do that sort of stuff within the ALA instead of outside it? Like if I could create a free online course for ACRL or LITA? Or develop free online synchronous orientations to ALA and the different divisions? I wish all that were easy to do, but it seems like involvement in ALA must take specific forms and usually must involve going to Annual and Midwinter. I know that I am contributing to the profession in my own way (and that the ALA wikis I created were a big contribution to ALA), but I still feel compelled to be “part of the solution.” I’m just not sure which form of professional service is right for me.

Update: Jim Rettig, are you reading my mind? Check out his brilliant view of ALA 2.0. He’s going to be running for ALA President soon and, if he wants to make ALA more inclusive in the ways he describes, I’m all about voting for him. :)