By Meredith Farkas | January 12, 2011
Let me say this first. I am not an expert in ALA or LITA (or even ACRL) bylaws regarding participation, open meetings, etc. I’m sure a lot of very experienced and awesome people like Jason Griffey, Aaron Dobbs and Cindi Trainor could speak to these issues from the standpoint of someone who is immersed in this world. I am speaking to these issues as someone who does not have the funding nor the inclination to attend both Midwinter and Annual (since those would likely be the only things I’d do all year), but still wants to contribute to her membership organization and is willing to put in the time and effort. I’m also speaking as someone who has dedicated her professional development work over the years to improving access to professional development opportunities for librarians who cannot physically attend conferences. In fact, I even got an award from LITA for my work in this area.
I first heard about the LITA Board shutting down Jason Griffey’s live stream of their meeting through Michelle Boule’s excellent post on the subject (so nice to see a post like this from you Michelle! You’ve been missed). Jason is not just some rabble-rouser who is trying to subvert authority; he’s an elected member of the LITA Board who has dedicated his time in LITA to making the organization more transparent and responsive to the needs of its members. He has had a part in creating most of the best new things to come out of LITA in the past 4 years. I’ve been to and participated in a number of events and meetings that Jason has streamed to make them accessible to people who were unable to attend and I think it’s wonderful that it extended the reach of and conversation about events at ALA Annual/LITA/Midwinter beyond the physical room. I do agree that Jason should have broached the subject of streaming the meeting with the other members of the LITA Board prior to the meeting, but I’d bet that he’d have been turned down and we’d never have heard about it. Maybe it was important for him to do this and be turned down publicly so that we’d know how open our “open meetings” really are.
What I really couldn’t understand was the argument that “we paid a consultant to talk to a Board, not hundreds of people.” First of all, that consultant was paid with money that came from our dues. Why we are any less deserving of access to that report is beyond me. Second of all, the LITA Board meeting was not “closed doors.” It was an open meeting — open to anyone attending ALA Midwinter, so the report couldn’t have had any confidentiality tied to it. There legally could have been hundreds of people in the room who weren’t even LITA members, and they would have been allowed to hear the report bot not members of the organization who could not attend physically. This doesn’t make sense to me other than that it’s the way they’ve done business since before these collaborative technologies existed.
While I do think these meetings should be streamed, I don’t think it should happen in the way that Jason has been doing things. I think this speaks to a bigger issue — that all of the efforts to make these LITA meetings and events more open have spearheaded by individuals. That does not a sustainable project make. If Jason Griffey and other individuals like him suddenly couldn’t attend LITA, ALA and Midwinter, would we suddenly not have any more streaming? This sort of access should happen, but it should be a regular part of how LITA does business. But the way it is now is doomed to failure because it’s seen by most people as something extraneous, or even as “entertainment.” If LITA wants to be responsive to its membership, when fewer and fewer people can attend conferences but still have not lost their passion for contributing to the profession, then it needs to look at how it can accommodate participation and keeping-up from afar. Jason’s done a beautiful job of bringing these issues to the fore, but now it’s time to either make it a part of the way LITA does business or make it clear that this is not the way LITA does business.
Several years ago, I decided that I wanted to get more involved in ALA. I was asked to be on Jim Rettig’s Presidential Initiatives Committee and the ACRL Annual Conference Virtual Conference Committee, so I thought I’d do both. Working with the diverse and impressive group involved in making Jim’s presidency awesome was truly a pleasure, but it was the ACRL committee that really changed my view of participation in ALA (or at least in ACRL). I had always heard that virtual participants were never treated like full citizens on committees and it was one of the big reasons why I hadn’t previously wanted to get involved. With this committee, at least, that could not have been further from the truth. Around that time I was getting funded by ALA for my travel to Annual and Midwinter as I was covering the exhibit hall for American Libraries, so I was actually able to attend all of the meetings for my committee (until I got too pregnant to do so). However, there were other members of the committee who could only attend a few, one or none of the meetings. At every meeting I attended, we had webinar software set up and were able to have a hybrid virtual/physical meeting. This was more than just streaming what went on at the meeting — the people online were just as active participants as those physically in the room. We also met several times synchronously online to catch up, make decisions and conduct other business. It was nice to feel like I could still be helpful and involved when I was too pregnant to go anywhere. Heck, I was able to give a talk for the virtual conference when I was 9 months pregnant! That whole experience gave me new hope that I could make a real contribution to ACRL; that virtual participants didn’t have to be second class citizens.
I would have gotten more involved in ACRL immediately after my experience with the Virtual Conference Committee, but I had a baby a month after ACRL’s National Conference and have been just a tad bit busy with that bundle of energy and moxie since. Now that he’s nearly two, I’ve decided to volunteer with ACRL again and am eager to see what committees I end up on this time around. I hope that I’ll be able to participate through a mixture of virtual and physical participation, since I neither can afford to nor want to attend two ALA conferences each year. I hope that I’ll be given the opportunity to do good things for ACRL, because I’m certainly willing to put in the time and energy. And LITA? I decided to let my membership to LITA lapse. From what I’ve seen, I feel like that division is languishing and that those who want to innovate and make LITA more relevant and accessible are facing one brick wall after another. ACRL has responded in many ways to the needs of its membership (Cyber Zed Shed, OnPoint Chats, Virtual Institute, online classes, National Virtual Conference, etc.), making professional development experiences and participation more interesting and accessible to those who can’t physically attend conferences. I feel like I can find a home at ACRL, because I believe that the organization is moving in the right direction (they’re not there yet, but I believe they will be). I know there are a lot of really fantastic people working to make LITA better (take a look at the EParticipation Task Force Recommendations), but I get the sense that they are swimming against the tide.
ALA, LITA and ACRL are not organizations that embrace or are even structured for radical change, but I think the age that we are in (where people have less funding, more job stress, and more opportunities to participate in professional development, network and make professional contributions online) requires radical change to ensure the survival of the organizations. Enabling more people to participate virtually is not going to kill ALA. People do not just attend ALA and Midwinter because of committee responsibilities and to hear what a Board has to say. They also attend because there is still nothing that holds a candle to attending a conference, learning from someone standing in front of you, seeing old friends, and having long talks with like-minded librarians over sushi and beer. Offering more opportunities to benefit from and make contributions to the organization virtually will increase overall participation and will likely attract members who wouldn’t otherwise have joined because they didn’t feel like ALA/LITA/ACRL represented their needs.
But don’t just read my views on this. Here are some other interesting perspectives:
How Much Is Enough? at ACRLog
Disconnect of expectations between physical and virtual participants at Library Web Chic
New Technology, Open meetings? Not at LITA at Thoughts from a library administrator
Dear ALA, about Midwinter at The Sheck Spot
A Hybrid ALA For 2015 at ACRLog
Virtual Participation on a Shoestring – LITA Rocks the House! from ALA TechSource Blog
Why virtual participation in ALA must be legalized, not decriminalized at Free Range Librarian