ALA MW and learning from one another

I’m not on my way down to San Diego today–but in some ways I’d like to be. Meanwhile, I’ve been involved in another discussion on whether ALA should even hold Midwinter. That discussion has mostly been on Friendfeed…and, as it’s evolved, I’m sensing something that isn’t new but I always find a little distressing.

You can call it separatism; you can call it divergence; you can even call it a preferred future, if that’s your preference. “It” is a tendency for types of libraries to become less and less connected.

One proposal out there is to get rid of Midwinter…and allow divisions to hold divisional conferences every year (they’re only allowed to hold them every other year at the moment). (This comes up after it’s pointed out that members already vote with their presence: That Midwinter continues to be very well-attended, even though ALA dropped the “must be at both conferences” rule for committee membership years ago.)

Would that result in the ACRL and PLA and AASL conferences being even larger than they are now? Probably. Would that be a good thing? That’s an interesting question, and one I’m not going to deal with.

It would definitely weaken ALA’s finances (to the tune of about $700,000/year), unless ALA started taking a bigger chunk of divisional conference revenue as overhead.

It would also significantly weaken the weaker divisions within ALA, the type-of-activity divisions (LITA, LLAMA, RUSA, ALCTS)–none of which are big enough to hold true national conferences and all of which are smaller and less robust than the big type-of-library divisions.

More to the point, to me at least, it would weaken the synergy among libraries, and that’s already pretty weak. Academic librarians would find it even easier to treat public librarians (and public libraries) as irrelevant (as some already do, although many don’t); public librarians would find it even easier to dismiss academic librarians as living in ivory towers; both would find it even easier to ignore school librarians altogether (and vice-versa). I think that would be a bad thing. I think it’s unfortunate that most special librarians left ALA long ago, for that matter.

In my experience, the most exciting state library conference (of the 20-odd I’ve attended) is Texas Library Association. It’s also the world’s third largest library conference (after ALA and Midwinter). Oh, and one more thing: In Texas, the school librarians never left the state association. That’s a significant factor in the size and strength of the conference.

For that matter, I’ve consistently found that “multitype” conferences–where either the school librarians haven’t left or have rejoined (e.g., Colorado), or the various organizations have agreed to joint or overlapping conferences (e.g., COMO in Georgia, if I have that right) are stronger and more interesting than others, and that the rare cases where public and academic librarians have split are weaker than you’d expect.

I’m not the one to be making this case. I’m nearly out of the field entirely at this point; depending on what happens in the next two or three months, I might or might not be attending any more ALA conferences at all. I’ve already transitioned to lifelong/continuing ALA membership and, with some regrets, dropped out of LITA after 35 years.

But to me, there’s enormous strength in librarians of all types learning from one another, and the type-of-activity discussion groups, interest groups, and informal sessions at Midwinter have been particularly worthwhile.

Consider this the ramblings of a mostly-retired library person, one who always earned his living serving academic libraries but always had his heart largely within public libraries. And who remembers when California schools mostly had libraries with librarians, and regrets the present state…

5 Responses to “ALA MW and learning from one another”

  1. Lazygal says:

    Wait – you don’t have to attend both conferences to be on committees? Perhaps not for Big ALA, but AASL still insists on it.

    As for Midwinter being well attended, with YALSA making most committees virtual and school districts lowering professional development funding, I think we will start to see lower attendance. Not perhaps a dramatic drop, but slow steady loss.

  2. walt says:

    Lazygal: There are two issues in your first paragraph. One, ALA’s Policy 4.5 has been revised, but the revision’s a little fuzzy (and damned hard to find)…and most divisions haven’t updated their own policies to match. So, in practice, missing two consecutive meetings (the usual standard) will cause you to be removed from most committees–if the committees hold physical rather than virtual meetings. Oddly, ALA seems never to have had a formal policy requiring two physical committee meetings a year. Admittedly, I, for one, wouldn’t accept a committee appointment if I wasn’t willing to attend Midwinter–but, you know, thousands of ALA members attend Midwinter when they’re not on committees with physical meetings. (And in LITA, most of the action is from Interest Groups, so “forced attendance” really isn’t an issue.)

    As for the second paragraph: If people don’t attend, the conference will get smaller–which, for a while, might be a good thing. If that eventually makes it unworkable, well, that’s people voting with their bodies & funds as well. I am not suggesting that Midwinter is such a Good Thing that people should be required to attend–I am suggesting that Midwinter shouldn’t be shut down even though people choose to attend.

  3. Like Walt, I am unable to attend Midwinter this year. I am a former member of the ALA Executive Board, and this topic has been discussed in that venue for some time.

    I also want to point out some important points he makes above:

    First: Midwinter produces revenue for ALA. That revenue supports activities like the ALA Washington Office, the Office for Research and Statistics, the Office for Intellectual Freedom, etc. which do not have memberships and therefore revenue streams.

    Second: While the “big Divisions” can have successful conferences [and do great things at them], those conferences are significantly different than ALA meetings because they are all content with no business meetings. But…as Walt so eloquently points out…what about the smaller divisions? He left out the smallest one in his laundry list: ASCLA. And folks talk about it as if it would save money. This is not necessarily true if you (like me) are a member of multiple divisions. Attending multiple conferences would increase my costs.

    Third: The cross-divisional fertilization which happens at ALA Annual and Midwinter is very important, and Walt’s observations on the state association conferences is on target.

    Fourth: This is a point which Walt does not make, but has always been important in the ALA EB discussions, geographic diversity. ALA Annual has become so large that there are a limited number of cities where it can be held. Midwinter is smaller, and there are more options for other geographic locations. Between 25 and 30% of either event’s attendance is regional attendance. That is why you see the ALA meetings moved around. It is my understanding that Boston, Philadelphia, San Diego, and Seattle do nor have the requisite facilities for ALA Annual. They are all on the schedule for Midwinter Meetings between now and 2019 (the latest calendar I have downloaded.

    Walt, thanks for the thoughtful (and timely) posting.

  4. walt says:

    Michael: Thanks for that. I would add one point: I am well aware of ASCLA (after all, it *should* have been my home division, technically)…but didn’t include it for two reasons:

    1. Technically, it’s a type-of-library division, not a type-of-activity division.

    2. AFAIK, it’s the one type-of-library division that is unable to sustain itself–at least when I was paying attention, it had to be subsidized by the rest of the association to keep going at all.

    But thanks for the expansion. San Antonio, my absolute favorite Midwinter city, never had the facilities for Annual either–unfortunately, it seems to be off ALA’s list.

  5. I was checking something else and wandered back here. The reason for San Antonio no longer being on the list has to do with the last visit there. One of the conference/meeting trends is for more and more activities to include the “shoulder nights.” Those are the nights before (Thursday) and after (formerly Wednesday, now Tuesday). For the last San Antonio Conference, the city’s convention staff booked some very large events which included the shoulder nights. You may or may not recall the issues over booking rooms for that meeting. I was on the ALA Exec Board then, and we heard. We heard very loudly. The ALA staff recommendation was that the CVB folks were not very pleasant to deal with on this issue, and seemed to ignore ALA’s needs. As a result, Dallas replaced San Antonio on the schedule.