Exploring a New ALA Division with ALCTS, LITA, and LLAMA: A Personal Take

I am just returning from the 2019 ALA Midwinter Meeting in Seattle, and I enjoyed visiting the city, as well as glimpsing stunning views of Mount Rainer and Mount Saint Helen from my airplane window. During the conference the ALCTS Board focused on the status of discussions about forming a new ALA division with the Library Information Technology Association (LITA) and the Library Leadership and Management Association (LLAMA). Shortly before Midwinter, the Steering Committee — composed of the Presidents, President-Elects, and Executive Directors of the three divisions — determined that we weren’t ready to bring a new division proposal to the members for a vote. Instead, we agreed to pause the project. I realize this official notice had about as much warmth as an office memo, so I’d like to share a more personal version of this story, hopefully answering some questions along the way.

Twilight. The peak of the mountain is illuminated; everything below is in shadow.
Sun sets on Mount Rainier, viewed from Gobbler’s Knob Fire Lookout. Courtesy of the National Park Service/Emily Brouwer Photo.

Since ALA Annual 2018 in New Orleans, when the Boards of the three divisions voted to explore the development of a new division, the Steering Committee met weekly, working swiftly to prepare a comprehensive project plan for a member vote by spring 2019. Many hands contributed to this effort, and I am grateful to each member of the Steering Committee, Communications Working Group,  Activities Working Group, Operations Working Group, and Budget and Finance Working Group (all of whom are listed in our ALCTS/LITA/LLAMA Connect space) for their tireless work.

From the first, we knew we had laid out an ambitious timeline. We were working within several external constraints. For one thing, the only date on which a new division can officially be put in place is September 1, the start of ALA’s fiscal year. Working backward from that date, we aimed to hold a vote for our members during the ALA elections of spring 2019, and then to bring our member-approved proposal to ALA Council for its approval at ALA Annual 2019. Additionally, we knew ALA was conducting its own organizational review, through the formation of the Steering Committee on Organizational Effectiveness, and we wanted provide a member-driven framework for how ALA could simplify structure and provide more member value. Together we felt momentum following our conversations at ALA Annual 2018, so we aimed for September 1, 2019 as the start date for a new division. Though the work ahead felt daunting, I was optimistic about the prospect of a new combined division. Similar dues, more content, more cross-collaboration, better support for a full career lifecycle, and better alignment for the way work is performed within libraries — all of these were reasons why I thought this new division would offer a bright future for ALCTS members and the members of LITA and LLAMA.

In order to form a new division by September 1, the Steering Committee would need to set up a financial plan and dues structure, work out an organizational structure, identify key activities to take forward, write new bylaws, determine a name, and come up with a mission, vision and values for the new division. In addition, we needed to communicate information to members and gather recommendations and feedback from as many individuals as possible. To get started, we established working groups with members from all three divisions, and the Steering Committee held an online retreat to determine our vision, mission, and values. Then, at a snappy pace, the working groups submitted recommendations to the Steering Committee, and the Executive Directors Kerry Ward and Jenny Levine synthesized and compiled everything into a project plan. We even picked a name, the Association for Library Leadership, Technology, and Collections. We shared as much as possible with our respective Boards at online meetings in January just prior to Midwinter.

At this point, you might be wondering why we hit the pause button right now. You might also be wondering why you haven’t seen the results of all of this work. The answer to the second question in part answers the first question, as well. The Steering Committee and working groups were all deep in the weeds of forming a new division, but with the tight timeline, we didn’t have a lot of detailed information to share until extremely close to when we planned to ask our Boards to make a decision about whether to go forward with bringing a vote to members. If we were going to bring this proposal to the membership in the spring, we needed to redouble our communications efforts in a short period of time. Meanwhile, we were still hashing out some key details that would have hampered broader communications efforts.

As leadership from three divisions, the Steering Committee came together as co-equals from distinct organizational cultures. We were all considering our current constituent needs while also imagining a new division designed to exceed the sum of its parts. When all the division leaders were closely aligned, it was easy to reach consensus. But as the project continued, we realized that we did not know as much as about each other’s communities as we perhaps thought. For example, ALCTS’ structure is complex, whereas LITA’s is much flatter and more fluid, and LLAMA recently redesigned their sections as self-governing Communities of Practice. In light of these cultural differences, we had differing perspectives on the structure of the new division, transitional leadership make-up, and even the name. Under the pressure of time, we found ourselves making decisions based on expediency, not consensus. As the issues mounted, we agreed that we had too many unanswered questions to press ahead.

Before the Steering Committee reached this conclusion, I conducted a straw poll of the ALCTS Board and division committee chairs. Most ALCTS leaders supported this new division in theory, seeing it as an opportunity to reduce duplication of effort between the divisions, allow for member dues to go farther, and offer new options for networking, programming and continuing education. Functional areas that may have fallen through the cracks of three divisions could be better supported by a single new division. Further, ALCTS leaders recognized that ALCTS’ current reality demands change. While ALA membership has rebounded in recent years, ALCTS membership has continued to drop, and we now have almost a third fewer members than we did ten years ago. Our budget has stabilized due to strong revenue from continuing education, but our capacity to support new initiatives is limited. Leaders recognized the need to make the division more attractive to new and existing members. Combining with LITA and LLAMA to form a new division offered one path forward.

But the results of the straw poll also revealed concerns about the process for creating the new division. Participation in key discussions was limited to select individuals without broader member input. We did not do as much as we needed to communicate using a wide range of media. We needed to share our mission, vision, and values, and ideas for how the new division could be structured and governed, while also gathering input, feedback, and concerns from members. Some leaders felt like this was a process with a predetermined conclusion; consequently, they felt undervalued and disengaged. These concerns resonated with key problems identified by the Steering Committee, supporting the need for a project pause.

So what do we do next? All three divisions used this pause at Midwinter to get a feeling for where their members stand and formulate next steps. During the conference, I realized that I’ve been relying on the great leaders and volunteers within ALCTS to keep our division’s work and initiatives moving forward, but I haven’t been as actively involved as I’d like to be. ALCTS President-Elect Jennifer Bowen and I know that if we continue to pursue a new division, the collaborative process will need to change in order to lay a strong foundation for a new division, while simultaneously maintaining ALCTS as a vibrant organization. Certainly, all of us on the Steering Committee recognize that while we reorient ourselves, other work at ALA around organizational restructuring continues, and we shouldn’t wait too long if we want to plan our own future. While I can’t tell you exactly what will happen next, I can assure you the process will be — to borrow a concept from RDA — diachronic. The work of cultivating community is not once-and-done, but always ongoing.

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