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Two associations - Part II

The entry was initially meant to be the conclusion of the previous one, but I realized that there was a lot of information from Janice LaChance's presentation that I wanted to include.

If you don't know a lot (or anything) about SLA, I can't tell you much, except for the following:

  • Founded in 1909 by John Cotton Dana and a bunch of others
  • Established to represent libraries not covered under the 'school/public/academic rubric
  • Currently has approximately 12,000 members (memberships have been dropping over the past few years)
  • SLA members include not only librarians working for corporations, but also: government librarians (state and federal), independent consultants, archivists, taxonomists, online database vendors, museum specialists, subject-specific academic librarians, technologists, market researchers ... etc.
  • After its Executive Director of 22 years retired in 2001, it hired a new ED who resigned after 7 months on the job
  • The Association successfully passed a by-laws change in 2002
  • The Association tried to pass a name change in 2003 to become Information Professionals International; it failed ratification in a vote at the 2003 conference.

Obviously, this is an Association in a lot of flux.

I joined SLA at approximately the same time as I did ALA. However, SLA has a local chapter that's does considerable outreach to SLIS students in the Bay Area. Also, my dream library job (news librarian) falls squarely under SLA's auspices. So, I figure that I was an SLAer who kept an ALA membership because I supported ALA's policies and mission. But ALA didn't have a lot to offer me professionally, so beyond basic curiosity of what an ALA conference is like, I didn't figure on making ALA activity a major part of my professional emphasis.

Well, it's not that simple. SLA culture not only embraces 'marketing' (which I don't mind in terms of corporate libraries: render unto Caeser what is Caeser's, or, when in Rome ...) of library services and resources, but encourages librarians to take an "entrepreneurial mindset". I've gone over this before, but I'm not comfortable with marketing as a professional skill.

And as I wrote just prior to go to ALA MidWinter:

 I love SLA and I plan to be a member as long as I can afford it. I've learned so much by being involved with the local chapter, attending the conferences and networking with the people in my chapter and my division. And news librarians can party like you wouldn't believe.

But I don't think I really belong in SLA. I break out in a rash whenever someone brings up the word 'marketing', SLA's focus on best practices isn't designed to inculcate new members of the profession who may not have a set of standard practices yet and while the national will take some stands on issues that affect all sorts of libraries (such as filing amicus briefs along with other associations on challenges to certain legislation), the association doesn't have a philosophical concept of intellectual freedom that forms a core value for the membership.

SLA doesn't have my heart. At least, not yet.


Well, after a month, I can safely say that ALA has my heart. NMRT and LITA were very welcoming, I met very friendly and interesting people, and there was a fair bit of intriguing programming going on. But what really took hold of my imagination was the information policy initiatives. Looking at the discussion and ongoing work of the Information Commons subcomittee, and hearing that SRRT and IFRT would be forming info policy task forces ... it blows my mind.

SLA, in terms of public policy, is in statis right now. There's some really good policy discussion within SLA (I think that Laura Gasaway's discussions of copyright in Information Outlook are so clear, straightforward, comprehensible and relevant), but the public policy infrastructure is still at the foundation level. There's no place for an interested (if neophyte) party to plug in.

So, I'm facing the situation that there is lots that SLA can do for me (in terms of networking and professional development) but there's not a lot I can do for the Association. Conversely, there's a lot that I want to bring to the table for ALA (focusing on policy), but ALA don't really fit my current professional goals.

It's easy to be simply a member of both organizations. How to make meaningful contributions to both organizations seems to be a harder question. As Janice said, ALA and SLA have different missions, resources and services. Both associations provide a lot of value, even if I don't necessarily support every initiative or stance they (or their units) take. I don't want to let one go in order to be successfully engaged in the other. I hope I don't have to ... and I think that if I plan it right and get all of my ducks in a row, then I won't have to choose between them.

Now, how to get my ducks in a row (and exactly what order) ... that's my present conundrum.


Hey...glad to see you dropping Lolly Gasaway's name. I can verify that she is pretty much the bee's knees of copyright discussions. One of the great regrets of my 2 years here is that I didn't get to work with her in any significant way. She did review my work on the Information Ethics page I did for the UNC libraries (http://www.lib.unc.edu/instruct/infoethics/), but I would have loved to have been able to work with her directly.

SLA vs. ALA is a very relevant topic for me, as I am in the midst of deciding which field of librarianship I want to plant a career in, and I'm also deciding which conference I'd like to attend this summer. Sure, I could go to both, but Orlando? From Seattle? Eek.

You've taken a stab at a phenomenon I've also noticed regarding SLA. I would put it this way: the magazine is excruciatingly jargon-y and leaves me cold, but the 2002 LA conference was the most professional fun I've ever had in my life.

I am much more receptive toward the concept of marketing in libraries, although I think you raise some very important points that I had not considered. In terms of marketing, ALA feels very unrealistic and old-fashioned, because I think they're still asking how they can help the patrons coming through their doors, whereas I feel urgently that they need to be asking who is NOT coming through that door and how can we haul them in before our funding is cut?

But ALA seems a great deal more meat-and-potatoes, somehow. While SLA meetings are laregly about which vendors can provide the tastiest meals and flashiest trinkets, a good healthy strain of nonprofit knowhow runs through the middle of ALA. Sure, ALA has its sponsorships and tschotschkes, but the carnival of the exhibit hall seems less central to the real goings-on of librarianship. SLA begins to blur content and advertising in ways that make me distinctly uneasy.

I'm not coming to any definite conclusions here, just musing. But I'm grateful you brought up the topic and started the debate.

Jason, I think if I ever saw Lolly Gasaway and Mary Minow in the same room, I'd keel over from sheer bliss.


1) Have you seen the latest issue of American Libraries? It looks as though ALA is trying to address the marketing concerns you raise (under the rubric of advocacy), although it doesn't not address all of your concerns.

2) I think there's a fair bit of meat-and-potatoes programming at SLA, alongside the glitz and tasty appetizers. I love the speakers my local chapter brings in (after nearly 3 years of attending meetings, I have yet to be bored by a speaker); and at Annual, my division does wonderful programming ... and if something is over my head, I can cherry-pick from other divisional programming. But, your mileage may vary, and that's fair.

I definitely agree with you about the mix of advertising and content, although it doesn't bother me as much. I see it more as business to business (B2B) marketing, especially in terms of corporate libraries/information centers. I don't see the same equity-of-access issues around (most) special libraries the way I do with libraries that have 1) a broader mission and 2) a more diverse population of users/patrons. Then again, I've been spending most of my time in the Association simply trying to figure out what it is and what it stands for that I haven't gotten to the point of where it should from my pov.