A Hybrid ALA For 2015

Like many ALA members I focus most of my participative energy on my division and section. Prior to the Annual Meeting in Anaheim I paid little attention to ALA’s exploration of e-participation. What I did learn at the conference is that an official Task Force on E-Participation has produced a report that makes recommendations to the association related to this issue.

Even though I had no access to that report or much in the way of information about this initiative I was invited to speak at the official ALA Forum on E-Participation, for no more than five minutes, about my experience with e-participation within ACRL. After delivering my remarks members of the audience, mostly ALA councilors, could comment (and unfortunately I wasn’t allowed to respond). I was surprised by the number of folks who had real concerns about opening up ALA to e-member participation. There are some hurdles to jump, but there are people who want to participate as e-members and we have the technology to make it possible. Does ALA have the will power to change? I wrapped up my 5 minutes by urging ALA to adopt its own “put-a-man-on-the-moon” initiative. I challenged ALA to become a totally hybrid organization by 2015. That means 50% regular member and 50% e-participation members, as well as a Conference that offer 50% of its programming to remote participatnts using distance learning or webcasting platforms.

Here’s a fact that must be faced. If the LIS program where I teach a course is at all indicative of where LIS education is at or where it is headed, we are largely talking about an e-learning environment. At Drexel University, where I teach a course (both online and F2F), currently 70% of the students are enrolled as online participants. So if ALA supports e-learning for our future librarians, why are we even discussing the feasibility of e-participation? If an electronic environment is good enough for learning to be a degree-bearing member of this profession at an ALA accredited program, why would it not be a good enough way to participate in the same organization?

Since his presidential initiatives webpage identifies “New technologies, new ways of communicating, open new opportunities for members to make the most of their ALA experience” as one of his top initiatives, I expect Jim Rettig, ALA president for 2008-2009 will move the association further along in the direction of making e-participation a reality for more ALA members. That could mean more virtual members on committees, ensuring ALA has the right technology to support robust virtual meetings, partnering with companies that can make ALA programs accessible to virtual participants, developing a sensible dues structure that makes virtual membership affordable and any number of strategies that can make ALA a truly hybrid association.

At the memberships meetings on e-participation individual commenters spoke on the need for keeping any and all meetings open and accessible to members (there seems to be a fear that virtual meetings will lead to more secrecy and lack of participation but my experience has been that e-meetings are more open and allow for greater attendance), expressed concerns that the technology will inhibit discussion and allow the more technology-adept participants to control discussions (again, if anything, my experience has been that attendees are much more likely to participate virtually – and let’s face it – strong personalities can easily control and influence F2F meetings), and shared fears that e-participation will lead to the demise of ALA.

I stand behind my statement that anything you can do in a F2F meeting you can do in a virtual meeting – including voting. Granted, we sacrifice non-verbal communication to some degree (with webcams we can support video participation), but both F2F and e-meetings have their tradeoffs (e.g., high cost of conference attendance versus ease and affordability of e-participation). My feeling is that if you look at the overall tradeoffs between a traditional F2F ALA and a 21st century hybrid ALA, I strongly believe every library worker has far more to gain from a hybrid ALA than he or she stands to lose from moving to an e-participation future.

ALA needs a BHAG (big hairy audacious goal) and the time is right for shifting directions to a hybrid association by 2015. When you examine all the factors that support e-participation – costs and hassle of air travel (sure to get even worse); rising costs of conference housing and meals; environmental impact of conference travel; waves of e-graduates from LIS programs – it looks more and more like the best decision. Of course, for 2015 the conference location is San Francisco, a city ALA has bypassed for many years. It may be hard to for ALA members to pass up a chance to go to San Francisco. But San Francisco or no, let’s hear it for “Hybrid by 2015”.