Archive | September 2013

Your opinion sought: ALIA board terms

We discuss lots of interesting and exciting things at the ALIA board: the future of the profession, conferences, money. But sometimes we have to do some housekeeping, and that’s what this blog post is about.

The ALIA board is in the process of reviewing the ALIA constitution, looking for things that need to be updated or changed. One of the things that we’re discussing is the term of office for board members. The current constitution states that board members are elected for two year terms, with a maximum of two consecutive terms – a maximum of four years in one go.

There are two problems that the board is grappling with, in relation to its membership. These are that it’s (usually) difficult to attract people to stand for election, and that two years is actually a really short time to serve on the ALIA board. Let’s look at these individually.

2013 was the first year in several in which an election for the board was actually held – which means there were more candidates than there were vacant positions. In the interests of an involved and democratic organisation, I’d like to see elections held every year. I’d like to see lots of competition for this important role, and elections used to select the best candidates. There are risks when there are no elections: we all know people that have inflated views of their own talents, and if all they have to do to get on the board of ALIA is to nominate, well, that’s a little scary (please note this is not a comment on the quality of board members past or present!). It’s important for member engagement that they have a say in who represents them in running the organisation.

People will, in theory, stand for election if the role is attractive to them; they have to feel like it’s achievable, worthwhile, rewarding, and, this is important, they need their employer’s support. ALIA has various ways that they could influence each of these elements, and the term of office is one of them. A short term of office, in which one can’t achieve anything, would prevent the role from being seen as rewarding or worthwhile. A long term of office might mean that people see the role as unachievable, or it might impact the support they get from their employer. (It’s worth articulating here that being on the board requires time and flexibility from employers, and cannot in reality be conducted only in one’s personal time. Some employers might feel that this is an imposition on them. Quick shout out to my employer UNSW Library, who generously gives of my work time!) So you can see that we don’t want a term of office that is too short or too long. We need the goldilocks term.

Which brings me to the second problem. When I took my seat on the board I was coming from a long history of active ALIA involvement. I’d run a group, I’d convened a conference, I’d sat on an advisory committee, I’d even worked for ALIA. One could saythat I was at somewhat of an advantage; yet still the volume of information that I’ve had to take in about every single aspect of the organisation is massive, and I still feel very wet behind the ears. Imagine how much harder it is for someone coming in with less ALIA experience than I had. Feedback from other board members, past and present, is that it took them at least a year to get a proper understanding of the role.

If you spend your first year figuring out what you’re meant to be doing, you’ve only got one year left to actually do any of it. That’s not a lot of time when you’re operating on a strategic level in an organisation, when you’re working on projects that typically take three or more years to play out. It means that we don’t get the satisfaction of seeing the project finished; it also means we’re not held accountable if it goes awry.

Which brings me to the question we’re debating: is two years the right length? We’re basically having a debate comparing two, three and four years. Two years is short, but maybe too short. Four years is long; IMHO, too long, and I would not have volunteered for a four year term, and I wouldn’t do so now that I know how much work is involved! Three years might be a nice length, but it’s complicated to administer – and some people might see it as too long as well.

At the last board meeting we talked about this for some time, and came to the conclusion that we really should find out more about what members think on this – not the least because those in the room are not a representative selection of members, given that we have volunteered for the board. Hence this blog post. I’m seeking your opinion. Please tell me what you think about this. Do you think three or four year terms are too long? Would a longer term encourage you towards nominating for the board in the future, or put you off? You can use the comments section, or you can email me at alysondalby at gmail dot com, or even on Twitter at @alysondalby.

(In case you’re interested in how this actually works, this is not a formal consultation process, rather an informal information gathering. The board will use this to put together a proposed change to the constitution, which then gets voted on by the membership. But we can’t have a vote on three options – we can propose a change, on which members can vote yes or no. Hence we are trying to figure out what that change, if any, should be. If, by the way, you feel we should leave it at two years, please say so – don’t assume that a lack of feedback will encourage the status quo!)

My First IFLA WLIC

In August I went to my first IFLA World Library and Information Congress (WLIC), which was a pretty interesting experience. I’m still very much digesting all the information I took in while there, but I wanted to write a reflection before it travelled too far into the past. I tweeted like made during the event, and Storified the whole thing at http://storify.com/alysondalby/my-first-ifla-wlic.

A quick beginner’s guide to the IFLA WLIC might be in order (and thanks to @katecbyrne for her help with understanding this). IFLA is like the international version of ALIA – kind of. There are some important ways in which IFLA and ALIA differ, and I’ll get to that. Their WLIC is run in a different city every year. Most of the time it’s held in places that are prohibitively expensive and time consuming for Australians to get to; the fact that it was being held in Singapore this year was probably the thing that made me determined to go.

The WLIC is like a giant cake (stick with me, this’ll work out, I promise). There are two layers of cake: one layer is a normal conference with speakers and exhibitors and poster sessions. The other layer is an event that comprises all the IFLA committee meetings. The cream in between is, um, let’s say the networking that one does while travelling from one layer to the other. And then the icing is made up of the satellite events. The thing is that when you take a slice of the cake you get all of those things at once. They all happen at the same time. So it’s a bit confusing.

IFLA, like ALIA, has lots of members that comprise the various committees that represent regions, sectors, and special interests. There’s like a gazillion committees when you add them all up, and each one has one or two meetings at the WLIC. To fit all this into one week there’s usually about six things happening at the same time. Most of these meetings are open, and they welcome observers. So even a novice like me, who until half way through the conference wasn’t even a member of IFLA, can just walk in to these meetings and find out what that particular caucus/section/special interest group does.

To be honest I found that was where a surprisingly large chunk of the value of the WLIC was, partly because it’s different from what you get at other conferences (at least in Australia). One of the other differences between IFLA and ALIA is that IFLA is the Federation of Library Associations – as in, most of it’s members are organisations (although IFLA does have individual members as well). ALIA is a member of IFLA. One of the most interesting meetings I went to was the Management of Library Associations Section (MLAS), which is where all the people who are in charge of library associations around the world get together and talk about what they want IFLA to be doing on an international level. In the meeting was a mix of staff and directors of various associations; being on the board of ALIA made this particularly relevant for me (as well as being quite the networking opportunity!).

The other layer of the cake, the bit that tasted like a normal conference, was, like any other conference, variable. Some bits were great and some bits were a bit crap, but that’s to be expected. The program works on a very distributed model – each of the aforementioned committees gets time allocated in the program to fill with whatever and whoever they want, essentially. There are some plenary sessions as well. I won’t write about every session I went to, and my Twitter feed recorded my impressions of the event in some detail, but there were some stand outs worth mentioning:

  • The opening session was a bundle of fun, with lots of music and drumming, and a  huge Chinese dragon made of reused water bottles covered in neon lights, winding it’s way around the hall. It was lively and really gave a sense of occasion. However I was fairly conflicted listening to the speech by Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large Professor Chan Heng Chee, where she romanticised the personal, print, wooden library, and described libraries as ‘sacred spaces’. I don’t feel that this kind of characterisation is helpful, as sacred things are very hard to change. A library shouldn’t be sacred. It should be used.
  • The FAIFE (Freedom of Access to Information and Freedom of Expression) conference session was probably the best chunk of sessions I attended. It included Barbara Jones from the American Library Association talking about the Snowden affair, and articulating why ALA needs to focus on the quality of the laws underpinning these and similar cases, rather than the individuals involved; Singaporean activist blogger bravely Alex Au talking about Singapore’s culture  of self-censorship; and Stuart Hamilton from IFLA talking about our personal responsibilities around campaigning for libraries as safe places. It was one of those sessions one comes away from feeling inspired.
  • The Copyright and Other Legal Matters committee had a session on international agreements, that included two excellent presentations. Harald Mueller took us through some recent court cases in intellectual property and their implications for libraries, which led to his fabulous conclusion that the best way to get some decent laws made in this area would be for librarians to start some court cases themselves. Then the wonderful Ellen Broad fed into my inner conspiracy theorist when she talked about the TPP and TTIP, two trade agreements currently being negotiated that are likely to heavily affect intellectual property and copyright laws that we rely on to do our jobs. Ellen has the power to make one really, really care about copyright law.

Cake is cake, and cake is good, but cake is great with icing. And so I can’t neglect to mention IFLAcamp2, which was the satellite unconference that I went to before the WLIC proper. Like all unconferences it was characterised by mildly controlled chaos, but in the good way. There were about 35 people there, and a very mixed bunch – new grads, big wigs, educators, vendors, students, what have you. The event was organised by the IFLA New Professionals Special Interest Group (the catchy NPSIG). We talked about all kinds of things, including international librarianship, professional development, leadership, library associations, informal learning networks, and the future of libraries. Some notes were taken and uploaded at http://npsig.wordpress.com/iflacamp2/schedule/. While this was all great, I think the most valuable part of IFLAcamp2 for me was a chance to meet and get to know some people before being thrown into the chaos of the full WLIC. It gave me connections to people that I then continued to bump into over the next week.

I would love to go to the IFLA WLIC again, but it would depend a lot on accessibility and relevance. It was interesting, but there’s no shortage of cool overseas conferences. The international nature of the WLIC is probably it’s selling point, and it was wonderful meeting people from really and truly all over the world. But given the time and cost involved in going when it’s on the other side of the world, it’s possibly of more value to people who are actually involved in the work of IFLA. If you are interested in becoming one of those people, which I am, then attending the WLIC is the best orientation session possible.

p.s. IFLA recently launched the IFLA Library, an online repository of their conference and other papers. You can find lots of the 2013 WLIC conference papers in there, and there’s lots of good reading to be had!