Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The new ALA Draft “Strategic” Plan

While at the ALA Midwinter Conference, I took time to review the recently issued ALA Draft Strategic Plan. I think it’s a disappointing document if you’re looking for a clear vision statement, an expression of strategy to be used in achieving that vision and/or if you’re looking for goals and objectives by which to measure the organization’s success in moving that plan forward.

The “Draft Big Hairy Audacious Goal” (BHAG) expressed in the document is “ALA builds a world where libraries are central to life-long learning and where everyone is a library user”. Really? That’s our big hairy goal? It's out of touch with reality. They must not have attended the ALA conference that I just returned from in Boston. Because what I heard was libraries are, at best, facing a harrowing future. Libraries are being closed; funding slashed, staff reduced, collections purged, programs eliminated and the list goes on and on. Beyond the financial crisis libraries are already dealing with, are the much larger country wide issues of a failing commercial real estate market, growing unemployment and numerous states that are facing bankruptcy. If any of these happen it will require more federal bailouts and almost certainly means we’ll all be facing inflation and further devaluation of our currency. Each and every one of those crises will have a continuing major negative impact on libraries as we know them today.

In addition, I heard how academic libraries “no longer have a seat at the big table” on campuses and how a recent panel of retired academic provosts, when asked about the future, could agree on only one thing: “never build another library”. I see ALA issuing a press release indirectly confirming that by saying that college and university libraries reported more visits (but since that number is not tied to the use of an information service, could mean they were only there to use the coffee shop, computers, study carrels and learning commons, something which could just as easily be done in the Student Center), they're providing a growing number of group information services (just as easily done in a classroom or webinar) and they provide library reference services by email or web (also doesn’t require a library building). One hardly must wonder why provosts think they no longer need to build new libraries.

When I look at what was happening at the just completed ALA conference, I walked away thinking we’re dealing with micro issues when we should be dealing with real macro issues (BHAG) containing real substance. But I don’t believe that is what ALA has defined in this document.

BHAG’s should be statements that illustrate the transformation needed in libraries today. It should say that librarianship is far more about the critical thinking, analytical skills and information service needed by end-users than it is about libraries. Yes, collections will continue to have a role, but as one panelist pointed out at the RMG President’s Panel on Friday, our end-users don’t see libraries the same way librarians do – librarians see them as collections and then build services around those collections. End-users see information and libraries as only one small part of that landscape. Our job in librarianship is to help users locate among the ubiquitous information they can access, that information which is authoritative, appropriate, authenticated. Then we need to place it into the context needed to answer their information query. To do that, we need to realize librarianship, not libraries, is the key to achieving a BHAG. Librarianship is a structure that encases libraries and information, not the other way around, and it will be driven by librarians. Librarianship represents substantial value-add to information, especially when that information is so vast and growing so rapidly.

An equally important BHAG would be to start defining a scalable method of processing all the vast amounts of information that make up that which we consider authoritative, appropriate and authenticated. We can’t do that with today’s current models of library or librarian services. Yet, if we look around, we see that this is a place where studying how community developed or enhanced software works, how things like Wikipedia work (and numerous other community based initiatives) and how we can actually begin to define scalable models of distilling, from the vast information available, the best information that will serve end-user needs. At the same time we can underscore and promote the value add of librarianship.

I look at the plan ALA has issued and I find it leaves me as parched as I was before it was issued. I still don't see ALA laying out a clear vision and strategy for the future of this profession. The document issued, ends with a “5 Year Planning Horizon – Mega Issues” that only asks questions. It answers none. One question in the list says “How should ALA effectively partner with its chapters and affiliates to implement its vision and strategic plan?”

Perhaps they should start by actually developing something that resembles one.