Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Part 2 - Time for accountability from ALA when talking about strategic plans

Dear Keith:

Thanks much for your comments on my last post. While I certainly didn’t expect you to say anything other than you think the plan is moving in the right direction, I’m delighted that you’re willing to engage in some debate and discussion on the topic.

While I want to deal with some of the specifics of your remarks, I want to restate that I think the main point is being missed here which is that objectives provide concrete, measurable, steps for achieving the goals.

Since I get the feeling we aren’t on the same page regarding the definition of goals vs. objectives, let me provide a neutral reference here we can all use as a basis for this discussion:

“Goals are long-term aims that you want to accomplish. Objectives are concrete attainments that can be achieved by following a certain number of steps… Goals have the word ‘go’ in it. Your goals should go forward in a specific direction. Objectives have the word ‘object’ in it. Objects are concrete. They are something that you can hold in your hand. Because of this, your objectives can be clearly outlined with timelines, budgets, and personnel needs. Every area of each objective should be firm. Unfortunately, there is no set way in which to measure the accomplishment of your goals. You may feel that you are closer, but since goals are de facto nebulous, you can never say for sure that you have definitively achieved them. Objectives can be measured. For example, ‘I want to accomplish x in y amount of time’ becomes ‘Did I accomplish x in y amount of time?’ This can easily be answered in a yes or no form.”
Using that definition, I think we need to agree that what has been put before the membership and called “objectives” is clearly not.

Furthermore, the “vivid description” at the end of the 2015 Strategic Plan document, (although I must admit after reading it, I think the phrase “vivid imagination” probably would have been a better use of terms) leaves me feeling equally uncertain about the specifics of HOW we are going to get from where we are to what this section describes. To save others from looking for this, let me quote it here:
Vivid Description of the Desired Future: ALA is recognized as leading and supporting a continuous transformation of libraries of all types in response to the changing needs, expectations, demographics, and technologies of the populations they serve. Libraries and their staff are perceived as vital to the communities they serve; connecting people and ideas to each other and to the world.

All people have wide access to knowledge, information and their cultural heritage, when and where they need and expect it. Users are the primary advocates for libraries, recognizing library services as essential to learning and to individual and societal enrichment.

Libraries are widely recognized as key players in economic development, in building strong and vibrant communities, and in sustaining a strong democracy. Libraries are also recognized as an essential component of the educational system, providing critical youth literacy services, enriching formal education, and supporting lifelong learning. They are key providers of free and permanent public access to government information and e-government services.

School libraries are considered fundamental to a student's education and school librarians are seen as indispensable instructional leaders. Academic and research libraries and librarians are indispensable in advancing learning and scholarship and preserving our cultural heritage. Public libraries are recognized as the interactive place where people find the best resources, programming, and learning opportunities and use information to solve problems and build bridges between people. The services of libraries of all types are readily accessible and welcoming to all, including persons with disabilities.

Libraries collaborate effectively with each other, with museums, archives and other information providers to increase public access to information. They offer access to local and global resources in a vast variety of print and electronic formats. Library users have access to physical libraries that serve as community learning centers, and online access to library resources 24 hours a day, and through a variety of technologies. Libraries embrace technology and are seen as trusted leaders in the information age.

As a result, all types of libraries are adequately funded, librarianship is a sought after profession, librarians are leaders in the information community, information is accessible to all and all people in the United States are literate library users.”
Maybe I’m just way too literal to understand the plan here. I’ll freely admit this is a description of an outcome we’d all like to see, but my stated concern remains after reading it: HOW?? To quote the old Japanese proverb:
“Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.”
This is a plan without those actions described in the detail needed and thus could contribute to a nightmare outcome for this profession.

The statements in this “vivid description” and in the overall "2015 Strategy Plan" remind me of what we hear from most politicians all the time: grand and sweeping, sounding good if not wonderful, but certainly lacking substance, not backed with data and certainly with no specific steps that will be taken to get there, much less by which to actually measure the progress or achievement of the objectives defined. It’s a “feel good” document. It ignores the realities of today and describes a vision that is apparently rooted in the belief that somehow everyone will come to their senses about libraries and librarianship and things will magically start moving in the right directions. I find that disingenuous and a disservice to the profession. We don't need a feel good document. We need a substantive, detailed plan that offers not only accountability for ALA management and organization, but for each of us as members of the profession and organization.

If, as you say, the next step in the plan is to offer a description of what the “transformed library” will look like and that will fill in the gaps then I certainly hope we’ll all make sure that some real objectives are inserted so that accountability can truly be offered and if not achieved, corrective actions taken. (Although I would note here that I think we should be describing the transformation of librarianship, not libraries. Doing it in that order would lead to both and focuses us where we need to be focused.)

Finally, regarding your statement:

“As far as accountability, I guess I would argue that ALA has the highest accountability standard of all: What our members think about the job we're doing.”
It seems to me that it isn’t quite as positive as you imply.

Using the statistics on ALA’s website, there are around 150,000 librarians in the field in 2010. ALA’s membership appears to be around 60,000 or 40% of those people. Why is it that low? Why are we not appealing to those many others? Why are they not members?

Also, I note that ALA’s last financial report for 2010 contains the following statement: “Further it is assumed that membership will fall 2.5% year to year at 55,000 members on the roster.” Using your statement that:

“ALA members vote with their feet”
I guess we'd have to say that it does appear the vote is coming in. Are we paying attention to that fact?

Maybe inserting some reality and accountability into our strategic plan would help reverse that trend.