ALA Governance: Change Inside and Out | ALA Virtual 2020

Of the many innovations necessitated by the American Library Association (ALA) Annual conference shift from in-person to virtual because of COVID-19, governance meetings using two technologies in tandem were among the most high-stakes. Despite a few glitches and a noticeable learning curve, on the whole they went smoothly, with ALA Council members voicing approval of the voting software even for in-person use once conferences resume.

pie chart from ALA council showing revenuesOf the many innovations necessitated by the American Library Association (ALA) Annual conference shift from in-person to virtual because of COVID-19, governance meetings using two technologies in tandem were among the most high-stakes. Despite a few glitches and a noticeable learning curve, on the whole they went smoothly, with ALA Council members voicing approval of the voting software even for in-person use once conferences resume, as well as the broader participation evoked by the option to use the Q&A function as an alternative to raising a hand to speak. The informal chat, intended for technical questions, also served something of the function often held by Twitter, with councilors reacting and consulting in real time in parallel to the official deliberations.

 

BLACK LIVES MATTER

The importance of antiracism work both within librarianship and in the communities served by libraries, a crucial theme throughout the conference, echoed in the governance sessions as well. ALA Executive Director Tracie Hall, in her reports, condemned police violence and racism and called for rapid diversification of the field, including by expanding the Spectrum Scholars program, starting recruitment at and before the bachelors level, and focusing on retention. Outgoing president Wanda K. Brown echoed this call in her introduction to President’s Program speaker Stacey Abrams. And during incoming president Julius C. Jefferson’s Virtual Inauguration, ALA released a statement condemning the association’s past racism and pledging a more equitable organization in the future.

A resolution, introduced at the first Council session, originally urged libraries to adopt policies that decenter police; after debate in which librarians expressed concern about their own fitness to assess mental health challenges or power to place requirements on law enforcement, it was withdrawn and represented in a different form at the final Council session. The final form, which was approved, convened a working group to create guidance for libraries on how to avoid the need for police intervention, but no longer gave advice on how to work with the police.

 

PANDEMIC RESPONSE

Hall called on the field to “seize this moment to call for broadband as a public health issue and community recovery issue,” a position shared by the House Rural Broadband Task Force, which recently announced legislation which would provide $80 billion for broadband build-out, $5 billion for K–12 distance learning, and a $50 per month credit on customers’ internet bills for those impacted by recent layoffs due to COVID-19.

In addition to such advocacy, ALA is evolving its own COVID-19 recovery initiative, launching a new website in July which will provide library policy training and guidance from other fields, including industrial hygiene.

As Chicago continues to open up, ALA’s own staff will follow a pattern of four days in the office at half-capacity, followed by 10 days remote work, in the new headquarters. August furloughs will be split so that the office never shuts down completely.

To support library workers who are facing fiscal challenges, ALA has decided not to raise 2021 dues as it usually does; to allow all members to pay in semi-annual installments, to offer a five month grace period; to offer a discount to unemployed and underemployed members; to allow recent LIS graduates to remain at the student rate through their job search; and to allow furloughed and unemployed librarians to attend the virtual conference for free. As to whether Midwinter, too, will be virtual, Hall says ALA hasn’t yet decided but will do so prioritizing first health, then finances, and will let the membership know as soon as possible.

Finally, the Council passed a resolution urging libraries to be mindful of patron’s privacy rights in pandemic-reduction practices such as contact tracing.

 

FINANCIAL CHALLENGES

Among the most crucial discussions and decisions were those that pertain to the solvency of the association itself. As was reported at the Midwinter Meeting, ALA was already running at a loss, owing to IT overspend and weaker performance in its three current revenue streams: membership, publishing, and events. With the unexpected impact on COVID-19 on top of that, further reducing conference revenue and increasing the costs associated with moving out of the former—now sold—headquarters, ALA is looking at what Treasurer Maggie Farrell called some “very scary numbers.”

ALA Virtual council pie chart showing expenditures

For fiscal year 2021, which begins in October, revenue is currently forecast at approximately $41.3 million, including only 80 percent of expected Midwinter Meeting revenue and member dues down by about $400,000, while projected expenses reach nearly $46 million, for a deficit of $4.5 million. To narrow that gap, ALA is applying $1.2 million it received from the Paycheck Protection Program (the balance of $3 million was used in FY20); applying for an economic injury disaster loan at 1 percent interest; applying to increase its line of credit; asking the endowment trustees for a loan of $3 million, $1.5 million each for FY21 and FY22, also at 1 percent interest; and furloughing the staff for as many as 23 days in an effort to avoid layoffs. Hall is also analyzing operations and staffing to reduce redundancy. To address the IT overspend, new controls have been in put in place to manage the three IT budgets. IT operating costs have been reduced by $300,000, plus a reduced budget for FY21, and the association is developing a large contract review process.

In response to considerable concern about such lengthy staff furloughs from the councilors, Hall explained that the staff had come to this decision as a collective, and that if ALA recoups additional money from its insurance for the cancelation of the in-person Annual conference, the furlough days would be reduced. In addition to recovering from insurance, ALA may receive a contingent payment of $4.5 million, on top of the $6.7 million it already received for the sale of the former headquarters, if the new owners are allowed to build residential units to obtain a major hospital-related tenant or a Fortune 250 company in the next three years.

The executive board and Budget Analysis and Review Committee will plan a revised budget in September, followed by a special Council session, and will consider the final budget in October. In the interim, Hall and the executive board have committed to clear and frequent communication with Council.

To dig out of this hole in the next few years, the association leadership proposes to consider two additional revenue streams—continuing education and contributed revenue—as well as revising the 30-year-old operating agreement as regards the financial structure of divisions and roundtables, to seek new partnership and increased collaboration, and to proceed with streamlining the organizational structure. It remains to be seen, however, whether the Forward Together recommendations for how to do so will be implemented: At the third Council session, the councilors declined to adopt the Forward Together timeline as originally presented to them, substituting their own language and timeframe for considering the restructuring plan, which includes combining ALA’s Constitution and Bylaws into a single document via a constitutional convention, and abolishing the voting Council in favor of an expanded executive board and a series of advisory Assemblies.

 

SUBTRACTING DIVISIONS

Some restructuring, however, is already underway. The ALA Council voted to dissolve the separate divisions of the association for Library Collections and Technical Services (ALCTS), Library Information Technology Association (LITA), and Library Leadership and Management Association (LLAMA) as of August 31 and reconstitute them as the single Core: Leadership, Infrastructure, Futures division. The Association of Specialized, Government, and Cooperative Library Agencies (ASGCLA) was also dissolved, and its work, including on accessibility, incorporated into other existing ALA units.

Other resolutions considered by Council included a resolution to condemn gaming and other media coverage for abridging the free speech of Hong Kong protest supporters, which was referred to the intellectual freedom and international committees, and a resolution to require the association to allow divisions to withdraw up to 25 percent of their balances on a temporary basis, which was defeated.

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Meredith Schwartz

mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com

Meredith Schwartz (mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com) is Editor-in-Chief of Library Journal.

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