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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Defragging ALA

So I'm running for ALA presidency. And I'm trying to listen, and trying to make sense of what I hear.

One of the big, recurring issues I heard at midwinter was a sense of a fragmented membership. ALA is a large, complex institution serving members with a multitude of highly specialized interests. How then, can they communicate not only to and from ALA leadership, but coordinate their activities with other divisions, committees, and roundtables?

Yet there's also a lot of duplication in ALA. Almost every group I talked to mentioned "advocacy." But to frank, we have different understandings of that word.

Effective advocacy, in my view, is based on three things:

  • marketing strategy (reach and frequency);
  • the findings of neuroscience (emotional appeal);
  • the importance of planning (pulling it all together).

Let's break those apart.

Reach and frequency means getting a message to a target audience (that's the reach), as many times as possible (that's the frequency). How many times do you have to see something before you really see it for the first time? Estimates range from 7 to 13. All of this argues for focus: if you sent to someone 25 messages 4 times each, not one of them gets communicated. They just never rise above noise. But if you send 4 messages 25 times each, people start to recognize them. Arguably, the marketing of ALA's many subdivisions falls more often into the former category than the latter. As information professionals, we just can't help ourselves from slipping in one more program, service, or value statement. And so our advocacy (even in the very limited sense of promotion) tends not to get very far.

Neuroscience tells us that changing attitudes and behavior isn't easy. But it can be done, first, with target messaging and frequency, as above. Second, we have to slip past the filter of people's "frames." So how, for instance, do you persuade a mayor or principal or dean that the library is worthy of support when he or she has already decided other things are more important? Answer: begin with a story, a very specific case of a real person who had a powerful experience. As humans, again we just can't help ourselves: we suspend our value system and prejudice in the thrill of the tale. Change begins with feelings. Then, when the message is clear, and not a second earlier, we trot out just one or two brief statements of fact, just enough to assure the listener that this is real. Finally, we need a "phrase that pays" -- a memorable tag line. Research has already given us some very good, short, clear ones. Two of them are just three words each: Libraries transform lives. Libraries build community.

Finally, ALA has come up with three broad goals that should speak to every ALA group:

  1. Advocacy. There is not a single library in the United States (and beyond!) that doesn't need to strengthen its connection to its authorizing community (that would be the people who write the checks, directly or indirectly). But some manage those relationships better than others. Let's stop having a series of half-hearted and unprofessional initiatives, and really do it right, together.
  2. Information policy. ebooks, 3D printers, copyright in the digital age, net neutrality -- the list of new services stumbling into new policy ramifications goes on and on. Librarians remain one of our society's most credible and passionate voices for the right of intellectual access. This one, too, cuts across all library types.
  3. Professional and leadership development. Again, every single one of us wants to develop the skills of our staff; we want to prepare them to lead, particularly in this moment of generational transfer. But some of us, again, are much better at accomplishing this than others are. There have been big breakthroughs in instructional methodologies, in which engagement rules. We have members and roundtables who should take the lead on this.

The point is: instead of asking what ALA can do for each division, committee, and roundtable, it is time for each of those groups to ask what they can do for ALA. (Yes, JFK said it first and better.) That is, by budging up under these three strategies, we'll do a better job of communicating our value, positioning ourselves for the future, and growing our own expertise. That's more efficient and effective than trying to build a mosaic of initiatives from the bottom up.

Note that these three goals may not be the ones we're still focusing on ten years from now. But I think they're pretty sensible for now.

1 comment:

Rick Ashton said...

Jamie, I agree that the President of ALA, year after year, should work to address ALA's fragmentation by building continuity into the work. It makes sense to carry forward those three broad major ALA goals, year after year, until we are all sick of them. That will be the point at which people outside ALA (the President's most important constituents) might begin to notice that we are saying something. In recent years, the ALA work with the greatest public attention and impact has been at the intersection of advocacy and information policy. Molly Raphael and Maureen Sullivan hammered away on the publisher/distributor/library e-books mess and actually made some progress. Having been involved in those efforts, you know there is much more to do, and that's why I think you should be our next elected President.