Thursday, February 22, 2007

Council so far (or, notes on Midwinter in which I attempt to make Council sound really, really interesting)

One of my responsibilities as a Councilor is to report back to my constituency. As an at large member of Council, my constituency is, well, everybody. Actually, this gives me a great deal of freedom to vote my conscience and act however I see fit. Since I am accountable to everybody, I am beholden to no one in particular (thus the tardiness of this report). This puts me in a very different position from say, a division or state chapter Councilor who may be obliged to vote the party line. Some of these folks will send a hasty email to the state association listserv during Council sessions to gauge the pulse of their constituents on a particular issue. I took the approach of sending a text message to all of the library-types in my cell phone contacts, a rather motley crew of friends and conference acquaintances. (Who knows what questions and controversy will face us in DC...if you'd like to sign up for my "live from the Council floor cell phone survey" for annual, just drop me a line with your cell phone number. And thanks to the folks I pestered for your input during this go-round.)

Most of the votes that come before Council pass with an overwhelming majority. There's lots of stuff we approve to keep the cogs of ALA greased and moving forward, like revisions to the ALA policy manual in support of more inclusive language on the topic of diversity. And sometimes, just because something passes easily doesn't mean there wasn't a whole lot of stuff going on behind the scenes. It's fun to watch the political dance. Although a number of people stood up to express concerns about the resolution on a non-binding minimum salary for professional librarians, nobody voted against it.

Council kind of reminds me of jury duty. Some people try to avoid it, and most people don't know what really goes on. You're thrown into a room with a bunch of people you don't know and expected to reach decisions about important stuff. And in both cases, I walked away impressed by how seriously everybody took their responsibilities, not to mention a much better understanding of how things work.

Take for instance, some proposed revisions to ALA bylaws and policies regarding elections. Somebody noticed that there was a contradiction in the rule book: on the one hand, "All personal members of the ALA shall be eligible for nomination to Council..." but "No member of the Election Committee may stand for election on the ALA ballot..." Basically, that second bit is null and void anyhow, so we voted to strike it. But then again, we want to avoid any suggestion of impropriety, so there were some proposed changes to the policy on elections. Surprisingly (at least to me), there was quite a bit of debate. Folks were really, really concerned about any potential limitations to someone's ability to stand as a candidate for an elected office. It's almost funny in light of our earlier discussion about how Council is viewed amongst the general membership. If you look at the Council roster, it's a bit of a library director's club, and plenty of people feel that they don't have the experience or name recognition needed to participate. Yet here were those selfsame Councilors working to ensure that anyone, anyone has the opportunity to run for Council. Kinda makes you go, "aw, shucks," and want to give 'em all a great big hug.

Then there's the juicy bits. At Midwinter, we had a resolution to end funding for the Iraq war, one in support of impeaching George Bush, and another one about the Boy Scouts.

Let's start with the Boy Scouts. First, the facts: ALA sets forth very explicit guidelines (scroll down to 9.5) regarding relationships with organizations that violate what ALA considers to be basic human rights. We don't allow them. The Boy Scouts of America National Council has some opinions about religion and homosexuality that don't measure up to ALA standards. Therefore, q.e.d., plain and simple, we shouldn't have formal relationships with the Boy Scouts of America National Council. In fact, Council already addressed this issue back in 1999. The question that remains is, does ALA still have formal relationships with the Boy Scouts of America National Council? (I've been particular about writing out the entire name of the BSA National Council, because it's really the National Council policies that we're taking issue with, not individual scouts or troops.) Until recently, the ALSC (Association for Library Service to Children) website listed a liaison to the Boy Scouts. The listing has since been removed, so this is now a bit of a moot point, but anyhow...although ALSC considers these liaisons to constitute informal relationships, there was some discussion about the public perception of such liaisons and whether the Boy Scouts should still get one. Again, we're not talking about stopping a local library from working with a local troop, we're talking about relationships on the national level. In the end, we referred the resolution back to committee. I think ALSC felt a little put out at not being consulted before the resolution was presented to Council, and the resulting hubbub had more to do with procedure than opinions about Boy Scout policies per se. Once again, I was forced to acknowledge that ALA is a behemoth and the quick and straightforward approach to solving something is not always an option.

As for the Iraq war resolution...there was much debate over whether this resolution reflected the goals and mission of ALA.
(This is where the text messaging came in. I summed up debate with the following question to my constituents:

"war bad, but ALA's mission?"

Here are some of the replies I received:

"stick 2 resolutions against things that directly affect libs"
"ala involvement? its sort of token..."
"I don't like the war. How will the ALA resolution change things?"

Instant feedback from my constituency. Neato, huh?)

Although I am in agreement with the sentiment behind the Iraq war resolution, I had to agree with my cell phone buddies. Rather than vote no, I abstained. This one divided the house enough that we had to stand up and be counted (usually we just raise our hands and it's fairly obvious where the majority stands). 48 voted yes, 98 voted no. There were a number of us who abstained, but those votes didn't get tallied.

Finally, there was the resolution declaring that George W. deserves impeachment. This was incredibly confusing simply in terms of procedure, so I can't promise I'll get it right. As we reached this topic on the agenda, some Councilors walked out in protest. By my count, we were actually within 15 or 20 people of losing quorum. Right away, someone raised a point of order questioning whether or not the resolution was germane. Meaning, if the issue is outside the purview of Council, it doesn't really make sense for us to take action on the resolution. As ALA President, Leslie Burger presides over Council meetings, and rather than make that call herself, she turned it back to the assembly for a vote. I thought to myself, hey, that's a good point, and voted the issue not germane, along with the overwhelming majority of Council. Straightforward enough, right? Next agenda item, moving right along...

That's when all hell broke loose.

Okay, we're a bunch of librarians. So it wasn't total anarchy. Maybe just a wee bit of heck broke loose. Still, it was fun to watch.

People were literally up in arms over the fact that we'd closed off debate. There were cries of censorship. One Councilor summed it up best by saying, "I didn't realize my vote would mean we wouldn't get a chance to debate the resolution. Let's talk about it first, and then I'll vote no."

As I listened to the tumult, inside my head the penny dropped. These people value process. And by these people, I don't just mean Council. I mean library people. Hey, hold on...that includes me. It's not just about the decisions we make, it's about how we reach those conclusions. I think I still marvel at just how long it can take to reach a decision, but my appreciation for the process is slowly growing. And it made me smile, swell with pride even, to see all of those Councilors stand up and wave the banner of intellectual freedom and free speech (though I find it rather amusing to see our policies on intellectual freedom and opposition to censorship invoked to accuse the very body that established those policies).

I'll admit it. I actually do think Council is really, really interesting.


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