From the Office: Stewardship of ALCTS’ Future

In less than six months, ALCTS will see a change that it has not experienced since 2001, the transition from one executive director to another. While this may seem daunting, it is not. ALCTS’ (meaning you) elected officers, committee chairs and members, and members, are very well situated to manage this transition with aplomb and the confidence I have witnessed for many years. The future of ALCTS is really in your hands. An executive director can influence, help set the tone, help define the culture, and provide the support needed to succeed; it is the members who must secure any organization’s future, including the future of ALCTS. The stewardship of its good name, resources, and programs and services depends on the increasingly important involvement of each of you.

As 2015 dawns, now quickly, ALCTS faces many challenges: Not only challenges but more intense competition. Fortunately, ALCTS has superior and excellent leadership across the association to deal with whatever comes along. We may need to re-invent ourselves (as we did five years ago), to be more creative and turn that creative thinking into innovation. For good or bad, ALCTS’ reputation within ALA is being ahead, pushing the limits, and not accepting the status quo. Good stewards will keep that reputation intact.

Here is what I see ALCTS facing over the next several years:

Transition to the New Executive Director

Needs no more said about it, I think. It will happen.

Increased and Increasing Competition

This by itself would be enough to keep us occupied full-time. We no longer are the only game in town, if we ever had that luxury. In very recent years, we have seen ALA Publishing intrude into “our space,” particularly our space in online continuing education. The latest direct move into our territory is the recently announced cataloging for noncatalogers course. Others’ space is being invaded also, but we still must address it.

ALA Publishing is only one of many organizations (including internal ones) that have encroached on our areas of expertise over the years. We could do a lot of hand-wringing and fretting over what might have been, condemning those who saw and took an opportunity. What we need to do—and this is the key to dealing with this competition— is more deftly define who we are and what it is we are about and develop programs and services that are uniquely ours. For example: ALA Publishing is heavy into RDA continuing education. However, they are mainly interested in only the broad audience. I see our niche (yes, we should be very aware of our niche) as a comprehensive curriculum of  specialized RDA offerings: RDA for children’s catalogers, RDA for collection managers, RDA for engineering librarians, and so on. Our strength is in the wealth of expertise we have and our ability to identify those niche areas. Same goes for publications. We have lots of competition, but where we remain a viable and successful publisher is in areas which larger publishers would not tread. Examples include the Sudden Selector Guides, Acquisitions Guides, and more. We are the best at specialty publications, shorter in length, smaller in print runs, and lower in price.

Building and Maintaining a Revenue Base

I know you knew I was going to get to this, but the lifeblood of ALCTS is not only in its dedicated membership and high-quality offerings, but also in a strong financially secure organization. We can’t do many of the things we do without revenue. Revenue is not a “four-letter word.” It is necessary to support many of the activities that have no revenue. No matter how strong we think we are financially, things change—sometimes dramatically and suddenly. We have a good reserve, good income lines, and have kept expenses down. Some recent (and not so recent) trends are slowly depleting our revenue. Dues continue to decline (the case with almost every group in ALA). LRTS subscriptions have had a slow and sometimes not so slow decline even with the advent of e-LRTS and dropping the print version. Publishing revenue is a roller coaster ride from year to year as we struggle with having a consistent flow of manuscripts to turn into publications. And the latest trend has to do with our continuing education events. Still robust in the number of events. Not so robust in the number of attendees. CE enjoys highly favorable reviews. Attracting an audience is always the issue, no matter how well received the webinar or web course is.

Crazy Talk

You know what I mean if you’ve read the Council list at any time in the past couple of years or paid attention to nuanced discussions about the “future of ALA” and “re-inventing ALA.” The extreme position is the death of the divisions—or at least some of the divisions. Long-ago studies recommending only “type of library” divisions have been dug up. I do think that ALA will have to address its own structure in the coming years as the organization begins to shrink more drastically as the “Boomers” retire in higher numbers and drop their membership or move to the dirt-cheap “Retired” member category. Then there is always the “retire with twenty-five years of continuous membership and get free ALA membership” thing. There will be time when ALA will not look like it does today. But that does not mean that who and what ALCTS represents should stand by idly and not be in the forefront to frame that discussion. (Notice I didn’t say “help frame that discussion) Maybe we just rename ALCTS and call it the “Collections Division.” We could annex a whole lot of other groups under our expert tutelage and guidance.

Creativity Leading to Innovation

As I said at the outset, it may be time again, while we are in a position of strength, to re-invent ourselves. I’m not talking structurally. I’m talking about the creative application of new ideas to what we do to prepare ourselves for the future. How we conduct CE? How we do publications? Who is our audience really? Encourage, no, require our much underutilized groups to contribute so we can expand our reach. Taking what we do, looking at alternatives, developing different ways of presenting those things, to different audiences. Packaging what we do to compete with other organizations. Are we looking at cheap, fast but high-quality publications based on professional needs? Are we presenting continuing education to our best advantage? Are we leveraging (might be my first buzz word in this article!) our expertise in the sections and the interest groups to our best advantage? For continuing education, symposia, topical virtual conferences, publications, journal articles. You get the idea. No idea should be considered too bizarre. I know I’ve had my share. A few didn’t exactly work out. If you don’t try something, how do you know it won’t work?

Stewardship of ALCTS’ Future

I guess the bottom line, if there is one, is that we should not only face the external challenges, but we should challenge ourselves. Really, isn’t that what we do best?  Look at all the challenges you have had in your own work. The areas we represent are constantly challenged. Yet, you have survived and flourished in spite of doomsday predictions. So why not for ALCTS? After all, we do have that reputation to uphold.

Charles Wilt

Your Executive Director