ALA 101: Structure, organization and governance

An overview for ALA unit managers

Last update: 20 August 2007

Mary W. Ghikas, Senior Associate Executive Director

I. ALA within the broader environment

An association is a voluntary organization of persons and/or organizations with common interests and ends who have come together formally in order to achieve together things that they could not achieve (or could not achieve as well) individually.

ALA’s purpose and mission:

Article II- ALA Constitution: The object of the American Library Association shall be to promote library service and librarianship.

ALA Policy Manual I 1.2: The mission of the American Library Association is to provide leadership for the development, promotion, and improvement of library and information services and the profession of librarianship in order to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all.

Founding & Incorporation: Growing from an 1853 meeting in New York, ALA was founded in 1876, in Philadelphia – following the Civil War and post-war reconstruction. The enabling resolution was adopted on October 6, 1876. ALA was incorporated in 1879 under the laws of the state of Massachusetts.

Note that the state is which ALA is incorporated affects our actions in any area governed by state laws, e.g. the actions of governing boards. 

Tax-exempt status: ALA’s purposes are essentially public-service, educational purposes. ALA is characterized as a nonprofit corporation under section 501(c)3 of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code.

Note that ALA is not a “professional association” – though you will find that many members assume it is. This affects what we can/can not do, e.g. certification.  501(c)3 organizations are also subject to clear limitations in lobbying – and may not, under any circumstances, engage in political activity. 

Policy Framework: ALA’s policy framework is provided by two infrequently-changed documents  – the ALA Constitution and the ALA Bylaws – and by policies established by its governing body, the ALA Council.  Current ALA policies are included – sometimes in abbreviated form – in the ALA Policy Manual, currently published as part of the Handbook of Organization. 

The Policy Manual is divided into two parts:

  1. Organization and Operational Policies
  2. Positions and Public Policy Statements. The full text of policy statements is held in the Current Reference File, maintained by the ALA Governance Office. Superceded policies are maintained in an historical file.

Sturgis Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure (latest edition) “shall govern the Association in all cases to which it can be applied and in which it is not inconsistent with the Constitution, the Bylaws, or special rules of order of the Association.” (ALA Bylaws, Article XI) 

It is critical that staff providing support or liaison to any ALA group  – division, round table, or committee – be familiar with this policy framework.  This is part of your responsibility.  You should also have – and become familiar with – Sturgis (currently 4th ed).  In particular, the latter chapters in Sturgis contain useful information on roles & relationships.

ALA Membership: Membership is open. (“Any person, library, or other organization interested in library service and librarianship may become a member upon payment of the news provided for in the Bylaws…” ALA Constitution, Article III) Members may be personal or organizational/corporate.  ALA members elect at-large members of the Council, elect ALA officers (president, president-elect, treasurer), and may overturn actions of Council.   A member may be suspended “for cause” by the ALA Executive Board. Only personal members may vote and hold office. ( ALA Bylaws, Article I)

Chapters: ALA may establish a chapter “…in any state, province, territory, or region in which a majority of ALA members residing within the area involved and voting on the issue favors such action; provided, however, that the total number of persons voting on the issue shall not be less than ten percent of the total number of ALA members residing within the area.”  (ALA Bylaws, Article V) Currently, there are ALA chapters in 50 states, the District of Columbia, the Virgin Islands and Guam.  Chapters may – and do – admit members who are not members of ALA. 

[Note that this is not necessarily the case with ALA “sister” associations in the library community.  In some library/information- based associations, chapter members must first be members of the national association.]

Chapters are represented on the ALA Council.  If there are both state and regional organizations, Council representation is through the state chapter, unless chapters in a region choose to take representation through the regional chapter, in which case the regional chapter would elect one representative from each state. All representation is currently through state chapters, not regional organizations. 

It is important to keep in mind that many states have more than one state association. School library media specialists, for instance, are frequently organized separately within states. There can be only one official ALA chapter in a state, however.  Other organizations may affiliate with an ALA division; for instance, separate school library media associations are represented in AASL’s Affiliate Assembly. Other divisions also have affiliate structures.  Some round tables have affiliates.

In working with member groups to disseminate programs (e.g. “training-the-trainer” programs), you need to keep the purposes in mind.  If the ALA governance relationship is significant, you may be able to consider only the ALA chapters.  If the issue is “reach,” or connection with a particular audience, then you need to keep in mind these alternative or additional affiliate relationships.

Affiliates: ALA Council may vote to affiliate with ALA (or with any subdivision of ALA at that subdivision’s request) “…any national or international organization having purposes similar to those of the Association or its subdivision.” ( ALA Constitution, Article X, Sec.1)  Affiliated organizations must be non-profit, must have constitution & bylaws not in conflict with ALA and its policies, must not discriminate in membership, must have a sufficiently large membership and length of existence to make its continuation likely.  (See ALA Policy 9.2 and 9.3)  ALA affiliates may – and do – admit members who are not members of ALA.  ALA affiliates are not represented on the ALA Council.  Not all national library associations are ALA affiliates. [For instance, SLA is not an ALA affiliate.]

Liaison to affiliate organizations is through the ALA Executive Office.  Because of special historical relationships and because of ALA’s focus on recruitment and diversity, there is additional liaison to the ethnic caucuses, provided through the Offices for Literacy and Outreach, and Diversity. 

Note that one major national association – SLA – is not an ALA affiliate.  Where “reach” – not the official affiliate relationship – is the issue, you need to be careful not to inadvertently or accidentally miss them by mailing just to affiliates.

II. ALA “macro” organization

ALA Divisions: Specialization appeared within ALA as early as 1889. College and reference librarians formed a special section in 1889, followed by trustees in 1890 and catalogers in 1900.  ALA Bylaws provide for the establishment of divisions “…to promote library service and librarianship within and for a particular type of library or as it relates to a particular type of library activity, and to cooperate in the promotion of general and joint enterprises within the Association and with other library groups.” ALA divisions are specifically given the “authority to act for the ALA as a whole on any matter determined by Council to be the responsibility of the division.” (See ALA Bylaws, Article VI.)

ALA Round Tables: ALA Council may also establish Round Tables of members “interested in the same field of librarianship not within the scope of any division.” Round Tables may not speak for the Association.  (See ALA Bylaws, Article VII.)

ALA Council: ALA Council is the governing body of the Association (See ALA Constitution, Article VI; ALA Bylaws, Article IV), delegates responsibilities to the divisions and determines all policies of the Association.  Actions of Council may be overturned by a majority vote by mail in an election and/or referendum in which one-fourth of the members of the Association voted.  Councilors serve a three-year term. The ALA president, president-elect and executive director serve as the officers of Council.  The executive director serves as the secretary of Council.  The presiding officer votes only in case of a tie. The executive director does not vote.

ALA Executive Board: The ALA Executive Board includes the officers of the Association (president, president-elect, treasurer), the immediate past president, and eight members elected by Council from among its members. Executive Board members serve a three-year term. “The Executive Board shall be the body which manages within this context the affairs of the Association, but shall delegate management of the day-to-day operation to the Association’s Executive Director.  The Executive Board shall make recommendations to Council with respect to matters of policy.”  (See ALA Constitution, Article VII.)

Committees: The ALA Council, on recommendation of the Committee on Organization, establishes standing committees and special committees.  Special committees may also be established by the Executive Board.  Standing committees may be Committees of the Association or Committees of Council. Committees of the Association are appointed by the ALA president-elect, on the advice of a Committee on Appointments, comprised of the presidents-elect of the divisions.  Committees of Council are appointed by the Council Committee on Committees, chaired by the ALA president-elect. The two types of committees differ in the manner in which vacancies are filled.  Rules relating to number of appointments/person and length of service are the same, regardless of type of committee.  Membership in Committees of Council “may consist of both Councilors and non-Councilors.” (See ALA Bylaws, Article VIII.)

III. Policy/operational framework

The Operating Agreement: The relationship of divisions of ALA to the larger Association is both long and complex.

  • ALA’s specialized sections became divisions beginning in 1939-40.
  • In 1952, grants were made to ALA divisions from ALA endowment capital to enable them to have executive secretaries, in order to enable them to develop and maintain more effective programs.  The resulting membership gains were to fund staff following the end of the grant funding.  This relationship continued to grow and develop, with repeated changes over the next decades.
  • By the 1970s, ALA had moved to funding divisions from income derived from division dues and other revenue.
  • In 1976, the ALA Council adopted a “Dues Transition Document,” which ended inclusion of division membership within ALA basic dues. Divisions assumed financial responsibility for the cost of their staff, publications and program, with the ALA General Fund assuming responsibility for a defined set of “indirect cost” items, including office space, administrative services, and other kinds of expenses. 
  • By 1982, this became the “Operating Agreement Between ALA and Its Membership Divisions.”
  • The current version of the “Operating Agreement” was approved by the ALA Council in 1989.  (See ALA Policy Manual, 6.4.)  It was implemented through a series of “operational practices,” in order to provide the flexibility to accommodate changes in technology and other conditions.
  • Operating practices are modified and new operating practices developed based on organizational need.
  • Management/operational practices are available in the ALA knowledge management system.

The current Operating Agreement describes a complex organization with interrelated, mutually-dependent parts. It specifically notes that the relationship among these parts is dynamic – requiring a commitment to collaboration and a willingness to be flexible. There are valid differences – and equally valid similarities and common interests. Divisions are meant to be integral to the decision-making processes of the Association.

The “cooperative framework” outlined by the Operating Agreement includes several parts:

  1. Current organizational values of ALA
  2. A process for implementation, ongoing review – as well as standard definitions
  3. A list of ALA services which must be used by divisions (i.e. which divisions may not opt to contract out)
  4. ALA fiscal policies and procedures – including overhead, fund balances, furniture and equipment
  5. Publishing activities – including ALA Publishing Committee’s responsibility for control of the ALA imprint, division editorial and managerial control over division publications, ALA Publishing’s right of first refusal, ALA Publishing royalties to divisions for division-generated publications, and conference taping
  6. Personnel
  7. Division national conferences
  8. Annual Conference and Midwinter Meeting
  9. Special projects of divisions, for which external funding is sought
  10. Planning – defining both divisions’ process autonomy and an assumption that many ALA goals and priorities will be reflected in division plans.

All ALA unit managers should be familiar with this policy – regardless of the unit they manage.  The Operating Agreement is a critical component of the operating framework within which any unit manager works.  It makes explicit certain expectations (e.g. organizational values). It implies certain others, as the logical consequence of explicit actions (e.g. need to work through divisions to fully achieve Association goals).

“Who Speaks for the Association?”: Three bodies – the ALA membership (as an aggregate voting body), ALA Council, and divisions (within their respective areas of responsibility) have the authority to determine and act for ALA in matters of policy.  The ALA Executive Board is so authorized within established policies. Committees and round tables are not authorized to speak for the Association. While this seems clear, in practice many questions arise. 

Affiliation & “Partnerships”: Objectives and criteria for the establishment of “formal relationships” are spelled out in the ALA Policy Manual, 9. Relationships to Other Organizations.  Policy 9.1 addresses overall objectives and criteria.  Policy 9.2 and 9.3 specifically address affiliation.  Policy 9.4 defines formal relationships and official representation to outside organizations.  In practice, it is important to be as precise as possible in defining relationships and not casually imply that relationships have a weight they lack.  On the other hand, when ALA does enter into a “formal relationship,” it is important that it be entered into only with Board/Council authorization.

ALA staff need to be extremely careful in their use of language relating to projects or other working relationships with other organizations. Use terms like “formal relationship” and “partnership” very carefully – and be sure you understand all the policy consequences, as well as legal consequences.  Read Policy 9 – carefully.

Roles, Responsibilities & Relationships: Associations are – above all else – an organizational mechanism through which people do collectively that which they could not otherwise do, or not do as well.  Roles, responsibilities and relationships are at the core of effective operation.  There are both formal roles, responsibilities & relationships – and informal ones.  Staff must be aware of and respectful of both. 

Note that the formal organizational “connection” between division boards and the ALA Executive Board is through Council.  The same applies to round tables. This places a particular burden on informal connections and staff must be alert to the need for such communications.

Keep in mind, also, that there are unofficial but regularly recurring “collective” events – the meetings of the Round Tables Coordinating Assembly (Midwinter & Annual Conference), the Division Concurrent (fall) and Division Presidents gatherings (Midwinter & Annual Conference).   Distribution lists – RTCA & division presidents – are maintained in the MPS Office (ALA Senior Associate Executive Director).  These are discussion and information sharing mechanisms.  At times, they provide a forum for “collective” decisions – e.g. appointing joint representatives to various committees.

IV. Getting things done

Formal mechanisms

Council – Divisions and round tables have access to Council through their elected representative. Typically, Council functions in a formal, parliamentary fashion.  Issues are brought to the Council floor for debate as formal resolutions.  Council has a Resolutions Committee to assist Councilors.  ALA/Council committees may ask to have reports placed on the Council agenda.  Council agendas and documents are distributed (electronically) approximately 30 days prior to the first meeting of Council at Midwinter or Annual Conference. Lois Ann Gregory-Wood (ALA Governance Office) is the Council secretariat and can provide advice on getting items onto Council’s agenda.

Staff providing support to member groups should also be aware that “informal” discussion with Council is possible and may, in certain situations, be desirable.  (For instance, when the ALA Conference Committee sought to move forward the “track” concept, informal “round table” discussions were held with Councilors – and any other members interested in participating.)  Typically, such “round table” discussions have been held following the end of the Council/Board/Membership Information Session on Sunday at conference.

The Council discussion list ( also provides a mechanism for information dissemination and informal discussion.  Only Councilors (and key staff) may post to the Council list.  Any member – and any staff member – may have “read-only” access to the Council list.  The Council list is automatically archived.

ALA Executive Board – The ALA Executive Board meets four times annually – fall, Midwinter, spring and Annual Conference.  The fall meeting typically has a strong strategic planning component. The spring board meeting includes the initial Board review of the budget for the following fiscal year.  Board documents should include a summary page indicating Board session (e.g. Fall 2001, Annual Conference 2002, etc.), topic, action requested (and draft motion, if appropriate), person(s) action requested by, date, and summary background.   JoAnne Kempf (ALA Executive Office) is the Executive Board secretariat and can provide advice on getting items on the Executive Board agenda.

BARC/PBA – BARC currently meets four times/year –fall, Midwinter, spring and Annual Conference.  BARC typically appoints a “liaison” – a BARC member – to each division and round table, as well as to General Fund departments (e.g. MPS, Publishing).  A liaison list will usually be issued in the fall. Division executives and round table liaisons should feel free to raise issues with or ask questions of their BARC liaison. Providing a well-thought-out (but succinct) briefing or “executive summary” document on your proposed budget or other proposal for your BARC liaison may facilitate discussion of the most important issues.

If you have a proposal going to Council which you know will have financial impact, you can facilitate the process by getting information to BARC sooner rather than later.  Even if you have only preliminary information, getting it on BARC’s radar screen in advance can sometimes facilitate action – and you may also get helpful advice from BARC.

The Planning and Budget Assembly is advisory to both BARC and the ALA Executive Board – and is the Association’s single most representative body, including a representative from each division, each round table and each ALA/Council committee, as well as 10 (5 At-Large and 5 Chapter) Councilors elected by Council. PBA meets twice/year, at the Midwinter Meeting and Annual Conference. In addition, BARC offers an ALA financial planning seminar – focusing primarily on division and round table issues.

PBA has been increasingly involved in association-wide strategic planning.  It is important that all PBA representatives participate, not just divisions and round tables representatives.  Staff liaisons need to do some cheerleading. Be positive.  This is a valuable member leadership role.

Committee on Organization (COO) – COO makes recommendations to Council regarding the formation or dissolution of divisions, round tables and committees, as well as the composition of committees, formal charges (including changes to those charges) and other organizational issues. Lois Ann Gregory-Wood (ALA Executive Office) is the staff liaison to COO.  Note that policies regarding petitions for establishment of new units of ALA are included in the ALA Policy Manual, 6.2.

Groups seeking changes can often expedite the process by providing information to COO in advance of Midwinter/Annual Conference.

Chapter Relations Committee – The Chapter Relations Committee can play a significant role in facilitating broad communication of new programs through their chapter network.  Chapter Relations Committee meets with chapter representatives and routinely provides an opportunity for ALA member leaders and staff to present issues and programs.  The ALA Chapter Relations Office provides liaison support and can provide advice on getting on the agenda. Chapter Relations Office also maintains a consolidated calendar of Chapter conferences (which will help you avoid conflicts), as well as a list of chapter officers.

Remember that you may have to check with specific divisions or round tables if you are seeking to effectively reach specific groups – e.g. the AASL Affiliate Assembly, the ALCTS Council of Regional Groups, etc.

Other ALA/Council committees – Many ALA committees have associated Assemblies (see Policy 6.11 for definition), which are meant to provide a mechanism for unit representatives to provide input, put forward positions and viewpoints from units, and also take information and concerns back to units. Among these assemblies are the Education, Recruitment, Legislation, Literacy, Public Relations, Research and Statistics Assemblies.  Still other committees have extensive liaison relationships, including the Intellectual Freedom Committee, Membership Committee and others.  Each committee has a staff liaison, listed with the committee in the ALA Handbook of Organization.

Be aware of these assemblies and use them to extend discussion on issues through the Association.

Informal mechanisms

Division Concurrent Executive Committees/Division Presidents – There are two/related vehicles for collection communication among, to and from ALA divisions.  In the fall, immediately following the Division Leadership Orientation for division presidents-elect, the division executive committees meet – simultaneously – in Chicago.  Since 2002, the concurrent meetings of the Division Executive Committees and the Fall meeting of the ALA Executive Board have been scheduled at the same time; one joint session (historically on Friday afternoon) of the ALA Executive Board and the Executive Committees of the eight divisions is now held.

At the Midwinter and Annual Conference, the division presidents (current, incoming, immediate past) and division councilors meet together (continental breakfast, 7am, Sunday).  Again, at each session a convener for the next session is chosen.  An agenda is put together through the MPS Office, working with the convener chosen by division leadership. The ALA president, president-elect, treasurer and executive director also now typically attend these meetings.  Representatives appointed jointly by the division presidents to various ALA standing committees (e.g. Conference, Scholarships, ALA-AAP) are also invited to attend and report to the division presidents. 

For both all-division events, Danielle Alderson (MPS Office) handles room & meal arrangements and maintains an email discussion list.  While these sessions began – and in the case of the Division Presidents’ Breakfast remain – as unofficial sessions, they perform an invaluable coordinating and information-sharing role.  In addition, these collective bodies are responsible for selecting division representatives to the ALA Conference Committee and to other groups where division representation is collective rather than division-specific.

Round Tables Coordinating Assembly – The RTCA includes the presidents (or designates) of each ALA round table.  RTCA meets twice/year – at Midwinter and Annual Conference.  At each session, a convener is selected for the next.  Additionally, at Annual Conference, RTCC holds an orientation for newly-elected round table officers.  Arrangements and email discussion list maintenance are handled by Danielle Alderson (MPS Office). While this began as an informal, unofficial body, it became an “official” group, effective with the 2002 Annual Conference.  Its processes are, nevertheless, largely consensual and informal, not parliamentary.  It plays a critical role in communications.  RTCA also selects the Round Tables representative to the ALA Conference Committee, as well as other round tables “collective” representatives.

Both of these groups have been willing to hear and respond to brief presentations on current issues.  They have very brief meeting times, reserve significant amounts of that time for peer group discussion, and definitely control their own agenda.  Nevertheless, both groups recognize that they perform a valuable service within the Association by providing a “one-stop” opportunity for other member leaders (e.g. ALA Executive Board liaisons) to raise issues of concern to divisions and/or round tables.

Timing:  Timing is critical – and can make the difference between moving something forward – or not.  There are two points to keep in mind – schedule and sequence.  For instance, know that any issue going to Council which has fiscal implications is likely to be referred to BARC; get information to BARC as early as possible. 

Get the Board/BARC/Council meeting sequence down annually – in writing – and keep it in mind when working with member groups.  If you need to get materials to ALA divisions, know that they have the same advance mailing (or e-mailing) deadlines that the ALA Executive Office has – approximately one-month prior to the Board meeting. Staff liaisons for round tables and for committees will have document mailing deadlines, too.  Check with them.  Timely is not always possible – but it is usually smoother; aim to be timely.

Staff-to-staff facilitation:  Staff can play a significant role in moving programs and issues forward smoothly.  Often, the assistance you need is down the hall – know which member groups each of your staff colleagues supports.  While circumstances and situation vary, there are some general rules that may help:

  1. Whenever you start a project, do a reasonable “discovery” process. Check for relevant policies.  Try to identify as many ALA “stakeholder” groups as possible – divisions (including their sections and committees), round tables, ALA/Council committees.  Read division missions and committee charges.   If there were major predecessor documents, find them – the ALA Library and/or Governance Office and/or appropriate division or office can help (depending on the document).  This is not “extra.”  It is the job.If you think it doesn’t apply to your position, you are likely to be wrong, at least part of the time.
  2. Provide context.  It’s part of your staff role. Don’t assume that members have the institutional memory, though they may.  Context-setting includes providing history, relationships, related policies, etc.  Colleagues are invaluable in providing rich contextual background.  You must be prepared to both accept – and provide – that assistance.
  3. Assume that anything you do will affect someone else – and that you won’t have figured out all of the impacts in advance.  Your colleagues are typically more understanding if you’ve done reasonable “discovery” and context-building upfront.  Be open.  Talk with colleagues. Pick up the pieces.
  4. Don’t give your colleagues partial information. Collaboration demands open communication.  If there is information you can’t share, say so; everything else should be open.  Communication oversights are more likely to be forgiven if you are usually open. You’re better off providing too much information rather than too little.
  5. Be respectful of colleagues’ time and work by doing reasonable homework. Pay attention to what other units of the Association do.  Use the Handbook.  Read your copy of American Libraries.  Read the PIO press releases. 

V. Sources of help – a starting list only

The Basics

  • ALA Handbook of Organization – The Handbook includes the ALA Constitution & Bylaws, ALA Policy Manual, and organizational information – including terms of reference – for ALA/Council committees, ALA divisions and ALA round tables.
  • The Standard Code of Parliamentary Procedure. 4th ed.  Rev. by The American Institute of Parliamentarians.  (Originally by Alice Sturgis)  New York:  McGraw-Hill, 2001
  • Association Law Handbook. 4th ed.  Jerald A. Jacobs.  ASAE, 2007.
    • NOTE:  If you need legal advice, start with your unit manager.  ALA has developed a number of FAQs, as well as standard forms for various contracts.  Questions or issues requiring legal counsel will be referred to Counsel through the ALA Executive Director, Senior Associate Executive Director or your department head.
  • The ALA Library.  The ALA Library has journals from various associations, past issues of the Handbook, Council minutes and other sources invaluable in developing your background and context for various projects.

Other Sources (a Small Sample)

This is a sampling of association management resources that provide useful guidance in a variety of circumstances.  The American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) and the Association Forum of Chicagoland both have extensive web sites, electronic and face-to-face special interest groups, and regular journals; both provide conferences and continuing education.  The ASAE Foundation has a highly-regarded – and widely-used – series on strategic planning within associations and association trends.

  • Enhancing Committee Effectiveness: Guidelines & Policies for Committee Administration.  John F. Schlegel.  ASAE.  1994.
  • Extraordinary Board Leadership: The Seven Keys to High-Impact Governance.  Doug Eadie.  Aspen Nonprofit Management Series.  2001.
  • The Will to Govern Well:  Knowledge, Trust, & Nimbleness.  Glenn H. Tecker, Jean S. Frankel and Paul D. Meyer.  ASAE, 2002.
  • Professional Practices in Association Management.  John B. Cox. ASAE.
  • Building a Knowledge-Based Culture:  Using Twenty-First Century Work and Decision-Making Systems in Association.  Glenn H. Tecker and others. ASAE Foundation.  1997.
  • Exploring the Future:  Seven Strategic Conversations That Could Transform Your Association.  Robert Olson and Atul Dighe.  ASAE Foundation. 2001.