Democracy and Populism
Old vs New


An email yesterday from Evelyn Shaevel at headquarters alerts me to who the other candidates for MLA Board of Directors will be this year.   It's a good group.  I'd vote for any of us.

It's taken me quite awhile to come around to being willing to run for the Board.  It's not necessarily the kind of activity that I enjoy for its own sake, and, particularly during my first years at Lister Hill Library, I was very concerned about the commitment of time and energy.  I didn't want to take something on if I wasn't sure I could give it the attention it would require for me to do it well.  But in the intervening years, I've seen Lynn go through a term on the Board, and Nancy is now starting her third year, so I have a much better sense of what that commitment really is and (particularly after five years as JMLA editor) it seems pretty manageable.

And there is a certain sense of obligation.  MLA has been incredibly important to me.  I went to my first annual meeting in Denver in 1984, when I was an NLM Associate, and I haven't missed a meeting since.  In those early years, it was usually my only travel experience of the year and, for many years, was the closest that I came to taking a vacation.   It remains one of my major milestones each year -- like the Lakota winter counts, marking time according to the most singular event of a season,  my years are marked by the memories of specific annual meetings.  "The year I took Lynn's hair-bow at Excalibur in Chicago," for example, setting me on the path that led to our wedding, during the welcome reception of the Midcontinental Chapter annual meeting in Kansas City some twenty-eight months later.

I'm thinking about all of this in relation to a post that Marcus put up last week about his experiences with MLA.  I'm not surprised by his comment that "lots of young librarians feel MLA is inhospitable."  I remember my own early years.  Even with the advantage of having coming to my first meeting as an NLM Associate, which provided me with a certain degree of entree, I spent many uncomfortable hours by myself, not quite knowing how to connect, or how to get involved; feeling, when I went into a section meeting for example, that everybody else there seemed to know each other and that I was definitely an outsider.   It never occurred to me, however, to interpret that as the organization being inhospitable.  As a (nearly pathologically) shy guy, the world has always seemed inhospitable to me and I am acutely uncomfortable in all new situations.  In fact, given my low expectations, I suppose, MLA has always seemed to me to be particularly warm and welcoming.  It still took me five or six years of annual meetings before I started to feel comfortable.

I am somewhat more annoyed at the people who feel that MLA is an "unresponsive" organization.  MLA is a volunteer organization.   Headquarters staff can facilitate the work of the association, but if anything substantive is going to get done, it is directly measured by the amount of time and energy that individual librarians volunteer.  This is an inherently inefficient system and there is no question that it limits our effectiveness.  But if one takes the time for a careful look at the match between available resources and actual accomplishments, I think the what the association actually gets done is pretty stunning.

Not that this will ever satisfy the grumblers.   There will always be plenty of people happy to complain about what MLA "should do" and to fuss about its ineffectiveness.  Every volunteer organization suffers from this.  But since the complainers rarely have a concrete, constructive suggestion to offer for improvement, they can safely be ignored.

Maybe the difference between their attitude and mine is that I've never thought that the association ought to be doing things for me.   I've invested an awful lot of time into association activities over the past two decades, and have always felt that I got more back than I put in.  Hence the feeling of obligation at being asked to run for the Board.  MLA has provided me with a structure to connect to my profession, to learn, to engage, to meet people, to have a good time with people of similar interests.  MLA has provided me the opportunity to grow professionally and as a person -- taking advantage of that is up to me.




Geez, Scott, I'm starting to become self-conscious! Lately I've had too much influence on your choice of writing topics.

I agree with everything you've said about MLA, and your posting caused me to realize that I've been fortunate to have a positive experience in MLA so quickly. It is true that the more you contrbute to MLA, the more you benefit. Also, the chronic complainers tend to offer no solutions.

I'm mostly concerned with a thorny interpersonal problem that has nothing in particular to do with MLA. I just happen to notice it more in this context. It is the problem of beginning an association with someone, only to discover down the road that you don't have as much in common as you first thought. By that point it's hard to ease away from the relationship gracefully.

In MLA terms, these folks would be the whiners. But this dynamic is possible in any conceivable human gathering. I am probably just overly sensitive to something we all must deal with.


I have been to many meetings/parties where I feel like an outsider because everybody else knew each other. Now, I make a point of talking to the "outsiders" when I know most people in the room. When people don't make a point of including newcomers, they create an "inhospitable" environment unintentionally.

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