weighing in on emerging leaders.

There has been some discussion lately about ALA’s Emerging Leaders program excluding non-MLIS library staff from applying – Lori Reed over at Library Trainer rightly takes issue with this requirement, resolving to let her membership in ALA lapse in protest. Sarah Houghton-Jan and Paul Signorelli have also responded in support of Lori, advocating for the largest library professional organization for to become more inclusive and accessible from membership to virtual conferencing and committee participation.

I was among the first class of Emerging Leaders back in 2007, and was so green at the time of my application that I didn’t have enough awareness to really register the MLIS requirement, let alone be overtly critical of it. I did, however, have a big problem with the age requirement of 35 years or younger imposed on the first round of applicants. In response to a wave of criticism similar to this one, EL founders lightened this restriction in subsequent years to one of two similar criteria – applicants must have less than 5 years of professional experience or be under 35 years of age. This still excludes many who develop later interest in becoming “leaders” – something Steven Bell has had something to say about in the past. Despite the many toes that have been squashed in the process, I still value the attempt EL founders have made at creating an initiative that benefits those with fewer career connections.

I’m the first to admit that Emerging Leaders’ admissions requirements still need work, and inviting non-professional staff to apply is at the top of the list. Knowing what I know of them, I think that a discussion with EL spearheaders Connie Paul and Maureen Sullivan about changing the MLIS cutoff for the Emerging Leaders program would be a productive endeavor. Improving programs such as EL for the greater good of librarianship should always be the logical next move, and one Paul and Sullivan have shown themselves to be open to in the past.

I therefore hesitate to accuse the Emerging Leaders program of fostering an intentional campaign of exclusion. Here’s what I know about the folks who designed EL – they are seriously trying to give early-career librarians a shot at breaking into the stymied, who-do-you-know structure of a behemoth professional organization in hopes that it will motivate some much-needed change. That “librarians” is an operative word is hopefully more incidental than intentional – it’s possible that support staff were not calculatedly omitted from the program, and that the 35-years requirement was more of an arbitrary cutoff point meant to shake things up than a manifestation of overt ageism. Even if this isn’t the case, here’s the thing – Emerging Leaders was conceived of as one way to encourage the change that Reed and Houghton-Jan are advocating, and to my thinking it’s beginning to serve its purpose within the organization by inspiring this ongoing debate.

On a related topic, like Sarah and Lori I’m also way over this “support staff” business. Personally, I think has quite a patronizing ring to it. How about “staff,” which might do something to bridge the ideological divide so many organizations unconsciously (or consciously) promote between their workers? We definitely spend too much time distinguishing between the haves and have-nots in a profession that is, among other things, seeing its demographics shift in a way that continues to preclude the already tired professional/nonprofessional educational divide. How many people have noticed previously “professional” job postings lately that don’t require a MLS? Also, while many Systems staffers hold “only” a BS in computer science, I doubt they are similarly considered support staff.

Reed made an apropos, user-centered insight into this topic in her follow-up post yesterday:

During our new employee orientation the following question is asked, “How many of you are librarians?” A handful of people will raise their hands. The rest will squirm in their seats waiting, wondering what’s coming next.”To our customers we are all librarians” is the next thing new staff hear. With that statement you see a smile emerge and tension melt away.

When a customer walks through the door he or she does not care what initials you have behind your name. The customer wants service or information and all staff should be ready to provide it.

7 thoughts on “weighing in on emerging leaders.

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  1. Spot on, Char. Thanks for the insider perspective on this. And completely agree with the idea of seeking more inclusive vocabulary to encourage even better relations between employees at all levels of an organization’s hierarchy; was just exchanging notes about this with a colleague this morning and was wondering to myself why we don’t just use the word “staff” to began erasing some of the divisions which exist between Librarians and “Support Staff.” Perhaps we’re on to something, here.

  2. Hi Derik, so you picked up on the total lack of opinion in that post? I only avoided that can of worms for lack of time, but here goes my attempt at truncation – overall, I’m very glad I participated, although the first year definitely had its challenges. The remote collaboration aspect of the program was tough, as well as the fact that the projects we created were often not put into practical application within ALA. Both of these problems have been addressed to some degree, and the people I know in EL now are more satisfied (as far as I can tell) with their experiences. The best thing I got out of my participation was the chance to develop a great working relationship with Jenny Levine, who was our ALA contact person, as well as to meet some awesome/motivated colleagues. Like anything else, EL ends up being what you make of it, I suppose.

  3. Hmm. I was hoping to get more chance for networking with the program (I’m in it this year). But so far I’ve met tons more people by doing things like speaking at CIL or drawing people at conferences.

  4. Agreed – conferences and the like have resulted in more connections for me, as well. In EL it really does have a lot to do with who is in your project group, as well as who within ALA you’re assigned to work with. Still worthwhile though, I hope?

  5. We’ll see. So far, I’m on the “more trouble that it’s worth” side (particularly with Annual being about as far away as it could be from me).

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