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SLA Name Change: Can the Name Convey the Value?
by
Posted On October 26, 2009
Last week, Special Libraries Association (SLA) leadership announced that members will soon vote on a new name. After 100 years as SLA, research now shows that this name does not convey the value that librarians and information professionals bring to their organizations. The proposed name, Association for Strategic Knowledge Professionals, has unanimous support of the board. Members, however, give it mixed reviews.

This is not the first time that SLA has tackled the naming question. From the outset, founder John Cotton Dana expressed reservations about Special Libraries and acknowledged that it was chosen "in default of a better. ..." As recently as 2003, a rebranding effort led to the consideration of new names. The members selected Information Professionals International; however, they could not muster the two-thirds majority needed to amend the bylaws (see the NewsBreak, www.infotoday.com/newsbreaks/nb030616-1.shtml).

The latest initiative stems from 2 years of research. In 2007, the board engaged consulting firm Fleishman-Hillard to carry out the Alignment Project. Using a four-step process described in some detail on SLA's Alignment Project Timeline, (www.sla.org/content/SLA/governance/namechange/timeline.cfm#jan07), Fleishman-Hillard conducted primary and secondary research to identify SLA's core purpose, mission, and value. A key objective of the Alignment Project was to "[d]evelop a strategic framework that underscores SLA's value for existing members and enables the Association to appeal to a broad spectrum of information professionals" (Alignment Project Backgrounder, www.sla.org/content/SLA/alignment/portal/explore.html) The primary research included focus groups and interviews with information professionals and executives. The executives represented human resources, information technology, marketing, and strategic planning from corporate, government, academic, and healthcare environments.

Findings showed that some phrases resonated better than others when describing the value of special libraries. For instance "knowledge sharing" resonates positively, while "special librarians" did not test well with any audience. By the time of the annual conference in June 2009, SLA leaders were beginning to discuss the possibility of a name change. In her remarks at the 2009 Closing Session/Membership Meeting (www.sla.org/content/SLA/governance/bodsection/ceocorner/09speeches/061709sla09.cfm), CEO Janice R. Lachance stated, "[W]e did not enter the Alignment Project looking for a name change. But the research-along with what we are hearing from all of you-leaves no doubt: SLA needs a new name for a new century."

Following that meeting, SLA launched a Name Change wiki where members could post comments and suggestions. Members offered names such as Specialized Librarians and Information Professionals, Association of Library and Information Strategists, and the Knowledge and Information Specialist Society. According to president Gloria Zamora, "We brainstormed 50-100 names and narrowed it down to the top three to put through further testing."

Speaking to SLA's Texas Chapter, board member Tom Rink stated that the goal of a name change is to "get a name that resonates with everybody, but especially with those who make hiring and firing decisions." Criteria used to narrow the list included eliminating names used by or too close to other organizations, those containing unpopular or confusing terms, input from attorney due diligence, direct member input and postconference discussions, and a preference for short names with strong acronyms.

Names tested were Association for Strategic Knowledge Professionals (ASKPro), The Knowledge Society, and Knowledge and Information International Association, with results pointing to Association for Strategic Knowledge Professionals. The SLA board announced the proposed name to the members on Oct. 14 following a unanimous vote on Oct. 8. SLA registered the domain name ASKPro.net that same day.

Members are encouraged to discuss the new name through the SLA blog (http://slablogger.typepad.com/sla_blog), on Twitter by including #slaname, on Facebook (www.facebook.com/pages/ASKPro-Association-for-Strategic-Knowledge-Professionals/173919332056?ref=nf), and on members' discussion lists. Blog postings are few and far between. But the Twitter discussion is lively, the Facebook page had 456 fans when I checked, and some of the unit lists have active conversations underway.

Despite what appears to have been a good faith effort on the part of SLA leadership to propose a name grounded in research, members are skeptical about the process, the acronym, and the name itself. University librarian Doris Helfer says she has "no particular problem with the proposed name, but with the process." She questioned whether the research included academics and nonprofits. A military librarian says, "One name is a sly way of pressuring us into accepting the choice that the ‘powers that be' have already made." Daniel Trefethen, recently elected SLA treasurer, responded with an explanation of why only one name: "Because we tested a number of them, and this one works best."

The acronym ASKPro has not been well-received either. Some say it sounds like a robot or a professional expo. SLA leaders clarified that the vote adopts the name but not the acronym. Past president Stephen Abram suspects that the acronym will not be used based upon negative feedback.

Other members find the words "knowledge" and "strategic" to be trendy, vague, gimmicky, pretentious, and not reflective of what members do. Trefethen responds to these concerns as well. "We aren't picking a name that is supposed to satisfy our sense of self. We have found, through research, the type of language that will resonate with our customers, the people who would hire us."

The buzz on many forums includes support for the name. "Brilliant!" "I like this," "As a new librarian, I like the change," and "Strategic Knowledge Professionals exactly conveys what I want my clients to think of when I call." I spoke with a research librarian who works for a large corporation; she says she will vote for the new name. She wants her "association to stay relevant and help ensure that the profession evolves and survives ... and the proposed name is a good step in that direction." Another member, now an information consultant, describes his experience in corporate, college, and museum libraries. He supports the new name because it is broad, inclusive, and will serve its members well in the present and in the future.

Beginning Nov. 16, members will vote yea or nay on this new name. I asked Zamora what will happen if the ballot measure fails. She responded, "If this one doesn't pass, then it's unlikely another name will be presented. We will move on."


Cindy Shamel operates Shamel Information Services (http://shamelinfo.com/) and contemplates the information industry from her company headquarters in Poway, California USA.

Email Cindy Shamel
Comments Add A Comment
Posted By Gloria Zamora10/27/2009 11:08:22 AM

The wiki on the name change following the conference was set up by an SLA member. It was not set up by the association. The Board read all of the comments and replied to many. Some of the suggestions were considered. Some had legal problems or were claimed by other organizations.
The alignment information has been available since the Leadership summit in January 2009. The discussions from the Summit on the language were taken into account when we explored and brainstormed possible names.
Posted By Luke Rosenberger10/26/2009 4:08:34 PM

This article seems to suggest that the wiki was offered by SLA leadership to the membership at large as a way to directly engage in the rebranding process. That's what I thought it was when I participated on it. However, based upon more recent communications I have had with board members, I'm not so sure, and I'd love to get clarification of that question. One data point is for certain: I count at least 34 names proposed or discussed on that wiki. If we look at the list of "possible names" on slide 4 of the PowerPoint summary posted at http://slablogger.typepad.com/sla_blog/2009/10/naming-research-results-posted-.html we see that only one of the 16 "possible names" considered was actually proposed or discussed on the wiki -- and that one didn't make the final three. This suggests that the wiki may have been rather less influential in the name selection than what might be inferred from this article.
Posted By Dana Roth10/26/2009 2:42:43 PM

Coming from an academic background, the new name sounds pretentious and I would be embarrassed to be associated with it. Given the variety of similar but acceptable names that have shown up on the various listservs makes Gloria Zamora's response, "If this one doesn't pass, then it's unlikely another name will be presented. We will move on.", very disappointing.

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