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Special Libraries Association Keeps Its Name
Posted On June 16, 2003
Following 3 years of research, heated discussions, and brand name debates, the members of the Special Libraries Association voted to retain the organization's nearly 100-year-old name. More accurately stated, perhaps, the votes cast for the proposed replacement name were not sufficient to approve it. The vote took place at the 94th annual conference in New York City during the annual business meeting.

The vote was a multi-step process. Members approved by majority vote "Information Professionals International" to fill-in-the-blank for the name change in the bylaws amendment. This was chosen as yes by 654, and no by 343, over the other option presented, "SLA" (just the acronym) with just 87 yes, 867 no. Once approved, the bylaws amendment was then proposed to change the name from Special Libraries Association to Information Professionals International. This vote achieved clear majority approval but not the required two-thirds vote (2/3 of the votes cast) to pass. It was 73 votes short.

Here are the details:
890 votes were cast
594 were needed to pass the bylaws amendment
Yes — 521
No — 369
(120 members present did not vote)

Announcing the news with a positive spin, president Cynthia Hill remarked: "The name Special Libraries Association is a highly recognized and respected brand name in the information industry. It stands for professional excellence, ethics, and best practices in the management of knowledge-based organizations. Our members have always been on the cutting edge, applying information tools and technologies to advance the missions of our organizations. Keeping our name allows us to build on our heritage over the past century, while keeping our focus on the expanding information economy of the 21st."

The possible name change became an issue in 2000, when declining membership and budget difficulties spurred the organization to appoint a Branding Task Force to study the situation and come up with recommendations. Following many consultations, focus groups, polls, and surveys, the Task Force noted that "a majority of members" agreed that the current name and logo of the organization did not reflect the breadth of the brand. (For more information, the focus of the April 2003 issue of Information Outlook, SLA's monthly magazine, was branding.)

Stephen Abram, vice president, corporate development at Micromedia ProQuest (and holder of an M.L.S. degree), chaired the Branding Task Force since 2002, and had worked hard to educate and inform members of the proposed name change. I asked his feelings on the failure to adopt a new name. While he was disappointed that the majority vote was insufficient to effect the change, he emphasized that much progress has come from these efforts. "The best news is that we've had 3 years of discussion among members," he said.

He stressed that the work of the Task Force will not be a waste. "We have a lot of research that will underpin how we approach our markets. The prime directive has been met," he stated. "We do have a new branding strategy and we will go forward to reposition special librarians."

He continued: "Everyone now knows pretty much what we need to do. We need to go international, reposition ourselves as an association for information professionals—a little broader based—, and promote the role of specialized librarianship as opposed to libraries. And we have the Board committed to a good long-term plan—like 3 to 5 years—to invest a lot of money into a proper branding exercise. Over the next 6 months there will be a new image coming out for the Special Libraries Association, with a new logo, new tag line, aggressive new Web site, and an aggressive new marketing plan."

Recently, the acting executive director of the organization, Lynn Smith, announced that its membership counts were on the upswing: "with record numbers of new members and lower numbers of deactivations. We are back over the 12,000 membership mark and growing!" She also reported that, with cost-cutting measures such as reduced staffing, the projected budget deficit of $200,000 did not happen—instead the group reported a surplus of $20,000.

But, look at the numbers—with a membership of over 12,000, and meeting attendance said to be around 7,000 (though all might not be members since this includes exhibitors and exhibit-only attendees), a total vote of 890 seems very low, representing less than 8 percent of the organization. One member, who had been present for the business meeting and vote, said that many members felt that the bylaw stipulation for a meeting vote, rather than a mail ballot to everyone, was an unfortunate and exclusionary requirement.

While some might feel the voting procedures doomed the proposed change, others—even those who felt a name change was needed—felt the two choices presented for the vote were just not clear improvements. Outsell, Inc., a research and advisory firm, commented last fall on the recommended names in its newsletter: "The first option [SLA] can hardly be considered a change at all, and the second sounds vaguely like a correspondence school…Since many information professionals barely know what to name their role inside their organizations, it's no wonder that they're having a hard time knowing what to call the professional organization that supports them. But Outsell wonders if either option represents the strong brand the Association is looking for to draw new members."

Interestingly, just before the New York conference, the Association announced the appointment of a new executive director. Assuming duties on July 1 is Janice R. Lachance, a non-librarian who has been a consultant to non-profit organizations and was formerly with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

Following the vote, Outsell commented: "in the face of a divergence of opinion on the identity of the organization and the lingering negative connotations of the word ‘librarian'…The challenge for Janice Lachance is to put the ‘L-word wars' behind and take that positive branding OUTSIDE the information industry, building respect for all of the skills and values embodied in the Association."

Paula J. Hane is a freelance writer and editor covering the library and information industries. She was formerly Information Today, Inc.’s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks.

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