This is a crucial time for the Special Libraries Association (SLA). Founded in 1909 by John Cotton Dana, SLA is in the midst of an identity crisis. With declining membership and diminishing revenue, the association is grappling with what its future will be, and the departure of CEO Janice Lachance at the end of 2014 sparked a discussion about the best way forward. Its board of directors hired two consultants who are both active SLA members—Ulla de Stricker of de Stricker Associates and Cynthia Shamel of Shamel Information Services—to recommend changes related to all aspects of the association.
After reviewing existing SLA documents and interviewing staffers and dozens of current members, the consultants submitted their “SLA: Succeed. Lead. Advance. Recommendations Report” on May 15, 2015 (much earlier than their contract called for). The early submission allowed for intense scrutiny by the membership and spirited discussions at SLA’s 2015 annual conference, both in hallways and during the annual business meeting, which was held from 5 to 6 p.m. following the closing general session. The meeting managed to keep hundreds of dedicated and passionate members in the room who were enthusiastic about expressing their opinions and listening to the opinions of their peers.
Upon the publication of the recommendations report, the board asked for comments on it, extending the deadline until June 23, 2015. After reviewing the comments, the board plans to hold a strategy session on July 2, 2015. It will then conduct an open meeting on July 14 (available as a webinar) and vote on whether to receive the report and consider its recommendations.
In voting to receive the report, the board is not voting to accept or implement the recommendations, but merely to take delivery of the document. The distinction between receiving the report and accepting it was a source of confusion for many. One of the basic tenets of the report is that because the recommendations are inextricably linked to each other, all of them should be either accepted or rejected rather than having the board pick and choose among them. This notion was deeply unsettling to many SLA members. Receiving the report does not imply adoption of any of the individual recommendations.
John J. DiGilio, current treasurer of SLA, presented a chart in his “Special Libraries Association Annual Financial Report for 2014” that showed the membership decline. It has dropped from 12,080 in 2003 to 7,350 in 2014. Why this occurred is well-articulated by DiGilio, who urged a radical rethinking of the association’s business model:
Just 10-15 years ago, SLA was operating in a world where information still flowed mostly in one direction and was printed on paper, where communities were created and nurtured through personal contact, and where employers routinely invested in their employees’ professional development. Today, we’re operating in a world where information flows in all directions, where communities are created online, and where professional development increasingly is a personal responsibility. SLA is no longer a destination. We have become a stepping stone, something to try out for a few years before moving on to the next level.
Longtime SLA members at the annual conference had other answers for how the association got to where it is. Frequently mentioned were the two abortive name-change attempts. Some expressed a sense that past boards had not been forthcoming. I heard the words “arrogant,” “secretive,” and “not transparent” applied to association leadership. I also heard the opposite: that association governance is difficult, particularly for large organizations, and that the membership elects leaders to act for them so that each member doesn’t have to be involved with every single governance decision.
SLA is not the only professional association worried about defining its value to current and potential members. Michael Gruenberg’s article, “Finding Value in Professional Associations: Management and Membership Issues,” in the May/June 2015 issue of Online Searcher proves that.
Shamel and de Stricker’s recommendations report presents a strategic framework for SLA by promulgating this mission statement: “SLA is the association for information professionals seeking to be the best they can be in their careers and striving to advance the goals of the organizations they serve. SLA equips members to succeed, lead, and advance.”
The report outlines the challenges, key strategies, and resulting benefits in seven distinct areas: business partnerships, new products and services, conference models, organizational review, revenue model and financial review, market viability, and membership levels.
Some of its recommendations revolve around the view that SLA’s importance to its members lies in continuing education to enhance job skills. Recommendations about reducing the number of individual units (chapters, divisions, and caucuses) and concentrating more activities centrally from headquarters, including a revenue-sharing model, are likely to be the most controversial. A change in the dues structure is probably inevitable.
As with any major upheaval, some SLA members are in favor of retaining the status quo while others advocate wholesale change. In the case of SLA, continuing on its present course is simply not tenable.
For some, SLA is undergoing an identity crisis. For others, it’s more than that—SLA being in crisis is personal. As Marjorie M.K. Hlava phrased it in her acceptance speech for the John Cotton Dana Award at the opening general session of SLA’s 2015 annual conference, “In my nearly 40 years in SLA I have developed my professional heart here.” Citing Dana’s actions when founding SLA, she continued, “Our society needs to remove barriers, give access to information to all members, remove unnecessary rules and unfriendly polices. We need to test what we do, measure our success in numbers, and test the potential results of new polices BEFORE we implement them.”
When SLA’s board votes to receive the report, which it will probably do, the work of changing the association will start. The board should look first at the strategic framework and decide whether the initial premise of the report is valid before beginning to judge individual recommendations. From conversations with several board members, it seems it is prepared to move in that direction.
The question is not what SLA can do to avert a crisis—it’s already in crisis. The question is how SLA can make a turnaround and once again become a vital organization for information professionals.
Update July 15, 2015:
At a special meeting on July 14, 2015, the Special Libraries Association (SLA) board of directors voted to receive the revised version of the consultants’ “Recommendations Report” (login required). Receiving the report means the board acknowledges the work done but has taken no action regarding the recommendations. Revisions to the original document, shown in red in this version, are extensive. Some are substantive, based on the 50-plus comments the board received from individual members and from SLA units (chapters and divisions), while others are grammatical.
In a second vote, the board accepted the strategic framework, “Road Map for the Future of SLA” (login required), which spells out the seven areas in which change will be implemented. By accepting the report, the board indicates its approval of the content and direction of the document. It will now move forward toward implementing it.
Finally, the board voted to task the change consultants, de Stricker Associates and Shamel Information Services, with developing a multiphase implementation plan. This will be done in coordination with SLA staffers and will consider member feedback.
With these three votes, SLA hopes to put itself on a path toward regaining its luster, reasserting itself as the foremost association for information professionals, and resolving its identity crisis.