Why I’m a member of the Canadian Library Association

The CLA is dead.  Long live the CLA.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock this past year, then you know about the CLA’s plans to dissolve its divisions and other internal bodies and replace them with networks.  My read on things is simple: the networks are hoped to be nimble, member-driven groups that can organize Canadian librarians, strengthen their voices, and improve participation in the Association itself.   This change is coming at *great* expense to the former divisions, such as CACUL, CASL, etc., but I’m hopeful we’ll see some benefits from this in the long run.

I’m hopeful we’ll see benefits in the long run because the CLA needs it.  Librarians of all stripes can gain a lot by being part of a broad-based, national umbrella organization.  In my mind, the CLA still has the potential to speak for our profession (yes, librarianship is a profession, but a “small-p profession”.)  It has the potential to represent the wide range of opinions, activities, and values of librarians across Canada, and it has the potential to be an advocate for our concerns within the community and within society at large.  But right now, it doesn’t do that so well.  The CLA remains a player in the “acronyms market”, but it has to compete with so many other associations that are regional (e.g., OLA, APLA) or professional (e.g., CHLA,  CALL).  And it also has to compete for our attention and membership fees with the granddaddy of all library associations, the ALA and all its own divisions and councils, which can offer its members a wealth of networking and information-sharing opportunities.  In short, the CLA is being pinched, which is diminishing its ability to be a strong, nation-wide advocate for librarianship and information science, and for information policy.

But this crisis shows us why we really do need a strong CLA and why we should all invest our time into the CLA’s new network structure.  What do we lose by leaving the CLA?  Whether you leave the CLA reluctantly or willfully, you are diminishing a nation-wide body’s ability to advocate for you and the profession.  Our membership in the CLA is what lends it authority to be an expert not only on copyright and the book rate, but also on data curation, on open access to government information, on the census, on teaching and learning, on privacy in a public sphere, and on how to build an Internet that works for our grandmother in Random Cape Nowhere as well as it does for our cousin John who lives in a suburb pre-wired for Fiber Op.

These are the things the CLA can do.   These are the things that a national association should be doing.   The national association has let a lot of people down in the past few years; that can’t be denied or understated.  But it is only a national association that can raise our concerns in our communities, in our regions, and in all of our capitals.   As strong as the OLA is (and I don’t mean to pick on the OLA), it cannot speak for librarians and libraries in my home province of Nova Scotia.   And although our membership with the ALA gives us incredible value for the money spent, its Washington Office doesn’t have the time or desire to look into what’s going on in Ottawa.  Only a national Canadian library association can do this.

I’m not going to deny that CLA membership is expensive, because it is.  It is especially expensive for newer librarians such as myself, who often are working term contracts and are lucky to be able to expense these fees.  (This is a pity since recent graduates have so much energy and potential that must be tapped for the CLA to fulfill its mandate, I believe).  And I’m not going to deny that profession-specific associations can offer librarians a community of peers that better resembles him or herself, because if you’re a health librarian, then the CHLA conference probably has more sessions that pique your interest than the CLA can, or if you’re a law librarian, then CALL’s community probably speaks to the day-to-day issues you face in your workplace better than the larger CLA community can.  But these facts, which can’t be denied, can’t deny the greater fact that a national professional association, when properly charged, can raise the profile of the profession, affect policy-making and governance, and produce positive change within society at large.

The new Networks policy at the CLA is far from perfect and I don’t think everything is going to be sorted out overnight.  But if you have any care or any grievance at all with the library profession in Canada, then now is a perfect time to get involved with the CLA because you can make a difference immediately by proposing and organizing these networks and communities.  It’s an opportunity to stake a claim and to make it known that your issue, belief, goal, or intention is so important that it warrants nation-wide attention and discussion.  This is the time to make it happen.

Whether you call yourself an academic librarian, a public librarian, a health librarian or law librarian or anything else, remember that the adjective only modifies the noun: you’re a librarian first and foremost, and librarian isn’t a dirty word.  The CLA won’t ever please everyone, but it is the professional body in Canada that gives librarians of all stripes a chance to affect change in their workplaces and in their communities all across the country.   Change is slow – it always will be – but change can happen, and you can be a part of it.  Consider taking part in a CLA Network and being part of positive change, for the good of you and your peers, the good of your workplace, and of your community.