I recently agreed to be president-elect (next year’s president) of our tiny local chapter (the Sierra Nevada Chapter) of a much larger national library organization, the SLA. “SLA” stands for Special Libraries Association, and yes, haha, we are “special.”
Actually, the term “special” really refers to the working environment — librarians who are not public or school librarians — so mostly corporate and governmental and news and the like, but also academic librarians like me. I got involved in SLA not because of any particular affinity with special libraries, but because for historical reasons there’s an active science librarians group in SLA that particularly focuses on physics and computer science, and I do have something in common with my information-finding colleagues at the major computer companies (if there are any libraries left at Intel, Oracle, et al; sigh).
But I’ve found our local chapter to be warm and welcoming and a generally good group of people, and I’m glad to be involved to help put on events and activities that will be of value to the local library community.
But this introduction — what is SLA, anyway? — points at a kind of schizophrenia in the organization that is hard to overcome. SLA has been worried for many years about what the identity of a special librarian is, and how to best promote special libraries given their mission as an advocacy organization. Considering that people just in our chapter alone come from all over — the big UC, the smaller state schools, government and law libraries, big private companies, independent research contractors, and more — how do you usefully define our membership? This is a national debate, of course, and it came to a head last fall with a name change proposal for the organization that was in the end soundly rejected by the voting membership.
I wrote a little story about the name change for our local newsletter, but missed the publication deadline, so I’ll print it here for your edification. What I found most interesting about this story was that that the previous attempt to change the name was defeated solely on procedural grounds; all of the people who argued last year that “SLA” was a recognized historical name might have had no grounds to do so. And in fact, though this isn’t in the story below, there was another name change proposal a few years before this that was also defeated.
So what’s in a name? If your organization and the times change, do you keep your old, slightly anachronistic name (like ACM) and just run with it, attempting to change your identity in other ways? Or do you change your name based on the (perhaps unfavorable) public image of your organization, like the tobacco companies? Or do you change it to try and influence public opinion of your image, and does this technique ever work?
(The other thing I found interesting about this whole process was a much later blog post from the president of SLA who decried the tone of public debate about the name. She and others on the board had been personally insulted in fairly vicious terms, she said, when they had just been trying to do their best for the organization. It appears that an internet debate can turn even mild-mannered librarians into trolls! Or perhaps it’s just that we’re not as mild-mannered as previously assumed.)
SLA ponders, but rejects, name change
As part of 2009’s Alignment Project, the Special Libraries Association leadership proposed in mid-October that the name of SLA be changed to “the Association for Strategic Knowledge Professionals.” This name was developed in late summer and fall 2009 by SLA leadership, who conducted research into possible names and surveyed HR professionals and executives regarding the new proposed name. The proposed name had the acronym “ASKPRO,” though after member objections to the acronym this was later dropped from the official vote.
The proposed name was quite controversial, with a wide variety of member comments — ranging from those who supported the change and felt it reflected the new direction of the profession and the diverse roles of SLA members, to many who felt that the new name was “buzzwordy,” vague, and not truly representative of SLA members.
After a vigorous debate in online forums including division email lists, Twitter, member blog posts, and even pro- and con- Facebook pages, an online vote on the new name was held among SLA members from 16 November to 9 December, 2009. The new name was rejected, with 50% of eligible members participating, and 2071 voting yes and 3225 voting no.
According to SLA president Gloria Zamora in the announcement of the vote results, “Our name will remain, but we will go forward with developing opportunities for our members to use the Alignment findings to demonstrate their contributions to the organizations that employ them.”
The last time a name change proposal for SLA was put forth was in 2003, when a vote was held between the options of “SLA” (just initials) and “Information Professionals International” (IPI). An in-person vote at the 2003 annual meeting was held. While IPI won the first two votes, the third vote to amend the SLA bylaws with the new name failed to garner a majority, thus causing “Special Libraries Association” to remain the name of the organization.