A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Forging Ahead

by Audra Caplan on May 2, 2013

“In our time, the curse is monetary illiteracy, just as inability to read plain print was the curse of earlier centuries.”—Ezra Pound (1885–1972)1

It appears that history continues to repeat itself. These words ring as true now as they did when Pound wrote them; although we also still grapple with reading literacy both in this country and globally. Many articles have been written by and for members of our profession on the economic recession and its impact on libraries over the last few years, but it seems that the news continues to get worse for many libraries. In recent months, reports have continued to pour in about budget cuts, service reductions, and branch closings. And yet we are busier than ever helping customers with increasingly more serious inquiries. As funds dry up in our local libraries, we have fewer dollars for professional development and organizational membership decreases. It is a challenging time to be an elected library leader or to manage a library system or professional organization. It is also a time that gives us the opportunity to examine all of our operations and services looking for ways to be more efficient, responsive, and innovative.

It has been an honor this past year to serve as PLA president-elect and to work with outgoing PLA President Sari Feldman, the board of directors, PLA Executive Director Barbara Macikas, and all of the wonderful PLA staff. I have learned a great deal more about PLA and the membership. I hope to be able to take this knowledge and work with this capable team to help continue to move the organization forward.

In April 2010, Barb and I attended the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) Symposium for Chief Elected and Chief Staff Officers. This two-day training afforded us the opportunity to learn about megatrends that are reshaping associations. The key drivers for these changes are shifting demographics and evolving technology. Many of the trends identified could be applied to what we are seeing in our own division and the larger organization.2 These include:

  1. Reverse mentoring. Millenials are pushing the collaboration of Web 2.0, affecting every preceding generation’s values, behaviors, and expectations.
  2. Redefined retirement. “Boomers retread, not retire.” They take lessresponsible, lower-level positions historically held by young entrants who are instead filling the “technology expertise required” mid-level positions.
  3. New intermediaries. Ease of access and volume on the Internet that eliminated the need for distribution intermediaries now creates a need for intermediaries for quality assurance and insight.
  4. No majority. With the exception of gender, there is no longer any ethnic, cultural, or other demographic group in the United States that constitutes more than 50 percent of the population—“inclusion succeeds diversity.”
  5. Changing economics and competition. Reallocation of public and personal monies and priorities, coupled with an increase in options and ease of access to alternative resources, requires associations to work harder than ever to remain relevant to
    their membership.
  6. Maturing view of globalization. Demands to respond to diverse preferences in product, service, process, and culture.
  7. Re-leveling in the world. Global recession: the more you had the more you lost; excess subordinated to sustainability and polarized attitudes about success during scarcity.
  8. A membership renaissance. Both Baby Boomers and Generation Y are joiners and participators. Their preferences will generate interest in the associations that get the value proposition right.

At the symposium, it was suggested that associations shift their attention from fighting the crisis to getting the most from the recovery. The wrong way forward is to try more of the same. PLA leaders and members have clearly understood this need for reexamination and the result was the organizational change that was passed in the bylaws two years ago. Those changes updated the governance structure, eliminated a number of committees, and created Communities of Practice (CoPs). These online meeting and discussion groups allow people with like interests to share expertise and best practices. Although the CoP concept is still taking root, it is important that we work hard to make this a successful model of member engagement. We are working through an action plan now to introduce the new and improved CoP structure and I encourage everyone to participate in one of the existing CoPs or start one in your area of expertise. One of the balancing acts for this effort is to keep a personal touch (particularly for those who are less comfortable interacting in a virtual environment), and we are working to incorporate
that balance. We have moved all existing CoPs to ALA Connect (the American Library Association’s virtual, collaborative, online workspace), which will allow for much easier access and participation.

Strategic planning is more important than ever in this challenging, changing new environment that we face and PLA embarked on a new planning process this year. Data was collected via a member loyalty survey and four focus groups, representative of the membership, were held at the PLA National Conference in Portland this spring. Working with Paul Meyer of Tecker Associates, the board, staff, and a group of member leaders came together to craft a new plan. Current conditions, trends, and assumptions about the future were discussed. We also incorporated the information from the survey and focus groups and drafted an exciting new plan that will guide the organization and profession for the next five years. The plan was approved by the board at ALA’s 2010 Annual Conference in July. Strategies and action steps will be developed at the fall board meeting. As we move forward, the goals will allow us to focus on the best ways to advocate for public libraries across the country, create new literacy initiatives, grow new leaders, and find ways to engage new members while valuing the expertise, experience, and dedication of long-term members. At the same time we need to practice fiscal stewardship and look for new revenue opportunities to keep the organization strong. I look forward to working with the staff and membership to begin implementation of the new plan this year.

I am excited to begin my presidential year and hope to meet many of you at conferences and in my travels. I welcome your comments and suggestions. I can be reached via e-mail (caplan@hcplonline.info) or on Facebook. Finally, I’d like to congratulate Marcia Warner, our new president-elect. I have had the pleasure of serving on the board with her and know she will be a strong and visionary leader for our association.


  1. Ezra Pound, BrainyQuote.com, Xplore Inc., 2010, www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/e/ezrapound391270.html (accessed July 2, 2010).
  2. American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), “2010 Symposium for Chief Elected and Chief Staff Officers,” program handout, ASAE & the Center for Association Leadership, April 12, 2010.