Getting to 100: Managing Change at the Special Libraries Association

By St. Clair, Guy | Information Outlook, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Getting to 100: Managing Change at the Special Libraries Association


St. Clair, Guy, Information Outlook


THERE ARE THOSE WHO ASSERT (CORRECTLY IN MY OPINION) THAT SLA'S strength in managing change is one of the association's critical assets. In fact, it was at a program at an SLA conference that the theme of change management was so forcefulLy stated that, for some practitioners, it became something of an operational mantra. David S. Ferriero and Thomas L. Wilding, speaking in San Antonio in 1991, recognized that "change is both inevitable and desirable" in information management (Ferriero and Wilding, 1991). If change is both inevitable and desirable in our work, it can be safely said, without fear of contradiction, that change is equally inevitable and desirable in our professional association. In that context, Past-President Donna Scheeder said it best and repeatedly during her presidency: "In SLA, change is our tradition."

One of SLA's best-loved and most influential management leaders was Rosabeth Moss Kanter, who at SLA's 1986 Conference in Boston had more than 1,000 specialist librarians standing and cheering. Her book on how innovation and entrepreneurship could bring about change in the American corporation had just been published and, as she described how specialist librarians could become "change masters" in their own organizations, everyone jumped with joy. Librarians finally felt a connection with the practice of management that few had ever felt before; Kanter's inspiration and drive pushed everyone forward.

Kanter's inspirations didn't stop with 1986, though. In fact, she has continued to publish and speak about the subject of change. In a 1998 interview she defined what she calls "the change-adept organization" as an organization which is constantly investing in three things:

* innovation;

* learning and professionalism;

* collaboration (Kanter, 1998).

Sound familiar? Kanter could almost be describing SLA. If you think about the changes that have taken place in the association within the past decade-the creation of new divisions and chapters; the establishment of caucuses as association subunits; the identification of core competencies for information professionals; the work of the five task forces and similar activities-you have to accept that Kanter's three criteria converged as these changes were undertaken. SLA embodies innovation, learning and professionalism and collaboration unlike any other professional association affiliated with librarianship, information management or knowledge services.

But SLA's application of these criteria can be taken back much further than the past decade, to long before they were articulated by Kanter. For example, SLA's very inception began with a need for change. The question of whether to change was not even a consideration. Major change was required and it had even been anticipated before John Cotton Dana and F. B. Deberard called a group of 20 specialist librarians together on the veranda of the Mt. Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire.

The participants in the "Veranda Conference," as it has come to be known, decided that the demands of their jobs had actually created a new kind of librarianship-that of library service geared to meet the needs of specialized situations. These librarians were breaking completely new ground. There were no patterns to follow. They felt that they had everything to gain by forming their own working group to tackle their problems cooperatively (Elizabeth Ferguson, in Mitchell, 1959).

An early change built on this cooperative focus. The inclusiveness and diversity of SLA's membership was established as a singular characteristic of the association, as is demonstrated in the association's constitution (Adopted at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, July 2, 1909):

The object of the association is to promote the interests of the commercial, industrial, technical, civic, municipal and legislative reference libraries, the special departments of the public libraries, universities, welfare associations, and business organizations (Mitchell, 1959). …

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