What Harry Potter Taught Me about Organizational Change and ALA

by Gina Persichini

I’ve been a member of the American Library Association (ALA) since 1994.  It was during my first semester at the University of South Florida School of Library and Information Science that I sent in my first ALA membership dues. It was some time before I really got involved in the goings on of the Association. Perhaps I was always a late bloomer. I decided to go to college at, what seems in retrospect to be, the last minute. I graduated without a clue as to what I would do. I spent a few years miserable in the insurance industry until I remembered I was happiest in libraries. I read 1984 around 1990, and never touched the Harry Potter series until the final movie was due to be released in theaters.

photo by Mike Chaput

After squeezing in all seven Harry Potter books and movies in a short period of time, I’ve found myself listening to the audio of the books now. I choose to believe it’s a need for thoroughness over obsession.  As I make my way through them again, I’m noticing different things.  The adventure remains, but I have the advantage of knowing how it ends, where the bad choices were made, how three young and talented wizards could have saved themselves some trouble.

I mean, really, who would tie up a grown man that could transform himself to a rat? Too easy to escape; why not use a body-binding curse? Hermione pulled that off as a first-year student! That simple change would have saved them four more years of troubles in warding off Voldemort. Unfortunately, it would also have kept the rest of us from four more books of adventure, experience, and learning.

Is it possible to become a wise and experienced wizard/librarian without the wisdom and knowledge that comes from the trials and errors of experience?  This is my lesson to ponder. It’s not limited to ALA or even to libraries, but ALA is on my mind for this column.

During 2011, ALA governing committees and Council received a number of reports and held many discussions regarding the future. These are good discussions to have. The expectation is that such discussions are going to make some people excited, some uncomfortable, some energized, and yet others downright put out. One report that resulted in all these things is the report of the Future Perfect Presidential Task Force, “Envisioning ALA’s Governance in the 21st Century.” The ALA President tasked a group of six ALA members to issue an idea paper with a “blue sky” approach to imagine a brand new ALA with no governance in place and suggest a governance structure. The members were new to the Association and had never served within ALA governance. The purpose of the idea paper was to begin a discussion of how ALA might look in the future.

Discussion did, indeed, ensue. One item I pulled from my own notes at that that time says, “A lot of comments about why the recommendations can’t work because of how things work now.” It isn’t uncommon. A new idea proposed and some form of “we already tried that” emerges. While I feel we do ourselves a disservice by sticking to how we already do something, I feel we also have something to learn from experience. We would do ourselves an equal disservice by ignoring the experience; success or failure. There must be a useful middle ground.

While I listen to the character of Harry Potter lamenting his decisions already made and his wise teacher Dumbledore assuring him that these mistakes are a part of the process, I’m reminded that ALA isn’t necessarily doing it wrong right now. The organization operates as it does as a result of multitudes of decisions made for over one hundred years. The organization has grown and changed, and it will continue to do so. But we are anxious members of ALA, and we want the future now. Yet, at the same time, we want to preserve our heritage. There I am, somewhere in the middle, wanting both.

The challenge, I think, is in the letting go. How is it that Dumbledore, knowing what he knows, can let a 13-year-old boy and girl go to steal a hippogriff and free a convicted felon? How can he let them disobey rules and get themselves into potentially dangerous situations form year to year? I believe it is because he trusts. And he guides. Can long-time members of ALA’s governing body trust a new generation to move ahead and make mistakes while providing the support and guidance that time and experience has lent? Can they provide guidance and support without depriving a generation of the adventure of conjuring a new future? Can they step back, allow mistakes, and be the safety net?

Time will tell. I have faith it will happen. Member or not, this is our profession’s professional association. Its successful future impacts library services and library workers from big city to rural outpost. And while organizational change going on within ALA is a professional lesson I am experiencing right now, it doesn’t stop with ALA. Our profession, our libraries, our services are all changing. In a recent column in the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, Latah County Library District Director Anne Cheadle stated about the status of changing digital library services, “It’s amazing, sometimes frustrating, and absolutely routine….” The magic, I think, is in how we experience the changes.

Gina Persichini is a Networking Consultant at the Idaho Commission for Libraries.


One thought on “What Harry Potter Taught Me about Organizational Change and ALA”

  1. Thanks for mentioning the Task Force, “Envisioning ALA’s Governance in the 21st Century,” which I felt certainly aimed for the blue sky.

    I’d like to see a similar task force set up with some forward-thinking folks who have had a few years of experience with ALA Governance to build on the Blue Sky report and develop some “more workable” options to explore. The total lack of ALA Governance experience was the only real weak point of the first Task Force.

    But I’m a Governance Junkie ;)

    Your second to last paragraph is spot-on & thank you for saying it…

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