Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians: Some Initial Thoughts

There’s an old joke that says if you get more than three librarians together in a room they will form a new library association. We do seem have a lot of these things:

Alphabet Soup of Associations

Alphabet Soup of Library Associations Active in Canada
(definitively incomplete)

So, in December a new national association was announced: the Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians (CAPAL).

Apparently CAPAL was created as a result of a “groundswell” at a meeting of academic librarians held in Toronto in the fall of 2012. The organizers indicated that there was

“a clear directive from those attending that there was a need for a strong, vocal and pro-active association to support the interests of academic librarians in Canada.”

Well, I was at that meeting and I spoke at that meeting. While I don’t exactly remember the groundswell but do remember the unhappiness with existing library associations (none of them came out unscathed).

Do academic librarians in Canada need CAPAL?

Full Disclosure (acronym version) #1:
I have been variously connected to CAIS, OLA, OCUL, CARL, ARL, and CLA in a variety of governance roles. I believe in the value of professional organizations.

Full Disclosure #2:
I’m a paid up member of CAPAL.

If there truly is a gap; fill the gap with substance and inclusion.

At a time when many are actively seeking linkages and commonality among libraries, archives, and museums (and librarians, archivists, and curators), I do find it disconcerting that we seem to be moving into separate silos.

The special issues that I heard emerging at the Toronto meeting were around employment and status (e.g. strikes, working conditions, contracts). I would have thought local faculty associations and faculty advocacy groups (e.g. OCUFA for Ontario and CAUT for Canada) should be fulfilling these needs. In fact, I see these organizations making an genuine effort to be inclusive of academic librarians.

And it appears that CAPAL doesn’t intend to focus on any of this:

“While it is prepared to take a position on labour issues as necessary, CAPAL is not solely or centrally concerned with addressing such issues at post-secondary institutions or undertaking litigation issues concerning the terms and conditions of employment of our members as CAUT currently does.”

Instead CAPAL will highlight: “Advocacy, Communications & Publications, Diversity & Equity, Education & Training, Mentoring, Professional Development and Scholarship).” Starting to sound like some existing library associations to me.

One of the FAQ questions is “What’s the difference between CAPAL and CAUT.” The answer is:

“the differences between CAPAL and CAUT are much like the differences between the Association of Canadian Archivists and CAUT, or the Canadian Historical Association and CAUT, or the Canadian Mathematical Association and CAUT.”

I assume by this that ACA, CHA and CMA are doing something for their members that CAUT doesn’t do and that CAPAL would like to do that for their members.

OK. Let’s explore that. First, I can’t find anything about the Canadian Mathematical Association so I will assume the reference is to the Canadian Mathematical Society (CMS). But CMS is not about mathematicians but rather it exists to “promote and advance the discovery, learning and application of mathematics.” It is open to individuals, institutions, and corporations. Then there’s the Canadian Historical Association. Again, not about historians but “dedicated to research in all fields of history” and “open to anyone with an interest in history.”

So neither CMS or CHA seem like a good analog; their equivalents in our field are CLA, ASTED, and the provincial organizations.

What about the Association of Canadian Archivists? I think the ACA is probably a closer model to CAPAL (and interestingly ACA broke away from CHA in the 1970s; not sure why). ACA is clearly an association about the profession. However, you don’t have to be an archivist to join and institutional memberships are available. None of this seems to impede their ability to advocate; ACA, along with CAUT, has been vocal and persistent in their opposition to LAC cuts.

If CAPAL wants to be like CMS or CHA, I seriously question the need; we’ve already got enough of those. If CAPAL wants to be like ACA, there may be more justification. Still not convinced, however, that this can’t happen within Canadian Library Association for example.

Initial Meeting

CAPAL announced an initial meeting at the University of Toronto on January 31st. Holding a face-to-face meeting to initiate a national organization is just so 20th century.

I fully understand the advantages of in-person meetings, but I am far more concerned about the disadvantages of excluding the vast majority of folks who can’t attend.

And don’t get me started on the irony of using a time coincident with the OLA SuperConference “because many people will already be there” i.e. many people will already be professionally engaged in issues about academic librarianship put on by one of those failing library associations. Sigh.

Besides, it is simply not difficult to host an e-meeting that would engage a national audience. Groups do it all the time, quite successfully. Yes, such meetings are different than the traditional face-to-face, but if CAPAL truly wants a national voice it needs to organize with that in mind from the outset.

And while I’m ranting, don’t just webinar the face-to-face meeting. Design the meeting as a participatory event with all involved given the same opportunities (and constraints). Put your documents on a wiki and let folks/members have at them. Please, please don’t start a listserv; listservs are where collaboration and interaction go to die. Look at something like Igloo (special pricing for non-profits) or community source tools (Commons in a Box might be a good possibility) to create a rich virtual environment.

CAPAL indicates that it will be a “virtual organization.” So be one, now. Frankly, CAPAL gets a “D-” for lack of imagination on this one.

Where to From Here?

I joined CAPAL. Not because I am yet convinced we need CAPAL but because I want to support a conversation about it. There is a problem of some dimension and carping from the cheap seats isn’t my style. My plan is to assist in making CAPAL unique and effective, or to resign having uncovered the evidence of its redundancy.


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2 Responses to Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians: Some Initial Thoughts

  1. Mary Cavanagh says:

    Very good start, Mike – let’s everyone keep talking – out loud – with a healthy and respectful sense of debate, discussion and enthusiasm for the larger goals! If I thought buying my own membership would help this public conversation, I’d buy a few. One of my personal conversations is about the meaning of professional membership and belonging in the context of all of my related professional associations. I’ll be listening / reading / watching / following CAPAL’s developments as much as possible from my laptop 😉 and my various social media user IDs 😉

  2. Jane Burpee says:

    I would like to commend CAPAL for recognizing that something is missing from all the other library related groups that exist in Canada. I believe in networks. CAPAL has chosen to exist and is therefore it is important to me.

    It is too easy to break new initiatives down and declare them as failures before they have even gotten off the ground but it has a detrimental effect of silencing the conversation. Let’s not start by undermining the enthusiasm. Let’s listen.

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