My Lengthy Thoughts on the SLA Proposed Name Change

My professional organization, the Special Libraries Association, is currently considering a name change. Members will vote in November on whether or not to change to the proposed name: Association for Strategic Knowledge Professionals (ASKP). I have been participating in the Twitter debate about this change for several days, but feel it is time for a more detailed response.

This is a very lengthy post and I apologize for that, but I feel I have to address many facets of the ongoing debate. I have noticed that many of the pro-name change responses I have seen thus far in the Great SLA Name Debate raging on Twitter (#slaname) and on the listservs have focused on two perceived sets of people: those who are against a name change all together and those who do not like the proposed name and therefore must not see themselves as strategic players in their organizations, are not forward-thinking, and/or are change-averse.

For this reason, I feel I must explicitly outline my own worldview a bit lest replies lump me into one of these aforementioned groups. Let me begin by saying that I support a name change in principle. I supported a name change when the issue came up for a vote in 2003 and I have been a vocal proponent for a name change ever since the intent to vote on a new name came up earlier this year. I happily wore an “Align in ’09” ribbon at the conference. 

I do see myself as providing strategic information within my organization. I am proud of the work I do and I am quite certain that the information and knowledge I provide helps my organization do its job better. Every time I provide the answer to what comes to me as an “impossible” question, I am confident that the quality of my work is noticed.

To be sure, I have never been shy about marketing myself as a research professional, within my organization or without, and I often become frustrated from the all-too-frequent martyr-complex that some in the library profession endure. I know my skills have value and I have always pushed for them to be valued, with both verbal and monetary recognition, rather than simply believe I must be underpaid because I am part of a noble profession that works for the good of humanity.

I am forward-thinking. I learn from, but do not dwell on, the past. I am open to change. I know it can be painful, and I admit to being scared of it from time to time, but I do not flinch from it or try to avert a course of action simply for the sake of avoiding change.

To be honest, I have no intrinsic attachment to the word “library” or “librarian”. While I do love to read, I am not one of those who waxes poetic over the smell of books; I have not always wanted to be a librarian. Quite honestly, I don’t internally self-identify primarily with the concept of “librarian”. I am a researcher – an information wrangler, a puzzle solver, and a tenacious research pit bull. 

On the other hand, I must admit to being quite moved by the passion I have seen in the recent debate by those who do embrace and defend the word “librarian”. Many of their responses have given me a more positive perception and roused a certain allegiance that wasn’t there before.

As for the new name itself, I have no objection to the word “librarian” being retained, nor do I believe it must remain if the alternative given is better. I do prefer a focus on “librarian” than on “libraries”, though.

I have, in fact, reviewed the alignment research, although I admit I have not watched all of the videos. I think that many valuable insights and tools have come out of the extensive research that has been conducted over the last 3 years.

I certainly would not “vote against” the concept that SLA members are strategic, bring knowledge, and are experts.  I think that the language that was found to be highly-ranked can and should be used to our advantage: on our resumes, in advertisements, and in communication with our employers and potential employers.

I welcome professionals to the association who work in “non-traditional” library settings. The information profession has moved in so many directions and encompasses so many fields that we can have a “bigger tent” simply by expanding our reach into these other settings.

I also understand that the name of the association is not reflective of the position titles of its members. I was a member of SLA in my last job as “Director of Research Services” and I am a member now as a “Librarian”. Just because the association name could change to something that does not include the word “librarian” does not mean that members are suddenly not librarians. I get it.

I am the choir to which SLA has been preaching about the name change.

I certainly never thought I’d be a voice of opposition in this debate; however, I am having a very difficult time getting behind the name that has been proposed.

I will not dwell on the acronym. It has become a bit of a red herring, although certainly not deliberate; people have expressed such obvious dislike for the acronym that the SLA leadership may feel that is where the major objection lies. I would argue that some who state via Twitter that “ASKPro does not work for me” may be referring to the name in full, as well as the acronym, and are using the acronym in order to make better use of their 140 characters.  I also think that it is a bit disingenuous for leadership to attempt to refocus the debate by saying that the vote will be for the entire name, not the acronym, which will not even be on the ballot, when the original e-mail announcing the proposed name quite clearly linked the acronym into the entire re-branding that we will be voting on with statements such as:

  • “We are excited to propose that SLA change its name to the Association for Strategic Knowledge Professionals, or ASKPro.”
  • “The abbreviated form, ASKPro, was very well received and also fulfilled the desire frequently stated in member discussions for a name with a meaningful acronym or shortened form.”
  • “Ultimately, however, it is up to you to vote on a new name for SLA– the Association for Strategic Knowledge Professionals (ASKPro)–and launch us into our second century.”

In addition, should the membership vote for this new name, the acronym will necessarily follow as the only options are ASKP or ASKPro. Since the leadership has stated that one of the guiding points in choosing the proposed name was the idea that members desired an acronym that spelled something out, I believe it is prudent for members to express a clear dissatisfaction for the acronym now. 

For the record, I do not like the acronym or the name in its entirety.

As I understood it, one of the reasons to entertain a name change was because people do not know what the “Special Libraries Association” is, they do not know what a “special librarian” is, and we are trying to make the name of the association more understandable and more reflective of what we do and the value we can bring to our organizations.  If this was the goal, I feel the proposed name fails to achieve it.

Amongst members, including the leadership, there is confusion about whether the word “strategic” modifies “knowledge” or “professional”. Are we professionals of strategic knowledge and, if so, what is “strategic knowledge”? Or are we knowledge professionals that are strategic?  The fact that even the leadership has made contradictory statements on this point implies to me that this name is unclear.  And if it is unclear, even to us, how can we expect the people to whom that we are targeting this name change to understand it either?

Page 32 of the PDF on the Alignment Portal entitled “Positioning Information Professionals for the Future” lists the eight highest ranked words:

  • Knowledge
  • Strategic
  • International
  • Advantage
  • Insight
  • Association
  • Professional

Four of them make up the new name. This makes it feel like the leadership looked at the words and simply strung some of them together. It is a confusing, unclear name filled with marketing buzzwords. As I mentioned above, I do think that we can learn a lot from and use to our advantage the language that scored highly. I think that the individual words have impact and meaning.  But I do not think that the name of our association has to incorporate as many of them as possible in a string-like fashion.

It is my strong belief that one can be strategic and can be seen as strategic without the need to place the actual word in the association name. The name, as an acronym and in its entirety, feels like it is trying too hard.  It is practically begging people, “Oh please, oh please, see me as ‘strategic’.”  I think that the association can market its members as strategic partners in the information or knowledge economy without insisting that these words be in the name. A tagline such as “providing the knowledge essential for strategic decision-making” would provide the same anticipated benefit as the proposed name, but could be attached to a clear, descriptive association name.

I have queried several non-librarian friends, including attorneys at my firm.  So far, I have not had one positive response.  Replies have included:

  • “What does that even mean?”
  • “Sounds pompous as hell.”
  • “What are you, the CIA?”

The most positive response I have received was simply that it was too vague and the individual had no idea what it meant or who the association would include.

I grant that everyone I have queried thus far has preferred the proposed name to “Special Libraries Association”.  But what does that really mean?  They find the proposed name pretentious, unspecific, and challenging to say, but it’s better than what we have so we should go for it?  No. It means what so many of us have been saying for years.  “Special Libraries Association” is confusing and unclear and should be changed.  That is all.

I find the assertion that the proposed name scored well with executives to be a bit misleading. Yes, it scored highest among the 3 names that were presented in the final group.  However, all 3 of these potential names were variations on a similar theme, focusing on the concept of “knowledge”. Having seen the 3 presented names, I agree with the executives who gave their input: Association for Strategic Knowledge Professionals is the best of the 3. I just don’t think that is saying much.

I also find it quite interesting that the entire list of names considered by association leadership and eventually whittled down to the 3 presented names were mostly similar variations on the knowledge theme. (Slide 4 in PPT showing how the name was chosen)  Personally, I would be much more convinced of the claim that THIS name scored most highly with executives if the 3 presented names had had slightly more variation.  For example:

  • Association for Strategic Knowledge Professionals
  • Association for Library and Information Professionals
  • International Association for Information Professionals and Analysts

There is at least enough variation here that we could see if people liked “knowledge professionals” over “librarians” over “information professionals” in the context of a specific association name.

As to the notion that “librarian” did not score highly enough to be included at all, I do believe that it is not sufficiently inclusive to leave it in the name on its own.  However, in the graph shown on slide 28 of the Alignment Survey Executive Summary PPT presentation, I find it telling that the phrase that was so undesirable is “special librarians”, not “librarians”.  I believe we have already determined that “special librarians” is a challenge and, therefore, it should not be surprising that it would not score highly on these graphs. It is unclear from the rest of the presentations if the term “librarian” alone scored similarly poorly.

The time has come for a name change, one that is more inclusive and that more broadly reflects the profession. Frankly, I am still torn about how I will vote; I am reserving this final judgment as I listen to the debate, although more and more I lean toward “No”. I do not support the proposed name, but I think “Special Libraries Association” is no longer sufficient. I worry that we will miss this opportunity because so many of those that strongly back a name change can not support the proposed name. 

I am well aware that choosing a name that inspires consensus across the association may be impossible.  But the fact that so many people who believe in the alignment research and who think the time has come to change our name have been so vocal in their opposition to the proposed name should give the leadership pause.

I extend my thanks to the association leadership for their hard work on the alignment project.  I think it will yield dividends and that they are suggesting what they think is in the best interests of the association. 

SLA is my association home. I have volunteered and held leadership positions every year since I joined when I was still in library school.  I hope and expect that this will not change.  My passion on this, and the passion of other members, both for and against the proposed name, is indicative of how much the association means to its members and this can be a huge strength going forward.

As has been pointed out numerous times, John Cotton Dana said the name “Special Libraries Association” was chosen “rather in default of a better”. Perhaps we still have not been offered that better alternative.