Tuesday, January 11, 2011

New Technology, Open meetings? Not at LITA

I have seen some of this on Twitter, and on a blog, but I am very concerned about something that happened at ALA Midwinter.

Here is the tweet which caught my attention:
griffey I was requested, a motion was made, and the LITA Board of Directors voted to have me cease streaming and recording the Board Meeting....
Michelle Boule (Smith) posted about it on her blog, and I encourage you to read it and the comments. (14 comments at this writing, including one of mine.)

For those who are not familiar with ALA and its structure, LITA (Library & Information Technology Association) is a division of ALA. (Here is a brief discussion of ALA's divisions from my ALA 101 series.) For the business inclined, divisions are "wholly-owned subsidiaries" of ALA. Therefore all of ALA's policies apply to the divisions and their meetings.

The ALA Policies (7.4.4 for the governance geeks) require that all meetings of ALA and its units be open to members and the press. It is very simple, and very simply stated.

What happened? Well, Jason Giffey, on his own initiative and with his own equipment, started to stream and web-cast the LITA Board Meeting. Now, except when discussing "matters affecting the privacy of individuals or institutions" this meeting should have been open. If he had not been a Board member, and had just wandered into the meeting, he would have every right to record and stream the meeting. I would use as analogy of what would happen if a news report, or even citizen, walked into a City Council meeting. (It is the example which first occurred to me probably because of my extensive public sector experience.) It is a public meeting and the public has the right to know.

Jason backed down when the LITA Board got upset. A part of me respects his doing that since he is a Board member and needs to continue to work with the Board. However, another part of me is very sad that LITA took this stand.

LITA is supposed to include librarians on the cutting edge of technology. "Big ALA" has been wrestling with opening up governance and ALA Council meetings. Here was a chance for LITA to take the lead and show how it can be done, and done effectively, and at very little cost. They blew it.

Karen A. Coombs commented in a similar vein on the broader topic of the relationship between virtual and physical participants.

I heard the argument stated that the reason for shutting down the web-cast was that a consultant was presenting a report which was copyrighted. I say: BALDERDASH! If LITA hired a consultant to write a report, and based on what I know about standard ALA contracts, any copyright remains the property of the division -- as far as the consultant is concerned it is a "work for hire."

If Norman Horrocks were around, he is the one I would turn to first. I am going to urge my colleagues on the ALA Executive Board to look into this. I consider it an egregious violation of the ALA Open Meetings Policy.


  1. I responded to this topic at some length, at a post on Michelle Boule's blog. But I have a strong enough opinion on the matter that I feel the need to respond here as well.

    I was at this meeting, but I am not a member of the LITA board, so I feel like I have a good perspective. (Though like I said, my opinion is strong.) I agree that open meetings at ALA should be more open, including being open to virtual participation. But what happened at the LITA board meeting is not the way to go about it.

    To summarize: Jason Griffey started webcasting this meeting without the knowledge or consent of anyone in the room. The only reason that the topic even came up is because someone noticed the webcam in front of his laptop and asked about it. This is simply not the way that you webcast a meeting; even at an open meeting, it's such a fundamental failure of communication and severe violation of trust that I have trouble expressing it in words. If you are in a good-faith endeavor with a group, you simply don't record their words or actions without their consent or at least knowledge. You just don't. I can't state this strongly enough.

    While the conditions of the the consultant's contract are germane to the issue, and probably the central _practical_ impediment to the webcast, to me the violation of trust and goodwill in secretly broadcasting a meeting is more central. This is especially true in a governing body that relies on basic expectations of communication and trust to effectively govern. (Incidentally, I can't envision a way that webcasting the meeting to UStream would NOT have violated intellectual property laws -- whether or not the consultant's presentation was a work for hire, the content should only have been available to registered attendees of the conference or, at best, registered members of ALA. An open UStream cast does not accomplish this.)

    Of course, the only side of the matter that showed up on Twitter was Jason's tweet that there was a webcast of the meeting, followed by his tweet that the Board had "voted to have me cease streaming and recording" the meeting. I'm not surprised that LITA came off as in the wrong. But having seen the event unfold in person, it's clear to me that the failure in openness was not ultimately the Board's; rather, Jason's actions lacked a different, and arguably more fundamental, kind of openness.

  2. Thanks.

    I appreciate the different perspective, and appreciate the rational tone that you have presented here.

    I guess one of my reactions is, if it is an open meeting why should it matter if it is web-cast?

    It is also clear to me that we may have to respectfully disagree on this issue.

  3. I think that "webcast" versus "no webcast" is kind of an obfuscation of the issue. My guess is that the notion of a webcast of the meeting would not have been a problem with anyone in the room, assuming the legal pieces were all squared away. But I think there's something to be said for doing a webcast right, including getting the right AV equipment, setting up a system that appropriately limits access to the content (e.g., requires an ALA website login or something), dedicate someone at the meeting to handle technical issues, etc. This also gives the participants a chance to ready themselves for the fact that they will be streaming live -- let's face it, people act and speak more carefully when they know they are being broadcast. And with good reason, since a half-formed thought spoken aloud can look really bad out of context. Knowing ahead of time that the meeting will be broadcast is important!

    On the other hand, think of the situation that existed at the meeting at Midwinter. Let's set aside the trust/communication issues of a "surprise" webcast for now. The people speaking don't know they're on camera and might not be thinking as carefully before they speak--even if the though they're trying to articulate is a good one, if it is presented poorly at first, there's the potential of painting a very bad picture if it's taken out of context.

    As for the speaker's contract, there's been a lot of talk of ALA contract regulations, work-for-hire, etc., that is contrary to the stated reasons for shutting down the webcast. Be that as it may, should the LITA Board be expected to know, on short notice, the particulars of ALA contracts and executive matters? If the Board continued without a good knowledge of the consultant's contract situation, they could (for all they know) be setting ALA up for a copyright violation suit, or they could be setting the consultant up for censure from his employer. It's not really the Board's responsibility to know this kind of stuff on the spot when a surprise webcam shows up. It makes way more sense to set this kind of thing up ahead of time for this very reason.

    So as I said in my first comment, I'm most emotionally driven by the trust/communication angle. Shutting down a web stream on that basis would be mostly an emotional reaction. However, I think the response of shutting down the webstream was also the legally most prudent avenue for the Board. ALA is a big legal entity, and it's subject to the liabilities of any corporation. With that in mind, it would have been ill-advised for the Board to continue the webcast without a better understanding of the legal dimensions of the situation.

  4. Thanks for the follow up comment.

    I have had a good deal of ALA experience at the highest levels. (The ALA lawyer, knows me, and greets me by name...)

    I won't disagree with you on the surprise factor, but I still say that LITA lost a (its?) chance to be a technology leader for ALA no matter how you look at the specifics.