On the Reduction of ALA Councilors-at-Large

ALA Council I
Photo taken during Council I in June 2012

Let me state here, for the record, I have no objection to reducing the number of councilors at-large or the number of division and chapter councilors if evidence can be provided as to how those reductions would benefit council or the membership.

Some background info:

I am an ALA Councilor at Large.

Sean Reinhart is the California chapter councilor. He feels we have too many at-large members in proportion to chapter/division representatives

I do not have an opinion on whether or not we should reduce the size of council. I do have an issue with the framing of Mr. Reinhart’s arguments.

The tl:dr version:

Sean Reinhart feels that council does not function the way he believes it should and is therefore “broken”. It is broken because there are too many councilors and the solution is to reduce the number of at-large councilors.

Reinhart fails to state exactly how council is broken, how reducing the number of councilors will fix that, and why that reduction should come from the at-large pool of councilors.

The long version

Email sent to Council listserve on 2/17/2013 by Sean Reinhart states:

By comparison, ALA has only 61,000 members but its Council has 170 seats, 100 of which are filled by councilors elected at-large. Only 70 councilors are elected by the constituencies in state chapters, divisions, and round tables. This imbalance is an anomaly in professional associations of ALA’s size. No other association of ALA’s size has this many at-large delegates. No other association has more at-large delegates than it does chapter/division representatives.

It also includes this visual comparison.


Ok I am convinced that ALA has a much lower ratio of delegates to constituent than any other profession.

What I’m not convinced of is that this is a BAD thing. Perhaps it is a good thing. What evidence is there that at higher ratio is better? That those institutions are “more democratic” than ALA? Is there any empirical evidence on what is more effective? What is best for membership?

Reinhart claims in a February 17th email to the council listserv that:

when ones takes into account that the 100 at-large seats only represent 100 individual members’ points of view with no real accountability to any constituency except themselves. Whereas the 70 seats filled by chapters, divisions, and round tables represent those constituencies, which number in the tens of thousands. That kind of imbalance is not democracy; one might more accurately consider it an oligarchy.

Let’s look at the first issue – accountability.

I am not sure what kind of accountability Reinhart is looking for. Speaking personally ALA members can contact me via email, Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. The email addresses of all councilors are listed on the ALA website. I also proposed last Annual that councilor badges be a distance color so that member who see us at conference can identify us instantly, and hopefully be willing to approach us.

Constituents can also not vote to re-elect any councilor.

I am not clear on how 70 councilors (which is a number Reinhart proposed) will be more accountable than 100. I would need a much clearer and data driven explanation that reducing the size of council will increase its effectiveness. I also need to know how we are measuring the effectiveness of council now and how we would measure it in the future.

Now let’s look at the middle of that statement in which Reinhart indicates that 100 at-large seats is disproportionate to the number of chapter, divisions, and round tables. It only works if one agrees with Reinhart that at-large councilors only represent themselves and not every ALA member.  I would argue that each at-large councilor is responsible to all 57,719 members of ALA (from last council report on membership).

Finally the last section the one where he refers to the high numbers of at-large councilors as an “oligarchy”

Merriam Webster defines oligarchy as

1 : government by the few

2 : a government in which a small group exercises control especially for corrupt and selfish purposes; also : a group exercising such control

Selfish purposes? Such as? ALA gives no conference discount or travel assistance to council. There is no financial compensation. Reading council documents takes a huge amount of our own time and we miss much of what happens at ALA because we are in Council meetings.

Rather than an oligarchy ALA council is a democracy, one where elected officials are trustees elected by their constituents to act in favor of the common good and professional interest.  ALA members elect the councilors they believe will best represent their interests, those councilors then vote in the way they see fit. This is a democracy.

It is also worth noting that most political science scholars acknowledge four basic criteria for a democracy, yes it is a bit of a stretch to apply them to ALA but I’m going to based on Reinhart’s assertions.

  1. free and open elections – check
  2. virtually all adults have the right to vote – yes all members may vote
  3. rights and liberties are protected – think freedom of speech, association, press, etc. check. ALA members (and non-members) are plenty vocal in the criticisms.
  4. elected officials have the true authority to govern – check.

In another email Reinhart states

With 100+ names on the ballot, it is impossible for anyone to even know who all the at-large councilors are, much less keep track of what they do in office after they are elected. No one is expected to know and track 100 members of the US House of Representatives, but everyone is expected to know their local Representative, and hold them accountable. That’s a big difference, and a big flaw in the way ALA Council is structured.

First, there are not 100 names on the ballot. There are 33 seats open and 76 candidates running this year.

Second, again I ask – how would 70 be more manageable?

Third, impossible is a pretty big word here. I don’t believe it would be impossible. It might be time consuming. Clearly more time than Mr. Reinhart wishes to spend. Is it really reasonable to assume that all members WANT to keep track of all 100 councilors? I would hazard a guess that most members just keep track of the people they voted for. Or, referring to the previously mentioned trustee model most members elect their councilors in good faith based on what they know of them and assume they will do right. Much as they do their national representatives in the House and Senate. There are many tools for Americans to use to track their representatives, most don’t use them. Why would we assume people would track ALA councilors?

If one should wish to track the councilors ALA provides a roster list right here  and a voting record. Might one have to spend a little time with Excel to make a handy dandy spreadsheet? Yes. It’s data entry and not particularly fun or glamorous but it would not take more than a couple of hours initially and even less to maintain thereafter. It is most certainly possible. A better suggestion might be that ALA make it easier to track councilors by providing the data in Excel so that copy and pasting would be fast and easy, then it would take only a matter of minutes to assemble the data and one would analyze to one’s hearts content.

I should confess that, I too, often feel that council spends time on issues that would be better spent elsewhere, but as Karen Schneider wisely pointed out on Council listserv (2/14/2013)

One person’s real issue may be another’s non sequitur–and that is particularly true for a body as large and diverse as ALA Council.

In a February 18th email Reinhart said:

But did you know that there are also 100 councilors who are elected “at-large”? That’s nearly 50% more “at large” representatives than all the chapter, division, and roundtable representatives combined!

I still fail to see the significance or importance of this ratio. In fact I think it is a good thing.

In the same email Reinhart states:

Did you know that these candidates can and do self-nominate for these at-large seats, and all that is required is 25 petition “signatures,” which are often collected on the Council list serve by — you guessed it — other self-nominated at-large councilors? Some of these candidates even collect their “signatures” on Facebook.”

Facebook? No way! Gasp! Ok honestly – so what? What on earth could possibly be wrong with gathering signatures on Facebook? How is that any different from gathering signatures via email or on council floor?

They can self-nominate and only 25 signature required to run? Sounds like a true democracy to me! Councilors may self-nominate but they certainly are not self-elected and they certainly don’t self-represent. (I sense some prejudice here). As a self-nominated, but not self-elected, councilor who signs ALL petitions of other councilors I can say I do it because I think that in a democracy anyone should be able to run. Not everyone will win, that’s what voting is for, that is how a democracy works.

Finally Reinhart states :

Does that seem balanced to you? Is this right and fair to the chapters, divisions and roundtables?

Yes, yes it does. Those 100 councilors represent all 57,719 members, but I think perhaps as a chapter councilor it does not seem fair to you, Mr. Reinhart.

I am completely disregarding Reinhart’s comments that

Fully half of the people in room are completely disengaged from the proceedings at all times — people checking email, posting to social media, online shopping, even playing video games for entire meetings is a common sight.

That half the people are disengaged is strictly opinion. There is no support of this, no definition of what constitutes engagement. Additionally there is no way to know how many of those Mr. Reinhart considers disengaged are chapter or division councilors. This may also be an indication that Mr. Reinhart does not appreciate the diversity of abilities, learning styles, and listening styles of his fellow councilors.

I can think of legitimate reasons to post to social media – Thank you councilors who Tweet! I know your constituents appreciate it! Ditto for email. As for the rest, as I said, learning and listening styles are quite different. Can I play a game and listen? No, but I know that for some people this type of digital doodling helps them focus on what they are hearing.

But Reinhart goes on to state in a February 18th email

I don’t really blame them, because the proceedings are tedious, and the comments from the floor endless, filled with tangents, irrelevancies, and self-aggrandizement by individual councilors.

Welcome to the political process Mr. Reinhart. As was suggested on the listserv perhaps you are not cut out for council, and should consider stepping down or not running again. It’s ok. I’m not sure I will be running for a second term. But I have the deepest respect for those who serve on council and enjoy the political process.

I would agree that some of the comments are a bit off topic and tend to go on too long. Would I insult my fellow council members as you have chosen to? No. Do I know that many of the comments that are off topic and long-winded are from the chapter/division members you seem to hold in much higher esteem than us lowly, self-aggrandizing, self-nominated, tech friendly, councilors at-large? Yes.

In the ALA (Awesome Librarians Associated) Think Tank page on Facebook Reinhart has repeatedly called for this issue to be taken directly to the membership allowing them to vote on the issue. This is a strange attempt to circumvent the processes in place. This is troublesome because at this point Reinhart is proposing that we take an issue directly to the membership based solely on his opinion that council is too large. He has presented no empirical evidence that council is “broken”, that reducing the number of councilors would fix what is “broken”, or that that reduction should come from the pool of councilors at large rather than say chapters and divisions. He has stated that by refusing to take this vote to the public the vote is being blocked. The kind interpretation of this behavior is that he does not understand the process for proposing a resolution and with some time may present some data that supports his claims. The less-than-kind interpretation is he a bully trying to railroad his personal preferences through the system.

In the end I have conclude that Reinhart believes council is “broken” and the solution is to have less at-large councilors. But there is no evidence that A) council is indeed broken, or at least broken in the fashion Reinhart believes B ) that reducing the number councilors would fix any of Reinhart’s perceived problems C) that the reduction should come from the pool of of at-large councilors. Mr. Reinhart is entitled to his opinion and to post it to both the council listserv and Facebook. He has presented no empirical evidence to support his claim or his proposed solution.

He is also entitled to work to change what he perceives as broken. What he does not have a right to do is hijack the system and demand a vote be taken directly to the voting membership based on his opinion.

I am open to reducing (or even increasing the number of councilors) if: A) a clear definition of how council is broken is provided along with a method of measuring improvements, B) evidence is provided that reducing (or increasing) the number of councilors will solve the presented problem, and C) evidence is provided on where those cuts (or increases) would be most beneficial to council and the membership. So far I have not seen any of these.

40 thoughts on “On the Reduction of ALA Councilors-at-Large

  1. Since I am named in this post, I will leave a comment. I thank Ms. Newman for her interest in this issue. With all due respect, her comments effectively illustrate why this question should not be ultimately decided by Council. There is an inherent conflict of interest at work here. This question should be decided by a vote of the full membership. I hope the councilors will have the fortitude and bravery to acknowledge this fact, and send this question to the membership for them to decide.


    1. Sean I fail to see how pointing out that you have no evidence, empirical or otherwise, to back up your claims constitutes a conflict of interest.

      Comments such as “I hope the councilors will have the fortitude and bravery to acknowledge this fact, and send this question to the membership for them to decide.” only further my belief that you are attempting to manipulate council and the membership in an effort to further your own agenda.

      I repeat – I am open to reducing (or even increasing the number of councilors) if: A) a clear definition of how council is broken is provided along with a method of measuring improvements, B) evidence is provided that reducing (or increasing) the number of councilors will solve the presented problem, and C) evidence is provided on where those cuts (or increases) would be most beneficial to council and the membership.

      You have offered nothing other than your own opinion. Which you are entitled to. However you are not entitle to ram it down the throat of council or the membership.


    2. I am amazed at manner in which Sean Reinhart is being treated for raising an issue. That is based on following this issue elsewhere.

      Now I come here to this blog post. And the negative treatment of Mr. Reinhart only gets worse.

      To me, this represents more inappropriate piling on, and the councilors who say brava to Ms. Newman and saying brava to this:

      => “Third, impossible is a pretty big word here. I don’t believe it would be impossible. It might be time consuming. Clearly more time than Mr. Reinhart wishes to spend.”

      => “Facebook? No way! Gasp!”

      =>”As was suggested on the listserv perhaps you are not cut out for council, and should consider stepping down or not running again.”

      =>”The less-than-kind interpretation is he a bully trying to railroad his personal preferences through the system.”

      =>”What he does not have a right to do is hijack the system and demand a vote be taken directly to the voting membership based on his opinion.”

      Then there’s this gem:

      =>”Would I insult my fellow council members as you have chosen to? No.”

      No is correct. She would insult her fellow council members by other means, such as writing long blog posts calling them bullies trying to hijack the system who should not run again in part because they do not wish to devote enough time to council. Gasp!

      Who’s bullying whom?


  2. Thanks, Bobbi, for this post. One thing I think hasn’t been addressed is the learning curve inherent in both Council and ALA. I’ve just been through my third session as Councilor-at-Large and finally feel I’ve got my bearings. Our state sends the organizational president as its division councilor, meaning they will attend, at most, two conferences. I think it would be the rare individual who is able to contribute meaningfully in that time frame. I think the longevity of some of the members-at-large has been a real asset as this conversation has developed on the listserv. And, as you so succinctly express, serving on Council is a huge obligation of both money and time we choose to assume for the profession. I worry that reducing the members-at-large would cripple the existing institutional memory and actually make council less effective…


  3. Bobbi, you pointed out the lack of any substantive proof to Sean’s opinion that ALA Council is a broken entity.

    As an ALA member, I am glad that I am not one of many faces in the crowd to any ALA council member by virtue of the high ratio of members to counsellors.

    Like you Bobbi, I would be willing to listen to an argument for any change to ALA if an argument, supported by facts, is presented for discussion.

    However in this case because personal opinion does not equal fact, I await further information for consideration of any proposal.

    Until then, let your article stand as the last word for now.


  4. Thank you, Bobbi, for this eloquent and reflective post on the issue. I, for one, am insulted by Mr. Reinhart’s unwillingness to discuss this issue with anyone on Council (full disclosure: I’m on the ballot this year). To me, it shows his disdain and lack of respect for his colleagues. Like you, I am happy to discuss changing the number of seats on Council, but only if there is a rubric by which we can measure effectiveness.

    I’m afraid I know exactly how this will end: Mr. Reinhart will bring the proposal to Council, it will in all likelihood fail due to its lack of evidence/logic, and he will then use that as proof of how Council is out of touch with its membership. Which leads me to think that Mr. Reinhart has ulterior motives in this endeavor… but I am not one to make windows into men’s souls. I’ll leave the soul-searching to him.


  5. I’d like to point out that Sean is advocating for the removal of At-Large Councilors and not Chapter Councilors. hint: Sean is a Chapter Councilor. Of course, he is not subject to the same conflict of interest he bestows on the rest of us. Somehow, eliminating chapter councilors instead of At-Large Councilors hasn’t been brought forward as a possible solution.


  6. I have been reading and following this discussion thread for weeks and I agree with Bobbi that anything is worth considering if evidence is presented re what is broken. I still don’t see anything presented except opinions and preceptions. I too have wondered why this discussion has only focused on at-large councilors. “Fortitude” and “bravery” are very pathos driven words but without logos the argument is weak.


  7. Well put, Bobbi! I second John Jackson’s comments. And, in the interest of full disclosure, I am also a candidate for Councilor-at-Large.


  8. Bobbi: Thanks for your articulate and thoughtful post. You have said a lot of what I have been thinking.

    I asked Sean (at least I assume it is him who runs the “Restore Reason and Accountability to ALA” facebook page) for specific examples of how the large numbers of ALA Council members has hurt ALA. He hasn’t provided any to me. He also doesn’t have a draft proposal available to review.

    It is hard for me to support a cause when I don’t know what ballot language will be used and there is a lack of specific instance of harm. His arguement would be certainly bolstered by his ability to say “Because there are X number of ALA council members A,B and C was prevented from happening.”

    I’ve spent enough time the last 48 hours talking and reading about this issue, which to me wont really be an issue until there is a concrete proposal that he is ready to submit to Council.


    1. I am with you Peter. As far I can tell (and I may have missed something there was a lot to read) Mr. Reinhart has provided no evidence for his initial claim that council is broken. Nor has he provided any evidence for how reducing council will actually benefit the membership.


  9. As many have already said, *thank you* Bobbi, for your thoughtful comments! I am also not adverse to shrinking Council IF we are deliberate about what we gain and what we lose, and IF we know the gains are greater than the losses. The use of opinion over fact is very disturbing–especially for people in our profession! I am trying to remember Eli Mina’s words (as Aaron Dobbs recently quoted) about assuming that we are all working for the betterment of the Association…


  10. Ms. Newman. For evidence and data, we can and should look to best practices elsewhere. Here is a link to an updated summary chart comparing the number of at-large delegates in ALA to similar professional associations:

    No other comparable professional association of ALA’s size comes even close to having 100 at-large reps. Many have none. In every comparable professional association, member representation and governance is almost entirely done through some form of chapter/division representative structure. When you look at best practices out there, it is clear that ALA is way out of alignment. Why does ALA have 100 at-large reps? Why not 10, or 200, or zero?

    The reason why having such an overwhelming number of at-large reps is a problem is because it undermines the principle of representative governance, and it dilutes accountability. Even the United States Congress, in all its dysfunction, doesn’t flood voter ballots like ALA does. Each U.S. citizen votes for exactly one U.S. House Representative, and two Senators. That is deliberate, because the Framers foresaw that strong accountability is essential for any representative democracy to succeed.

    I apologize for taking this moment to get up on my soapbox yet again, but I wasn’t sure how closely you have been following the evolution of this proposal, so I wanted to bring you up to date where it is right now.

    I hope you will give these thoughts some consideration. I only want what is best for ALA. I think we all share in that goal. All I ask is that this issue ultimately be given a fair chance when it does come forward, meaning: let’s let the membership decide. The Council is in a conflict of interest position on this question, and cannot be the ultimate arbiter.


    1. Mr. Reinhart Thank you for providing the chart. Unfortunately I fail to see, and I know others have pointed this out elsewhere, that is doesn’t actually prove anything. There is no analyses of the data, no proof that our structure is worse than those you list or that their structure is better than ours. There is nothing that indicates a best practice either way. Pointing to something and saying – see they are different! We should be like them, it not proof.

      You stated “The reason why having such an overwhelming number of at-large reps is a problem is because it undermines the principle of representative governance, and it dilutes accountability.” This is nothing be empty rhetoric. I’m not even sure what “dilutes accountability” means. It is clear from reading your comments here and elsewhere that you do seem to know how to use rhetoric but as someone else pointed out you need to have something to back it up, and you do not.

      I ask again – how exactly is council broken and what rubric will you use to measure the success of any changes you are proposing? After you have answered that clearly I’d be happy to discuss the reduction of ALL councilors not just at-large councilors.


    1. I missed a conversion factor, by reading the linked article too quickly, when working with Coral to locate this research.

      The actual ‘correct’ number of representatives for an organization the size of ALA is actually a bit less than 1/3rd of that; so about 25.

      For reference, congress ‘should’ have a hair over 800 members, while the American Bar Association ‘should’ have about 1/10th of its current number.


  11. Well said Bobbi! Many of the things you discuss here are things that I have thought as I read through the council discussion list.

    I was nominated for my at-Large position by the Nominating Committee and did not expect to win considering my inexperience and “newness” to ALA at the time. Yet here I am three years later on the spring ballot as a “self-nominated” candidate because I love libraries, I love working with other librarians from different types of libraries and from different parts of the country, and doggone it I like being on Council and I like making a difference. I try to act in the best interest of ALA members. I try to be open minded and listen to both sides of an issue before I make up my mind. And if I see evidence that ALA Council is too big and that this is hurting the Association, I will certainly vote to change that. As many of my colleagues have said, though, so far I’m not seeing any evidence to convince me of this.

    Who knows? Perhaps if the US Congress had the same ratio of Congress people to Constituents as ALA does things might work better in Washington DC…


  12. But whose ideas and opinions and notions does Mr. Rinehart represent? California Library
    Associaton? Mr. Rinehart represents Mr. Rinehart–not this California librarian, nor any
    California librarian with whom I am acquainted. How many floor librarians does he represent
    and is he speaking for them?

    Thank you, Bobbi Newman for your concise and much needed presentation.


  13. Thank you, Bobbi. Your post resonates with me. I would also like to second Wendy’s comments about being a first time councilor and being appreciative of having seasoned councilors (chapter and at-large)present who were willing to guide us on matters. It’s been such an honor serving on ALA Council. It’s dawned on me that constant assessment may very well be part of council and something every new member needs to get used to. I applaud the Future Presidential Task-Force. Even though I may not agree with everything in the report, they set the standard high. If only members could follow their lead to take the time to produce well-researched reports to support their resolutions before opening their mouths. And if he manages to come up with a cogent report that’s free from bias, I am happy to stand corrected. Alas, I know that Mr. Reinhart has said that all at-large councilors are “flawed” and cannot possibly see the logic behind his argument because of “individual interests.” Yes, I am an at-large councilor. However, if you can scan some of the comments on various platforms, non-councilors are saying the same thing…yet these are not the “member” viewpoints he wants to hear. He only wants to hear the disgruntled members who agree with him. It is notable in the way he has selectively thanked members and disregarded others. He has yet to demonstrate diplomacy.


  14. Sorry, I just wanted to add that perhaps at heart, Mr. Reinhart really wants to improve the association. That’d be admirable if true. I confess that I actually did some number crunching after the last election to see if there were biases between caucus’ and divisions in electing councilors. Thankfully I never shared them because you know what?–The standard of deviation was huge and what did it prove? We are a legislative body that works together to create resolutions to help the association further its mission and vision. Dividing us into chapter versus at-large, pitting caucus against caucus is unproductive. I’m actually surprised that Mr. Reinhart hasn’t criticized the different council caucus’ yet of being “unstoppable voting blocs.” But wait, maybe it’s because he’s part of one–the chapter caucus! I’d prefer it if we just lay down our arms and work together.


  15. PS. Just so you know, I believe in transparency. I shared my trivial findings with an Executive Board member last year who told me it was inconclusive. I learned by trial and error! We had a turn out of >20 percent last year for ALA elections. According to the company, a turnout of 17 percent is average.


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