AALL Bylaws Debate Kicks Off

Before voting in the U.S. election in November, members of the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) will be casting votes whether to approve proposed amendments (AALLNet login required) to the association’s bylaws. Although there are several proposed changes, the only one seriously claiming attention would change the definition of “active member’ by removing the requirement that the member work in a law library or legal information center. The association’s executive board has released an FAQ document that explains its rationale for making the proposal. Discussion of the proposal’s merits was active for a short time before the association’s annual meeting, just prior to the board’s vote to submit the proposal to the membership. There were several blog posts. My own series begins here, and you can read posts by Joe Hodnicki and Betsy McKenzie, among others. The proposal was briefly discussed at the members’ open forum held following the annual business meeting, and since then the discussion largely abated, apparently awaiting the proximity of the election, to open in October, before resuming in earnest.

Earlier today the debate did resume with a thoughtful email message signed by Caroline Walters, Michelle Pearse, Stephanie Edwards, Brian Striman, and presumably by Betsy McKenzie, who posted it to the ALL-SIS Community Discussion List. Betsy also posted the message on her blog, Out of the Jungle, which is the readiest place to find it for those who are not members of the AALL communities. I wish to continue the dialog they have started, and will do so by posing a set of questions for discussion. Text in quotations is taken from that email message.

1. The message sent to the list suggests, as one alternative, “the Bylaws could be changed to make an exception for Active Members for all vendor members who work for entities that are non-profit or funded primarily by membership dues such as NELLCO, CALI, or LLMC.” Should the goal of this process be to expand membership by only that limited group?

2. “The overwhelming concern is the inherently conflicting interests and goals that arise even in the day-to-day work of the Association.  While there is a conflicts policy in place for Executive Board member activities, vendor membership raises the possibility of more frequent conflicts of interest.  As part of the Bylaws change proposal, The Association would benefit from a discussion of how the current conflicts policy has been applied and how it would be applied in this new context.”  Would not a review of the association’s conflict of interest policies, and the adoption of any needed changes, be a more targeted way to address these concerns, rather than wholesale rejection of the proposed amendment?

3. Can the crux of the perceived issue be ameliorated by making a slight change in the definition of active member? I see the root of the issue being the statement that anyone “interested in the objectives of the association” as a weak statement. “Interest” can mean as little as curiosity or dispassionate study. Would the membership definition have a satisfactory and self-limiting effect if it read anyone “committed to or interested in advancing the objectives of the association?” I realize that at this stage of the process such a proposal cannot be made, but if the proposal does not pass, I offer this suggestion among those that undoubtedly would be considered in the future.

I look forward to our continuing discussion of this as the AALL polls open next week.

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8 Comments on “AALL Bylaws Debate Kicks Off”

  1. Michael Ginsborg Says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful commentary on the proposed membership Bylaw. I admire your willingness to give the issues raised sustained and careful attention.

    How did the Board’s proposal reach the ballot? The Board helpfully provides a history of the procedural context in its FAQ’s. While the Board’s procedural context does not inform your questions, it has sufficient bearing to warrant elaboration and discussion. In part, that is because your questions deserve a forum we now will not have.

    In 1987 and 1999, members debated comparable membership expansions that the Board proposed. The debates were protracted, occupying several hours each of Annual Meeting proceedings. A significant point of contention in each concerned the present objection over conflict of interest. Participants introduced amendments to accommodate concerns that the membership proposals were either too broad and, in 1999, too narrow. The 1987 proposal did not receive the two-thirds majority required to pass among members present at the 1987 Annual Proceedings. The 1999 proposal, following debate, passed by a simple majority of mail-in voters.

    Members actively participated in efforts to craft the 1987 and 1999 proposals. Before the 1987 debate, the Constitution and Bylaws Committee held a ballot straw poll of four alternatives to the membership bylaw. No alternative received a majority, so the Committee offered a compromise position that represented the “culmination of seven years of effort by the Association.” (79 Law Libr. J. 804-805) President Lolly Gasaway had previously discussed membership questions in the February 1987 AALL Newsletter. She encouraged members to contact the Committee to share their ideas.

    For two years before the 1999 debate, the Board had been considering changes in the membership definition, commissioning what then President Jim Heller called an “extensive survey” of views from members. (91 Law Libr. J. 737). The proposal was described in the April 1999 issue of Spectrum.

    In this instance, the Board considered definition changes over the past year. The Board asked the Bylaws and Resolutions Committee to make a recommendation, but then, at its Spring 2012 Meeting, did not adopt it. The Committee redrafted it. The Board unanimously approved the redrafted recommendation on July 20th. No article on developments appeared in Spectrum before the Board’s Summer 2012 Meeting. On July 16th, President Darcy Kirk announced that if the Board approved the proposal, members would vote on it by distributed ballot. As a result, ballot voters could pass the ballot by a simple majority, but without opportunity to amend it at the Annual Proceeding. If members wanted to formally debate it, they would have been limited to the Open Forum following the 2012 Annual Proceedings. The Open Forum bars participants from introducing amendments. It typically lasts less than 30 minutes. No debate occurred at the 2012 Open Forum.

    I commend Ms. Kirk and other Board members for their remarkable dedication to our Association. By unanimously approving the latest membership expansion, they signal to us that, in their view, their proposal advances the best interests of the Association. But the history of past proposals suggests that we have had heightened expectations for transparency and participation when AALL seeks to expand membership qualifications. A more transparent process would have included a report or a column in Spectrum or use of the “AALL weekly e-news.” Perhaps enough of us would have then successfully petitioned the Board to qualify the proposal for a distributed ballot following an Annual Proceeding debate, as happened in 1999. A more participatory process would have included engagement of our views in advance, and an opportunity to both debate and amend the proposal at our 2012 Annual Proceeding.

    Your substantive questions deserve a substantive response. I hope to provide one soon. But I also believe they deserve the kind of hearing we will not have.

    • Ken Hirsh Says:


      I do not know the rationale of the board members in choosing to put the proposal to a vote relatively quickly after receiving the revised proposal from the Bylaws Committee. I do know that since the 1987 and 1999 changes, the use of the Internet for communicating about matters of governance has increased dramatically. On this, please see my two earlier posts here and here. I would argue, however, that with the use of a 30-day balloting period, there is sufficient opportunity for consideration and debate right now. My posts, yours and Betsy McKenzie’s comments, Joe Hodnicki’s blog posts, and the messages sent on the AALLNET community forums are part of the Internet platform that substitutes for debate at the annual meeting. I would argue that the process is at least as open and democratic as the ones you describe, in that participation in the discussion is open to all members, not merely those attending the annual meeting.

      Yes, you can reasonably argue that more informed discussion of the proposal before action by the executive board might have helped to build consensus. I would reply that we are having that discussion now, and if the membership rejects the proposal then that discussion will inform the board’s and the association’s next moves on this subject. Let us remember that there is little incremental cost in conducting ratification votes in this manner. Members do not need to travel; few ballots are sent by postal mail; a computer program counts the ballots. If you feel that the proposal is “wrong,” it is not difficult for the association to try again until we get it “right.” If opponents of the proposal believe that the association is a lost cause should the proposal pass, then there is a serious problem regarding our ability to trust the will of the membership.

  2. Excellent post, Ken! The Position Statement is not mine. I only posted it on behalf of those who wrote and signed it, though I heartily endorse the sentiments. One of the problems I see with the change to the bylaws is the speed of the process. I wish we had the time to discuss in a real way the pros and cons of the proposed change to this definition of membership. As the Position Statement points out, it may have profound changes on the future of our organization. Seems worth taking the time to really let people think carefully about such an important issue rather than rushing along on a big change like this.
    Betsy McKenzie

    • Ken Hirsh Says:

      I think the time to thoroughly discuss the proposal is NOW, during the balloting period. For my further thoughts on this, please see my above reply to Michael Ginsborg.

  3. Good morning!
    I am so grateful to these members who are engaged enough in their association to get this conversation going! A bylaws change should get our attention and get us thinking about outcomes and consequences, intended or otherwise.

    I have been giving a lot of thought to the bylaws change (as a member who may or may not be currently excluded from participation in the highest ranks of AALL) and in the end I am in favor of the amendment, and for reasons that I hope are not dismissed as self-serving. I should note however, that I am now and have always identified as an ‘active’ member. And even if the bylaws change is not approved I plan to continue to self-identify as an active member until I am officially notified that I am denied that status. The current bylaws language is subject to interpretation, and if pressed I suppose the case is easy for me to make, as I do physically “work in a library.” However, if NELLCO were to relocate to office space outside of the Albany Law Library, would I then be relegated to Associate Membership status? I don’t think that achieves any perceived goal.

    Here are my reasons for supporting the bylaws change:
    1) While I do understand the concern that big money vendors could ‘stack the deck,’ the likelihood of that happening, in light of (1) the nominations process and (2) the membership’s voting power, seems obscure.
    2) The Members of AALL ARE AALL. If we find this does in fact lead us in the wrong direction, we can change it.
    3) Vendors are now fully active in the association in every aspect except Board service, and many have volunteered their time and talents for years. AALL should be able to leverage that expertise and reward that commitment with Board service when it’s warranted.
    4) Membership categories are self-selecting, and are not being actively policed by AALL. And who is the arbiter? There are too many what-ifs and no one to adjudicate and enforce.
    5) I don’t think a handful of well-resourced people with ulterior motives, even if they were to collude, can overcome the morality of the individuals within the membership.

    If the membership of AALL really thinks this proposed change poses a threat to the Association’s integrity, my suggestions would be either:
    1.try to describe the very narrow category of people you are trying to exclude and recommend a clause that would cover that instance or
    2.consider recommending the revival of an ethics committee within AALL as a more comprehensive solution to the kinds of concerns you are raising.
    I look forward to this continued discussion.

    Tracy L. Thompson-Przylucki, Executive Director
    New England Law Library Consortium (NELLCO)

  4. Michael Ginsborg Says:

    My response to Ken’s comment: I did not mean to suggest that we should not use digital communication for debate. I agree that we should. In fact, I see no reason why a “live” debate can not also happen during Annual Proceedings, with the added benefit of creating the permanent Law Libr. J. record of the kind that I relied on in my post. A digital debate can precede, or conditionally follow, a live one. (The condition involves a qualified petition of the members for a distributed ballot, as happened in 1999.) So we need not consider here whether digital communication represents an adequate “substitute” for live debates. I was rather trying to suggest that, when AALL seeks to redefine membership, we continue to have good reason for heightened expectations of transparency and participation. I was also asking if the Board could have done more to meet these expectations. AALL did not officially notify the membership of the proposed membership bylaw amendment until a few days before the Board meeting. That was a significant departure from past practice in comparable instances. The Board did not try to engage the membership in the process, as prior Boards did in 1987 and 1999. Members now have no option to introduce their own “compromise” amendments, as use of distributed ballots precludes that option.

  5. Thanks to Ken for facilitating this dialogue and to everyone who is participating in or just following this debate. I would just like to make two brief additional points.

    1) The sole impact of the proposed amendment is that vendor members would become eligible to be elected to the AALL Executive Board. All other benefits of membership (committee and SIS participation and leadership, voting, etc.) are already extended to them under the current bylaws.

    2) Given that this is a fairly straightforward amendment (regardless of where you land), I personally feel that the Association leadership has been completely transparent on this issue (lots of notice, information, FAQs, etc.) , and has provided more than adequate time and space (including open mic time following the Annual Business Meeting) for the membership to consider the issue and discuss the merits. Let’s vote it up or down and move on.


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