Comments on “SLA: Succeed. Lead. Advance” Recommendations Report (May 2015)

I haven’t been tracking the activity around the consultant’s report that was commissioned by the SLA to guide the organization’s future development, but now that some of the proposed changes have been brought to my attention by others more attentive than I, in my role as president of the SLA Eastern Canada Chapter I feel I should share my thoughts on these recommendations and specifically how I believe they are likely to impact our Chapter.

This is a long report that makes recommendations across the full range of SLA activities and operations. I recommend reading Kendra Levine’s thoughts on these recommendations if you haven’t already. She’s been more involved in the SLA than I have over a longer period of time (although I would guess that we would still both be considered newcomers), and that commitment shows in her comments.

I’m going restrict my comments to what I find are the most relevant sections of the report, specifically aspects relating to revenues, sponsorships, and fundings for chapters.

Note: The opinions expressed here are my own and should not be considered an official statement from the executive board of the SLA-ECC.


Area I: Business Partnerships – 3.1 – Point 3 – Should a geographic unit obtain sponsorship for a local event, the revenue is shared (50/50) with HQ in recognition of the value of the SLA brand used to obtain the sponsorship (the franchise model).

Working at developing, securing, and fulfilling the obligations relating to sponsorship is already a lot of work. If half of any sponsorship dollars raised in this way are going to go to SLA HQ for the privilege of using their name, than it isn’t really worth our chapter’s time to work on developing these partnerships. If SLA HQ wants to develop and bring funding opportunities to us, in exchange for half of the revenue from that opportunity, I expect that we would be open to that, but only to the extent that we could ensure that the sponsorship activities provide real value to our members.

Area V: Revenue Model and Financial Review

7.1.3 – point 3 – Consider accessing unit funds through an assessment on all unit accounts.

Imposing an “SLA tax” on chapters, even if based on their ability to pay, would of course not be welcomed. SLA already keeps most of the revenue generated through membership fees (soon to be 100% according to recommendations 7.2.a), so to try to claw back more of that from chapters who have worked hard to establish a solid financial base would be short-sighted and would undermine the sustainability of chapters.

7.2.a – point 2 – Terminate the practice of issuing allotments to units.

If I take the consultants’ recommendation that the proposed changes be implemented as a whole, with the termination of allotments to units SLA HQ would remove the last reliable revenue source that our chapter would have. The costs of chapter activities would therefore likely need to be passed directly on to members, who will already potentially be paying more for membership (see below).

7.2.a – point 3 – …establish a revenue sharing model with units who contribute to the successful conclusion of a sponsorship agreement.

With this recommendation in place, the objective driving the chapter activities would become to execute on the terms of sponsorship agreements, to provide value to vendors (through holding events that promote their company, products, and/or services) and to SLA HQ (through the 50% of the sponsorship funding that SLA HQ would keep as mentioned above).

Of course, if the goal is to force chapters to participate in sponsorship activities in order to fund their activities, then these changes taken together would likely be effective. Chapters would have little choice but to drive sponsorship activities to SLA HQ, who would then negotiate the terms of the sponsorship agreement with the vendor and bring it back to the chapter(s) for them to execute. SLA HQ would keep 50% of the sponsorship funding for their troubles.

I’m certainly not against partnering with vendors to fund chapter activities, and wouldn’t be against SLA HQ offering as an option to provide and manage sponsorship agreements centrally. But to force this behaviour but cutting off chapters base revenue and preventing them from doing their own local sponsorship activities is heavy-handed and does not, in my opinion, contribute to the kind of relationship that SLA HQ should be seeking to have with its chapters.

7.2.b Realign Dues and Fees

While not stated directly, I can’t imagine that the goal here will be to reduce dues and fees to make membership more affordable. I recommend being careful on this front as too great a price increase will likely cause members to review the benefits of SLA membership and may cause them to reconsider renewing if they find SLA’s offerings wanting. This would leave you collecting higher fees from fewer people, with potentially no net gain in overall revenue.


I’ll wrap up by saying that I resent the picture painted by this report of units as almost-rogue organizations that have taken advantage of the SLA brand without paying sufficient compensation to SLA HQ. Similarly, the portrayal of units as being good potential leads for sponsorship deals but not all that effective at extracting the maximum revenue from those opportunities isn’t appreciated. While this narrative may help to justify the changes being proposed, I think it does a great disservice to the hundreds of professionals who over their years through their dedication have volunteered their time and energy to building their units. These units and their members are the SLA: they are the value that membership delivers, the brand that vendors seek to be connected to. Without these units, there are no members. Without members, there is no SLA.

The concerns that I’ve voiced here all stem from my personal philosophy that a decentralized structure is the best way to build a sustainable organization, and that it is the local face-to-face activities that provide the most value and constitute the “SLA brand” in the mind of members. This report puts forward a centralized, SLA HQ-centric model that doesn’t share this philosophy, so I am not surprised that I don’t agree with all of the recommendations. It doesn’t mean that this is a bad plan: there are a lot of points that I agree even coming from a different perspective as I am.

Like most units (and many professional organizations), SLA Easter Canada is already facing an uncertain future, and is having to rethink how it operates in order to continue to deliver value to members in a way that is sustainable. The changes proposed by the consultant’s report undermine aspects of our business model that we had thought we could count on (i.e. membership allotments, potential sponsorship revenue, and our existing funds) as we embark on our own planning exercises.

I can only hope that the board will be able to make a clear decision one way or the other on the recommendations in this report at the upcoming conference to provide the clarity we need to be able to overcome the challenges we all face, to move forward and ensure a bright future for the SLA.



Risks of using embeds in digital collection sites

This morning I read the news that Getty Images was going to start allowing people to use their images for free for non-commercial uses. This would be accomplished via an embed mechanism common on many other media sites where the sites provide some HTML code that you can paste into web pages or other online services. The code will retrieve the image from Getty’s servers whenever the web page / blog post / tweet / etc is viewed.

While certainly a useful feature and one that will make it a lot easier for people to share these photos legally, the use of embeds does raise an issue that I think librarians need to be aware of:

“Embeds from Twitter and YouTube are already a crucial part of the modern web, but they’ve also enabled a more advanced kind of link rot, as deleted tweets and videos leave holes in old blog posts. If the new embeds take off, becoming a standard for low-rent WordPress blogs, they’ll extend that webby decay to the images themselves. On an embed-powered web, a change in contracts could leave millions of posts with no lead image, or completely erase a post…”

This reminded me of a discussion I had earlier this week regarding the potential use of embeds in a future digital collection site. Specifically, one of the curators was interested in using TimelineJS to create and embed a timeline as supplemental content to the digital collection itself. The TimelineJS allows you to create a timeline on their site and then provides you with code that you can paste into your own web pages. That code retrieves your timeline from the TimelineJS web site and displays it in your own web page.

I can understand how this kind of functionality is attractive to librarians, since it allows you to provide enhanced content, integration, or functionality on your web site with very little effort. In addition, there no need to go through your likely-already-overtaxed systems group to implement the same functionality on the library’s own servers. You can just cut-and-paste and you are done!

In some cases, this approach makes complete sense, especially when you are dealing with information or content that is temporary or transitory. (Note: There are risks relating to security and privacy when embedding someone elses code on your web site. Do your homework!)

When we’re talking about digital collections, however, our timelines stretch out some. Most folks expect digital collections to be available for a long time, sometimes persisting as-is, sometime via a series of platform migrations. For me, if a curator invests their time in developing a timeline to accompany the digital collection, I want to make sure that timeline, like the digital objects that make up the collection, is available to visitors for as long as the site exists. If I use an embed to pull the timeline from another web service, there is a good chance that in 2, 5 10 years that the embed will fail resulting in an empty space on my digital collection site.

There are ways to mitigate against this problem. For TimelineJS we could grab the source code and run it off our own servers, but that requires time from the systems folks and becomes yet another web service that we are committing to run and maintain. In many other cases, setting up a local instance of the service isn’t even an option. At the very least, make sure that you have some sort of local copy of the content that you could use to recreate and/or replace the embed should you need to. For example, if we decided to embed a timeline using TimelineJS we’d want to try to grab a static image of the timeline as well as the source data the curator uploaded to Timeline JS to create it.

The ability to embed content and functionality from other services into your library’s web site can be an effective way enhancing your patrons user experience on the site, but remember that when it comes to building digital exhibits and collections we need make sure we don’t sacrifice long-term access and preservation requirements to our desire to just get things done.