October 2017 | Volume XXXV. Issue 5 »

The Roads We’ve Traveled

September 29, 2017
Robert P. Doyle, Illinois Library Association

We’ve come a long way together over the last twenty-one years.

The progress ILA has made is a source of tremendous pride and satisfaction for me—not because we’ve accomplished everything there is to accomplish, but because we worked in partnership to strengthen an important resource for Illinois libraries and their patrons.

Each of us did our part. My role was to provide leadership, focus our energy on achievable tasks, and build a structure that can adapt to new challenges. Yours was to consider the information and ideas we brought forward, collaborate with us and each other in bringing those ideas to life, and contribute your own ideas and your voice. As I look back, I’m so proud of what we’ve achieved together.

FROM THE BRINK TO THE BANK

One of the first orders of business when I arrived in 1996 was to address ILA’s precarious fiscal condition and engage the Executive Board to develop the tools and strategies for us to manage that situation together, with an emphasis on the board’s role as stewards of ILA’s future. Monthly financial reports to the board, an annual treasurer’s report and financial audit report for members, and a public annual report boosted our transparency and accountability.
In turn, those efforts laid the groundwork for a realistic, responsible budget, focused on developing and marketing the new revenue streams that now support our operations. From near bankruptcy, ILA has emerged as the leading state library association in terms of unrestricted net assets—even compared to California, with three times the population of Illinois, or Texas, with more than twice the population.

CHOOSING ADVOCACY AND EXPANDING AWARENESS

Even as we developed more resources, it was clear that ILA would need to allocate them wisely to make the greatest impact. Putting advocacy at the top of our agenda meant increasing the association’s statewide legislative and public policy profile. A task force recommended ways to establish and maintain a vital ILA presence with the Illinois General Assembly and the governor’s office. On the task force’s advice, we retained legislative consultants from the law firm of Sidley Austin LLP, who shared their deep knowledge to help us build our advocacy program. And ILA members took up the cause, becoming our best and most persistent advocates as we began to share policy information and advocacy strategies with the entire membership, rather than sending it only to system directors and a few library directors.
The results speak for themselves: as an association, we have defeated nineteen attempts to pass mandatory statewide Internet-filtering legislation—more than any other state in the nation has faced. We have thwarted three attempts to change the state’s obscenity laws, staved off several challenges to user privacy laws, passed every ILA legislative initiative, and forcefully opposed legislation harmful to libraries. And despite years of dismal news from the state legislature, libraries have fared better than many other state-funded agencies in terms of budget cuts.

EARNING INCOME AND RESPECT

The iREAD summer reading program has provided us with opportunities to build revenue and increase library use. Our contract with the U.S. Department of Defense, which has accounted for the largest share of the program’s growth, happened initially because the product was judged superior to other alternatives—and has been renewed year after year thanks to careful, responsive customer service and ongoing product improvement.
Every year, we introduced a new element to strengthen iREAD: hiring a consultant to help with product selection and development; shifting order fulfillment to a warehouse instead of relying on volunteer committee members; adding programming for teens, adults, families, and the armed forces; moving from printed resource guides and graphics to CD-ROMs, flash drives, and downloadable versions. Every step of the way, we asked committee members to focus their professional expertise on the program’s content and theme. The result: iREAD has grown to become ILA’s primary source of revenue.

FROM INFORMING TO INSPIRING

The ILA Reporter is one of the tangible benefits of ILA membership. Today, we have a number of digital and physical ways to make sure members receive announcements and housekeeping information, so the magazine no longer needs to fill that role. We’ve been able to develop a publication that seeks to bring the larger world to our members’ mailboxes with articles about art, architecture, learning, and libraries in all their glory. I’m particularly proud of that evolution, and of our work to produce an intriguing, inviting, and visually attractive professional magazine.
Our continuing education efforts have followed this same model. We’re holding fewer events but crafting them more carefully, collaborating with other providers and making sure that events provide practical, useful ideas for members and others to take back to their communities. ILA’s annual conference remains the single largest library gathering in the state, even as attendance at similar in-person events declines nationally. Smaller, targeted events—from meet-ups to workshops for support staff, trustees, and youth services librarians—focus on specialized skills and messages.

SMALL BUT MIGHTY

ILA’s current employees are a cooperative, dedicated, and talented group of people who have each helped the association move forward. I couldn’t be more grateful for the help of the current staff: Cyndi Robinson (conference and continuing education manager), Tina Koleva (membership services manager), and Linda Bostrom (administrative coordinator).
And I remember fondly so many of those who have gone on to make a difference elsewhere: Mirella Christina Alamillo Torres (now a registered nurse in Glendale, AZ); Barb Macikas (now executive director of the Public Library Association); Laura Schulte-Cooper (now a program officer for the Association for Library Service to Children); Kristy M. Mangel (now managing editor, QueenCity.com, Buffalo, NY); Donia Clark (now a free-lance personal assistant); Anne Bustamante (now a strategic account executive at Groupon); Brett M. Stephan (now a registered nurse at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Rush University Medical Center); and Theora Kvitka (now a UX designer in Pittsburgh).

We’ve also had the help of a number of wonderful consultants whose expertise has helped advance ILA’s mission: Yvonne Afable; Rob Bagstad; Derek Blaida; Mark, Becky, Justin and Anna Botos; Corcoran Expositions; Jon Daniels; J. Douglas Donenfeld; Jill Donovan; Mary Huchting; Kiplund R. Kolkmeier; Kathy Anichini Litgen; Dennis Pryber; Bob Rehayem; Todd Reifenrath; Gary Sigman; and Chris Watkins.

INNOVATION AND INFRASTRUCTURE

Associations aren’t necessarily known for being hotbeds of creativity, but ILA has staked out a few spots that make me proud. From selling the official Illinois license plate commemorating President Barack Obama’s election in partnership with the Illinois Secretary of State, to creating some of the country’s first Internet-safety bookmarks in partnership with MySpace, to forming a group insurance pool in partnership with Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., we’ve found ways to diversify and intensify our impact. And the Illinois Library Luminary program, a fund-raising honor roll, has exceeded our expectations for recognition and return.
In large part because of our work to achieve financial security, we’ve been able to undertake important improvements to our basic business practices just in the last year. For example:

  •  New content management system and website: We now have a much greater capacity to update and access member records; keep the ILA website current; and adapt to changing technologies. And we did it without disrupting functionality or losing data, access, or revenue.
  • Revised membership dues structure: The thoughtful, deliberative (and long overdue) process of reviewing and updating our dues structure resulted in unanimous approval of the changes at the 2016 ILA Annual Conference. Now, we can promote our simpler, more transparent structure
    to prospective members.
  • Accounting help: After ILA’s longtime accountant Jon Daniels retired in late 2016, we put out an RFP for this unique position that requires both accounting-level expertise and more routine bookkeeping skills. By the end of the year, we had two new part-time accountants, Yvonne Afable and Kathy Anichini Litgen, who bring a range of skills that will help to further update and modernize our accounting procedures. In addition, we recently converted to QuickBooks accounting software and integrated these operations into our content management system, which lets us automate more tasks and use staff time more productively.
  • Digital strategy: ILA’s Google grant for website marketing has provided us with $10,000 worth of free ads per month for the past few years. In 2016, we secured a grant for the iREAD website, where it will be even more valuable.

THE ROAD AHEAD

Today, ILA is positioned as a trustworthy partner that’s thoughtful in its actions and products, inclusive in its operations, flexible and innovative in the face of change, and—most important—a defender of the library profession’s ideals.

ILA’s next executive director will take over an organization that has a strong reputation and dedicated staff and members, and will have the opportunity to champion, represent, and support libraries as one of our country’s most trusted and valuable institutions. To build even stronger support for libraries, those who work in them, and the millions of citizens who benefit from them, I believe that the next person in this job must tackle the following crucial challenges:

  • Provide strategic leadership and vision to an organization that has a strong reputation—but also faces uncertainties. By most objective measures, ILA is a successful organization. The new executive director will need to build on the past to position ILA for the future, a task that requires vision, commitment to the mission, strong management skills, diplomacy, and the courage to make hard decisions about priorities and resource allocation, particularly in the face of an evolving political landscape, rapid technological and demographic change, and economic constraints.
  • Take steps to ensure ILA’s long-term financial sustainability. ILA is financially healthy, but each of its traditional major sources of revenue—membership, conferences, publications—faces its own set of challenges, some of which have forced other associations to greatly reduce their operations. ILA needs to stabilize losses in these areas and diversify its revenue streams even more. So far, we’ve been able to diversify successfully through new products, investments, establishing affinity programs, and fund-raising; going forward, the new executive director will need to be able to assess external trends astutely and propose innovative but realistic ideas for action. We all depend on one another in this very fragile environment.

THANKS, AND SEE YOU DOWN THE ROAD
On a personal note, many people have been asking what’s next for me. I’ll answer that question in the traditional manner:
I hope to spend more time with family and friends; travel; read; and, God forbid, clean out the basement. I also want to hit the slopes as long as I have both the ability and the desire to travel down mountains as fast as possible. I know, however, that those things will be only partially satisfying, and I’ll need a greater goal to provide meaning and purpose in the next chapter of my life. So, the roadmap is a work in progress.

While ILA’s roadmap hasn’t always been clear over these last twenty-one years, it was always clear that we needed to articulate our principles and values forcefully and effectively. You, the ILA leadership and membership, never wavered, you rose to every challenge, and you defended those values. And as we introduced change, you considered thoughtfully and questioned critically—but you trusted and approved the changes that were essential to advance our work, our association, and our profession in the state.

I am enormously grateful for that trust. Thank you for being such wonderful travel companions.

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