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Apply or Not: ALA Emerging Leaders Program

ALA is now receiving applications for the 2012 class of the Emerging Leaders (EL) Program, and I saw many new librarians considering applying to the program in Twitter, Facebook, etc. Applying for this program requires some paperwork. You have to write an essay and get references sent. You also have to commit yourself to attending two conferences in person.

So the question is whether the program would be worth all these. As a member of the 2011 class, I have some thoughts about the program from which I just graduated. Hopefully this post will help you decide whether the program is a right fit for you or not.

What the EL program is really about

The first thing to know about the EL program before applying is that its purpose is to develop leaders “in ALA” not just anywhere.  Of course, what you get to learn from the program about leadership will be useful in other organizations. But my experience is that this program is definitely focused on helping new librarians to get familiar with the organizational structure of ALA and to get involved in ALA divisions, roundtables, or even the ALA Council. It is not a program about leadership in general.

So if possible, attend the ALA conference a few times before applying for this program. See if you are interested in becoming active in ALA. The EL program itself won’t necessarily help you determine whether you would like being involved in ALA and  which ALA division is right for you. You should know answers to these questions first. If they are YES, then apply for the program.

Remember that the EL program is not the only way to become involved and active in ALA. Often it is easy enough to find the right place to meet librarian peers in the field of yours if you stumble into a right Interest Group, Discussion Group, or Section. You can volunteer to be a chair, organize or present a program, and form a great personal network of mentors, colleagues, and friends without ever stepping your foot into the EL program.

This also means that these are things that ‘you’ still have to do whether you get into the EL program or not. The EL program may open some doors for you, but you will be the one who has to take the opportunity and make it work for you if you decide to be active in ALA.

What you get to do if selected as an EL

  • You get to choose a project you want to work on. If you get to be sponsored by any unit, division, section, or other library organization, you will be asked to work on a project from that group. Otherwise, you are free to choose the project that interests most.
  • You will meet your team members and the mentor(s) at the Midwinter and plan how you will spend the time from the Midwinter to the Annual conference to get the project done.
  • When the project is completed, you will give a poster session with other EL project teams.

How do I get sponsored?

The EL program requires you to attend two conferences in person. But you can be sponsored. To believe or not, there are many units, divisions, sections, and regional library associations that sponsor an EL candidate that meet their criteria.

This is one of the reasons why it is good to apply for the EL program after having some exposure and experience with ALA rather than being completely new to it. If you are a member of any group that sponsors an EL candidate, make sure to indicate that in the application. If there is a unit that you want to be active in, and that unit sponsors the EL program, it might be a good idea to be active in the unit first, to get to know better about what you can contribute to and what you can learn from, and then apply to the EL program expecting the sponsorship from that unit.

It is an investment for any organization to sponsor an EL program participant. So it is fair for the organization to expect you to contribute back to the organization. So think about what you want to do professionally and how it may align with what you can give it back. Try to make it a win-win situation for both you and the sponsoring organization.

The benefits of the EL program

People will have different opinions on this depending on their personal experience of the program. But for me, the best thing about the EL program was the opportunity to meet and work with peers who are extremely intelligent, talented, driven, and ambitious.  It is also an opportunity to get to know and work with colleagues in a completely different library setting and area of specialization than yours. Because of this, you will get valuable experience no matter what project you get to work on and even if the project was not of your first choice.

I want to point out that working in an EL project team is likely to be very different from working in any other project team at your workplace. You will be surrounded with high achievers, and it is likely that you won’t have a slacking and/or unreliable team member problem. Instead, you may get the experience of your brilliant idea (in your opinion) being brutally rejected for a good reason.  You may spend hours on a heated discussion without coming to any conclusion. You and your team may have to invent the project itself because the project idea is vague at best. You may learn where and at which point to make the best contribution and when not to be in the way. You might have been a leader in one way or another in all your life but soon find out that you now get the invaluable opportunity to play the role of a good follower in the group (which is just as important as the role of a leader).

So I think that the great benefit of the EL program (for me) was to work in the EL project team I was assigned to. The actual work with my team taught me more than any book, article, talk, and discussion about leading and being led effectively, harmoniously, and gracefully. (I have to warn you though that these lessons would be probably coming after you finish the project not while working on the project.)

No drawbacks?

No program lacks some drawbacks or disappointments. The ALA Emerging Leaders program has some too of course. In case you get selected, I will tell you a few that I noticed. (But bear in mind that this can be relative to my experience.)

  • You won’t be changing the world or ALA by the one project you get to work on.
  • The fact that you get to work on an EL project doesn’t give you the secret weapon to melt all the bureaucracy in ALA.
  • You may request but not hear what came out of your team’s project work as a result after a few years.
    (I hope this gets changed.)
  • You might feel still somewhat lost in ALA. (But now you are lost with some friends.)
  • You may even decide that ALA wasn’t for you. (But hey, now you know!)
  • You will now have a new question to ponder – “Have I now emerged?”

I hope this post is useful to some of you and wish the best of luck to all EL applicants!

My EL Team (M) Poster with Dre and Lauren (Pearl and Emily not present in the photo) at the 2011 ALA Annual Conference.

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