Questions raised about ALA\'s handling of Toronto decision


First off, let me start by saying I’m not particularly worried about getting SARS in Toronto. My chances for hangover are far greater than catching a fairly well-contained respiratory disease. What has concerned me, though, is the less-than-complete job of sharing information about the situation by ALA. I don’t envy the Executive Board one bit. This is a monster conference, planned for years, and a sorely needed bit of fellowship during one of the worst budget crises in decades. To have canceled or relocated the conference would have been a nightmare, financially and logistically, not only for ALA, but for Toronto, conference attendees and presenters, and exhibitors. With yesterday\'s spike in cases, the WHO is again taking a hard look at Toronto, deciding today to not issue another travel advisory. ALA has repeatedly stated that it has given prime consideration to the health of attendees in its deliberations about whether or not to proceed as planned with the Toronto venue. I believe that ALA leadership cares deeply about its members. What’s made me a little queasy, though, is the recent disclosure that ALA negotiated a $1.8 million dollar concession from Ontario to stay in Toronto. This has been discussed nowhere, except on various ALA lists. Some are lauding it as a shrewd deal that\'s made the best of a bad situation. Toronto would stand to lose $50 million dollars if ALA were to pull out. The service industry in Toronto has been devastated by SARS, with hospitality workers losing their jobs and maybe their homes. In a sense, this might be seen as a show of support for a struggling community, much like the support for the strikers in San Francisco two years ago. For Ontario to pony up nearly $2 million helps ALA with some of its lost revenues from canceled registrations and exhibitors who have reduced the size of their exhibits or pulled out completely.

Others, however, such as ALA Councilor Mark Rosenzweig, see the deal as a sell-out, and ALA’s handling of communication to its members as negligent. In a post to the ALA Council list dated June 2, (quoted with permission), Rosenzweig writes,

“There is no ongoing information about SARS in Toronto on the ALA site! The whole matter of member concern was covered only a PR crisis not a health crisis…. There is no information about precautions necessary, about hospitals that are open, about the safety of hotels and hostels, about the safety of the conference center and the facility’s own precautions, if any. Is this responsible???

There is no mention of the school closing, the apparent leap into community transmission, the quarantines of 5000 persons, of problems which may arise entering or leaving by plane….What there is on the web site is not highlighted, the only links, buried deep in the PR mound, are to CDC and WHO (and Conference Registration, of course).”

Rosenzweig wonders why there hasn’t been an ALA staff member assigned to this issue, to give more current and complete information, much as Don Wood does for Intellectual Freedom issues. In its May 28 statement, ALA puts the onus of responsibility on its members. “ALA members are encouraged to review all information available from medical authorities in relationship to their own health situations and concerns and make the decision that is best for them.” Of course we should all review our situations and decide to do what is best for ourselves and our families, but it’s disappointing that our association has not lent more of a hand in that process by providing more current, balanced information. It also would have been nice to negotiate lower hotel rates for those using ALA-block hotels, since there are all kinds of deals to be had in Toronto now. ALA leadership has promised more information, disseminated electroncially and available at conference, about health and safety of travelling to Toronto, including a list of \"safe\" hospitals.

I hope to be in Toronto. I’ve got work to do and look forward to seeing old friends. I’m a newly elected Councilor—-a situation about which I’m still feeling excited, honored, and frankly, surprised. I’m not afraid of getting SARS. I know that when I come back, though, I won’t be able to give blood for 3-4 weeks, and shouldn’t visit with my ailing mother for awhile. Besides, I’ve already got a non-refundable plane ticket that I cannot afford to reimburse my library for.

Rochelle Hartman
[email protected]

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