Why you should renew your ALA membership

Yes, it is that time of year again. Soon, your American Library Association membership renewal form will be arriving in the mail. Receipt of this renewal notice prompts many ALA members to ask themselves, why should I keep up my membership? What do I get out of it? What I want to say about membership renewal has to do with the two alternate ways that ALA members view the association: as a real association constituted by its members, or within the framework of a business-to-customer relationship.

Over the years, ALA has gradually become more of a customer-oriented publishing entity and less of a representative body and association for a professional group. Membership dues presently make up 15 to 20 percent of ALA revenues, as compared to 100% in the first days of the association. (Net profits from publishing activities are greater than revenues from membership dues today.) ALA is still governed by Council, the member-elected body that directs ALA management concerning any new activities, so it has to be recognized that this long-term change ultimately has been based on an accumulation of directives from the membership. ALA members have asked ALA to become what it has become.

As an organization with 60,000 members and a 55 million dollar budget, it should not be surprising that ALA is many different things to many people. Through its divisions and offices, and through the work of both its employees and its active members, the organization pursues a range of activities and goals that most of us don’t think about when we think of ALA. Usually we think of ALA in terms of what it offers to us in our own narrow areas of interest and own little corners of librarianship, whether in terms of publications or opportunities for committee work. It is easy to undervalue the association as a result of failing to appreciate the full range of its activities. This is especially true when Council (never forget that it is an elected body of the membership) makes a statement that turns out to be controversial. Such statements tend to overshadow everything else that Council has worked on and decided in a given session, not to mention ALA’s other activities (55 million dollars can go a long way). It is a shame that people form strong opinions about the association based on what are minor activities in relation to the whole, and that few members put effort into keeping up with what ALA is doing. (ALA Publishing needs to take some of the blame here for choosing to use American Libraries primarily as a magazine about the library scene in general, missing opportunities to highlight the association’s diverse activities.)

So, on the one hand I am suggesting that before deciding not to renew your ALA membership, you should take some time to study what ALA has being doing. A good place to do this is to look at ALA’s annual reports (the source of most of the facts in this posting).

In addition to taking a broad view of what ALA does, I think it is also important to consider two ways of looking at the association and its basic role. Those who look at their renewal form and ask, “I am getting my money’s worth?” are generally considering ALA in the context of a business-to-customer relationship, and trying to calculate whether their membership sufficiently benefits them personally. In that way of looking at ALA, the opportunity to volunteer one’s efforts to a committee, to participate in governance, or even to vote is not very meaningful, and ALA might as well not be a membership organization at all. Not to be too harsh, but I think that is a selfish way to look at one’s relationship to the association.

I have to admit that ALA as it presently exists does encourage members to have that kind of a relationship to it. It presents members with many opportunities to engage in a business-to-customer relationship with it. I can’t deny that there is value in ALA’s products through its publishing operations, and that those products benefit not only members but libraries and librarianship. However, I wish that ALA’s self-presentation to the library profession gave more emphasis to its role as a professional organization. Though it is not a professional organization in a technical and legal sense (since it has many non-librarian constituencies who are interested in the library world for various reasons and it is organized as an educational association for tax purposes) it is the closest thing to a professional association that librarians have. Unfortunately, its basic role as a professional association is somewhat invisible to most members.

It is natural to take for granted the basic structure of things. The way we take ALA for granted is similar to the way we take for granted the role of government in society. We take for granted that clean water comes out of the tap and rarely think of the role of government in creating and supporting the regulatory structures that allow that to happen. Though it lacks formal regulatory power, ALA supports the existence of libraries and of the library profession in a similar way. Its most important activities, from my point of view, are in its standards-setting role and in its provision of a central context for librarians to work together on questions that concern the practice of librarianship profession-wide. Librarianship has a degree of professional status, insecure as it may be. Without that professional status we would have less autonomy within the institutions where we play a role, which means that we would have a diminished ability to further the ethical aims that bind us together and give us a shared purpose. Without a professional association there would not be anything solid on which to lay our claim to belonging to a profession, and there would be no central context for deliberating on professional questions with the hope of an authoritative outcome. I think many people like the idea of doing without a centralized voice or an organization that provides a sense of unity, but I think they don’t realize how much depends on having it. It is good that we have the freedom debate such broad questions as “What is a library?” on the web and in independent publications, but it is also good, from my point of view, that an organization exists that is able to provide standards that contain provisional answers to those questions, which the library world is then able to use for guidance in decision-making and justification of budgets. And it is good that libraries are able to experiment with new ideas, but also extremely important that a shared context exists for incorporating the results of those experiments into profession-wide discussions that benefit all libraries. It is easy to take for granted the role of a professional association because it is easy to take for granted the basic structures of things as we know them. To a much greater extent than any of us realize, I think we have ALA to thank for the existence of what we understand as librarianship.

So, my point about ALA membership is that it simply isn’t appropriate to look at it in terms of what we get back from it individually, against the background of a structure that we think is otherwise secure. When you get your renewal notice, rather than looking at ALA from the point of view of a customer, I think it is more appropriate that we think of it by paraphrasing John F. Kennedy from his inaugural address: “Ask not what ALA can do for you – Ask what you can do for ALA.” (I should mention that paraphrasing JFK like that is not my own idea. It’s a saying that has circulated among active ALA members for many years.)

15 comments on “Why you should renew your ALA membership

  1. This post is a good reminder for me. I, like many, feel frustrated with ALA, but I keep renewing my membership year after year and I remain involved on my ALA committees.

    One of the things that helps me is that the enormity of our organization allows us to have political clout. When the ALA can communicate to legislators and express why a certain issue is of import it means we, the individual members of ALA, have a voice that will communicate and stand up our professional values.

    Your observation regarding the librarian professional status rings very true with me, especially when I think back to experiences of dealing with uninformed people that being a librarian means I am a specialist in the field of information.

    Thanks for this post, Rory.

  2. The most interesting part of this well-written article to me is the following, “…it is not a professional organization in a technical and legal sense (since it has many non-librarian constituencies who are interested in the library world for various reasons and it is organized as an educational association for tax purposes) it is the closest thing to a professional association that librarians have. Unfortunately, its basic role as a professional association is somewhat invisible to most members.” if ALA is not acting as our professional association, what is? Is it the constituent larger groups such as ACRL? State associations? That seems to be the role folks complain about lacking when it comes time for the cash-handover (myself included), and the reason cited for many moving over to SLA. No doubt ALA is important and broadly impactful, but if that is a role members feel is lacking, what will ALA do to meet that need, if anything?

  3. Hi, Colleen. Thanks for your comments.

    I think ALA is acting as our professional association (including through its divisions such as ACRL), it just isn’t technically a professional association. I suppose there are some things that the American Medical Association or the American Bar Association do for their constituent members that ALA doesn’t do, but I certainly don’t see SLA filling that kind of a gap. What ALA seems to lack versus true professional associations is regulatory power, the ability to grant licenses and adjudicate disputes, things like that. SLA, to me, seems even more customer oriented and less based on the idea of maintaining a profession. What do you think people get out of SLA that they aren’t finding in ALA?

  4. Regulatory power? Really? Try getting a job without the precious “ALA-accredited” degree and see how far you get (not very). And in this economy, let’s be honest, we do have to ask what exactly ALA does for me, if anything because it is a pretty big chunk of cash which, for those of us working for low wages in the middle of nowhere, can go to other things.

    1. Committees? I don’t have to do that, thank the powers that be since I am not on a tenure line. And even if I had to, I probably could not afford any associated travel, which leads me to the next point.

    2. The Annual Conference. That’s pretty much a wishful thing that is too expensive and usually just for the elites in well-heeled universities. My library and I can’t afford it. We know it, and that is the foreseeable future and reality. Of course, saying this tends to be considered in “poor taste” by certain bloggers (not you per se, but I have gotten in hot water in other forums for making similar suggestions).

    3. The publications? I can read most of them online via one of the database packages. So plunking down all that money for a package of journals is just not enough of a reason.

    As nice a post as this is, it is a lot of pie in the sky to those of us in the trenches worried our job might not be there (or not there in its entirety thanks to a little f-word: furloughs). I am sorry, but in such a climate, ALA just does not seem to be doing much of a whole lot, certainly not enough to plunk down 3 digits in fees. And don’t even get me started on the embarrassing continuous promotion of the “job shortage.”

    P.S. Sorry for having to use my pseudonym since I wish we could converse more, but it is what it is.

  5. To the poster of the above: I think your feelings represent those of many if not most librarians, and it makes me rather sad. It shows that for many people, like yourself, librarianship is not a profession at all but merely an occupation, controlled by other people. To the extent that that is really the case, ALA is failing in its role as a professional organization. But we can only have a professional organization if we, as librarians, want to maintain (or establish) some professional status for librarianship. Your points demonstrate the consumer attitude – as opposed to the professional attitude – that afflicts ALA. If all you want to be is a library worker, then by all means, complain that you’re not getting your money’s worth from the publishing outfit known as ALA. But the fact that that is your orientation to the profession to begin with, to me, is what shows we have a need for a professional organization. I am sorry to be so harsh, but I have taken Greyhound buses to annual conferences and stayed in youth hostels while attending meetings during periods of unemployment because I refuse to accept that the “powers that be” in librarianship are anyone but the librarians who choose to lead the profession. If we all assume that “others” are the powers-that-be, librarianship will never be a self-constituted profession but a working class occupation. You are free to make that choice, but having made that choice, if you want to complain you should at least be clear about what you want from the association. Do you want a union? There are a lot of people who would like to see that and good arguments for it, as well as obstacles to making it work. ALA-APA is not a union but is attempting to do some of what people would like to see in one. Do you have something to say about ALA-APA?

    As for regulatory power, I am merely stating a fact. Though ALA accredits masters programs, there is no license to practice librarianship as there is for law or medicine, and ALA is not able to censure librarians or libraries for violating its ethical code in softer ways than revoking a license, either.

  6. @Rory – perhaps it’s just that SLA hasnt reached behemoth-status yet, as ALA has. I’m lucky in that I was nominated as a 2011 Emerging Leader by ALA – an unfunded one, so it’s due to the generosity of my employer in terms of development funding and time that I can participate. One of the barriers I’ve felt in trying to get involved in my areas of interest is the “we’re full up, try again next year through random lottery” attitude towards service. Some of the units have done a great job of having regional or state presences – ACRL-NY is very active, for instance – but most do not, which I think adds to the feeling of divorce. State library associations vary widely in quality and activity (as, I’m sure, do ALA sections), but I do think it is a shame ALA focuses on the meta. Could they be more involved either at the state level or within the state orgs in general? I dont know.

    I count myself very fortunate I’ve found a career I believe in, that helps people and that matches my personal values. I do, however, struggle with my feelings towards ALA. Perhaps I am spoiled by my prior membership in APSA in a former life, which felt smaller and a bit more intimate. I know ALA does good work that impacts the profession at the meta-level; where I struggle, or feel a disconnect, is in the competition between my desire to contribute as a member in some fashion, and the *massive* amount of effort required to break through the barrier to participation. I’m planning to leverage the EL program to solve that for myself, but that’s not scalable, really.

  7. i’m with Dances w/Books. I can barely afford the membership dues if I choose to do so (out of my own pocket, my library certainly won’t reimburse me!!) and as for travel to conferences or buying publications? forget it! American Libraries and Library Journal are OK, but other than that. . . why shouldn’t I keep my precious money that seems to dwindle every year?!

  8. I have to agree with Dances with Books too. This post is nice, in a “if everything were perfect, here’s how ALA could improve…” But in this real world, where many of us have to pay out of our own pocket for membership fees, for transportation & conference costs, and where the conferences are not all that useful (at least not ALA, our state conference is fantastic). I would join our state association, because (and yes, this is consumeristic) I do receive a value for my membership.

    I would more easily accept ALA not being a personal value to me if they actually advocated for libraries & librarianship. But they don’t, at least not in any significant, meaningful way. All they do is require people who wish to pursue this career to purchase a very expansive, useless degree.

    If anything, they have been a successful advocate for library schools. Lying to people about the “job shortages” is not advocacy. Forcing a Master’s degree for work that is largely not Master’s level is not advocacy.

  9. Stephanie… You write: “I would more easily accept ALA not being a personal value to me if they actually advocated for libraries & librarianship. But they don’t, at least not in any significant, meaningful way. All they do is require people who wish to pursue this career to purchase a very expansive, useless degree.”

    My post was partly an attempt to address this idea. ALA very much does advocate for libraries and librarianship in a meaningful way. The problem, evidently, is that what they do is largely invisible to most members. The work that ALA does is in a lot of areas, and it all relates to the independent judgments of a professional group. I don’t think librarianship would continue to exist as even a semi-profession without ALA. It isn’t just “status” that makes professional status something to fight for. It is autonomy. I think it’s important to appreciate that as professionals, we have a degree of autonomy in our institutions without which we wouldn’t be able to do what we do. We would not be consulted on the basis of our professional judgment. We would all basically be support staff under the direction of managers who would have no professional ethical code to guide them, serving only the interests of their institution as opposed to a larger social good.

    I am not saying that because of ALA everything is rosy or that everything that ALA does works in the direction of professional autonomy. But I am saying that a professional association is necessary if you want to have a profession.

  10. I believe I am hearing many concerns, and I will try respect people’s opinions about what they are concerned with about ALA, dues and economic issues, etc.– Certainly some valid points for debate have been raised on both sides. So — Why you should renew your ALA membership? Bottom-line is, no one is forced to join the ALA or renew. Yet, ironically, many that do not join still derive (or can derive) some value from the organization’s work — which is many faceted. Personally, I will pay and support the ALA for that reason in part. Does it offer value to me as a librarian and library supporter — absolutely. Is it a perfect organization? — no, but what is? –any organizatin can and should be improving or working to be better. And like any organization, it’s value to you is as much or more of how much you seek it out and use it, as it is what is offered or expected from simply paying a dues check. But, I only ask those unhappy with it (or aspects), to just consider, the ALA is our largest national library association and if you want to change any aspect of it (or help change things in libraries)– perhaps you will have more success becoming a member and getting involved. I do respect those that are out of work or struggling…but perhaps here too — people you meet, networking, information, services offered, etc. available via the ALA and may be a good investment here too — just a thought for consideration to help — not an argument. I hope for the best for anyone who has chosen to work in our great profession.

  11. As a Canadian librarian who started my career in the United States I will say this about ALA. It is flawed, as a membership organization it is largely run by a professional staff. Those staff work incredibly hard to keep very complex and in some ways dispersed initiatives aloft.

    My own national library association, the Canadian Library Association has become irrelevant to many of its members. I chose to return to ALA after returning to Canada because my national association offered little opportunity for involvement through committees or governance structures. As a result of this Canadian academic librarians have formed their own association in the past few years.

    I am fortunate to have employer support for my conference travel and I won’t diminish how that plays into others ability to attend. I advocated for virtual committee membership and I was happy when ACRL chose to create virtual Midwinter meetings and allowed for virtual members. Most of the committee work happens outside of conference already but I think that for me, in person meetings feed a profesional hunger for interaction with my colleagues. I also believe that it is critical that ALA Council continue to act as a professional body that debates and explores issues within librarianship. It is through these conversations that we can address the challenges facing us as professionals and as practicing librarians. State organizations can also serve this purpose and I understand how costs, family commitments, and other factors can make them more appealing.

    I will say as a professional I have always wanted to be involved in association work and I have found ways to do that at a local, state, and national level. If you feel that all ALA has done for you is require an expensive degree you don’t seem to understand that degree denotes an understanding of having skill sets and proficiencies along with an understanding of our professional ethics. I know that the employment situation is bad right now. Libraries are closing, having hours reduced and they are laying off staff. I would say that this would be even worse without the advocacy efforts of groups like ALA and state organizations.

    Please appreciate that while ALA is not perfect it is by far better than what you may find elsewhere. If we as professionals can’t support our professional associations they will cease to exist and I don’t believe that you will like this new reality.

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