Blatant Berry Bottom Line

In leafing through the issue of Library Journal from earlier this month, the latest John Berry article made me sit up in my seat. Entitled “Half Way to ALA”, he discusses the true cost of conference attendance in terms of dollars and (more importantly, in my estimation) professional advancement.

As to the first part, the financial estimates that Mr. Berry tosses out ring true to me. Even in taking transportation out of the equation (Boston and Washington DC, the locations of the past Midwinter and Annual, are within driving distance for me), the sum total of hotels, meals, and other expenses puts it easily well over $1,500 for an attendee. While some of my friends have worked out ways to save money by sharing rooms or seeking alternative housing venues, the other costs still remain the same and leave it hovering around $1,000 to attend. Not exactly small change by any stretch of the imagination.

The more important and salient point that Mr. Berry references in his piece is that of the cost of professional development to younger librarians. The statement made by Mr. Berry is that the conference is attended by those who get the least use out of it: directors, top management, and others who are well established and well compensated through their position. It creates a ‘generation gap’ in which the new librarians are generally shut out of the professional development opportunities that would benefit them the most in their nascent career. I can’t illustrate it in terms other than horticultural: when you plant something new, you take care to make it grow. You give it water, ensure that it gets the right amount of sun, fertilize the soil to provide essential nutrients, and protect it from predation and temperature extremes. This is no different than the ideal treatment for our up and coming librarians in providing them with the professional development and networking opportunities in order to create a stronger and smarter profession.

This is not meant as a vilification of the older generation of librarians. I’m certain that there are some that would consider the benefits of compensated attendance as a perk of their position and their work to reach such a place. Nor is there an easy answer for providing the financial support that would be necessary to allow young librarians. You’d have to be living under a rock for the last year to not know about the current state of library budgets. This puts some library vendors in the same boat with us as their revenues are partially married to our own expenditures.

The question that this post leaves in my head is this: what are the options that remain for younger librarians to attend conferences? In attending ALA annual this year, I heard a raffle over the convention loudspeaker giving away trips to the conference next year. That sounds nice, but it doesn’t specifically address young or new librarians. I know ALA has a list of travel grants and scholarships, but that helps a handful of librarians (and I see one of the travel grants is not available due to lack of donors). Not exactly overwhelming, but I have not given the subject a rigorous inquiry.

The thought did cross my mind: what would it take to someone to sponsor someone like myself to attend a conference? Could I wear one of those NASCAR jumpsuits and sell advertising space on it? Could I sell sidebar space on my blog? Endorsement deals? Booth appearances? Appear in advertisements? What would it take for someone to put up the money that would pay the way to attend?

I’d wonder what people thought about ‘selling out’ (either for me or themselves) and what would be an offer they couldn’t refuse. I’m not sure what would be the line for librarians. I have a feeling there is a strict adherence to objectivity even when none is called for. I’d like to hear from people on this, so please leave a comment with your thoughts.

(And if anyone is looking to sponsor a librarian, I’m all ears for your offer. I think I’d look decent in one of those NASCAR jumpsuits.)

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You should also be aware that many cities, such as the one I work for, only allow Department Heads to travel. In fact, recently we were informed that nobody is allowed to travel out of state. The only way to get around this would be to get the foundation to pay.

Are the talks from the conferences available online and available to all after the conference is over? Though this is certainly not the same as attending in person, this would go a long way toward filling the gap.

Does the ALA do anything to make virtual attendance easier or more fulfilling such as establish internet "chat rooms" and/or forums for each talk?

If the answer to these questions is no, then why the heck not? It is the twenty-first century. If the ALA refuses to provide such amenities then perhaps some young, technically oriented librarians can organize their own "virtual conference" where even the speakers do not have to travel to any specific location. There are software packages and services that allow people to remotely attend classes and lectures. All it would take is for someone to organize the speakers and get the software set up and promote the conference.

I was speaking with a professor colleague of mine recently who was asking me about my own conference attendance options. When I told him that total conference travel costs for most library conferences are well over $1000 (with registration fees usually hovering around $500, the costs stack up pretty quick), he seemed shocked. His own travel for Athletic Training related conferences is nowhere near that expensive.

I had the opportunity this year to attend SLA in New Orleans, but only because I received a travel grant. And then there were still another few hundred dollars on top of that. I've been a member for almost 5 years, and never had the opportunity to attend an annual conference. I realize that many of these conferences are the main money makers for the organizations, but it does put a hurting on those of us newer to the profession without the salaries to pay out of pocket for annual travel (I actually had one more mature SLA member tell me that if I couldn't afford to come to the annual convention every year, I didn't know how to manage my money. I didn't really let this person think that for very long). I like the idea of virtual conferences; however, they do not compare to an in person experience, no matter how good the interactive elements are. I tell you what, now that I've been to one conference, I'm already trying to scheme and plan and save so that I can go to another. Perhaps the best thing to do is figure out a way of getting the most new professionals to attend conferences in the first few years of their careers so they can see the value of attendance in the future (and get us all pay increases).

I'm with Andy. I'd be more than willing to wear a jacket covered in EBSCOHost or OCLC logos if it meant free or reduced conference attendance :-)

Thanks! If I see someone else there looking like they are on their way to a race, I will stop you and say hi! =P

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