ALA rhymes with “Pay”

Submitted by AndyW on Tue, 12/22/2009 - 01:17
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In the latest issue of Library Journal, there was an article by John Berry that caught my attention called “ALA MidWinter Preview 2010: The Price to Participate”. In particular, there were a couple of passages at the beginning and at the end of the article that stirred something in me.

From the beginning:

While the library economy continues its downward slide, the cost of attending the American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter Meeting seems as high as ever. That is the price of professional participation. These days it seems a bit too high and tends to limit involvement in the old association to librarians in the higher echelons of the field. Many of them are subsidized by their employers, but the young from the lower ranks are not.

And from the end:

It does cost a lot to participate in and to attend conferences like ALA's Midwinter Meeting. You must decide for yourself whether you can justify it as part of the price of being a library professional. While few resent that many in ALA's higher echelons are subsidized for their participation, people in librarianship's lower ranks need more help with the costs of conferences. If you find a job during Midwinter, or learn new skills and make important professional contacts, it will be worth the price. If you meet your spouse or lover, even better. But for the young in our field, the price of professionalism is too high. It is time to seek ways to make participation much more affordable. If you go to Midwinter and can afford it, take a young librarian to lunch or dinner and help a little with that process. We'll be in Boston, and we plan to do that, too.

(Emphasis mine.)

Mr. Berry has struck upon something that has been lingering on my mind since the ALA annual convention back in the summer. I don’t understand how an organization which is actively seeking to recruit young librarians would create a (literal) paper barrier between themselves and the demographic they so desperately want. They even formed a group called the Young Librarians Working Group (formerly the much better named Young Turks Task Force, but cool fun names don’t seem to survive when there is a better bureaucratic sounding more politically correct name out there) to address the issue of attracting young librarians. And in one of their discussions, a commenter spells out that he is “super bummed” at the expense of the conferences. From both online and offline discussions, it’s the same theme from those I’ve talked to: it’s pretty damn expensive for a nebulous return. When you have people plead with you not to join because of this when you tweet about it in passing, then the organization has a real problem. But, like Mr. Berry’s article, the expense is like the weather: people complain about it all the time but no one does anything about it.

So, here’s a potential radical solution: give away new memberships.

Even drug dealers and web tool creators know that you can give the first dose of a product away for free if you know (1) your product is good and (2) they will come back for more. Sure, it won’t solve the aforementioned nebulous benefits, but it will bolster membership numbers, conference attendance, and organizational reach. The idea would be to bring in these new members and show them the benefits of ALA membership (though they may want to work on the list of personal membership benefits; first, it takes ten clicks to get to the page; and second, most of the benefits are being emphasized are monetary in nature.) I’d also waive the first year’s section fees as well. If you want people in and active, remove all the monetary barriers for participation.

And if the idea of free memberships still bugs anyone, consider this passage from a blog post on AL Inside Scoop:

ALA does important work. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be here. But ALA is its members, and we the staff and member leaders need your support, at whatever rate you can afford, in order to do that work. If you can afford zero dollars, your moral support matters too. I’m curious about what else ALA should be doing to strengthen its value to members who are going through a job crisis, and I welcome your comments.

Even though the post strangely answers the concern about ALA job hunting benefits by stating that there is cheaper rate for joining (an eye rolling attempt at consoling), it does show a willingness within ALA to consider a limited membership waiver. Anyone in retail marketing can tell you that, once you get the people into the store, you can pitch any or all of your products to them once they are there.

This is certainly not a silver bullet for the overall monetary issues that young or poor librarians face for ALA event costs, but I think it is a step in the right direction. A structured tier system for membership and section fees for the second year and beyond would also make inroads towards the retention of new members. I’m sure there will be some grumbling about this kind of solution, but unless there is a radical change of course, there will be very few people left to grumble to. Even now, as a non-member, the benefits of ALA presented to me do not exceed what I am able to do with Facebook, Twitter, and a bit of social aptitude. As such, for me these free tools are way ahead of an organization that I would have to pay $65 just to get through the proverbial front door.

I will confess that, even with free memberships, I’m not certain I would be interested in actually paying to join ALA. The complexity of the organization is staggering on a level that would make the Architect of The Matrix slightly confused. While members would argue with me that things are happening and moving, I just don’t see it as an outside observer. I can justify my membership with NJLA to myself because I can actually see the organizational machine in motion. If I don’t feel like something is moving, then I’m not going to hang around. Perhaps I am the product of my generation, but I don’t have time to hang around while people spending time discussing about the type, number, and colors of their ducks rather than getting them in a row. So long as my ideas have legs, I want to keep them moving.

I certainly hope that the monetary aspect of ALA participation gets serious consideration, actual discussion, and reachesd a definitive decision. I fear that it will actually get bogged down and swallowed up in the cogs of a dysfunctional organization slowly marching its way towards the sunset. I’m not sure this will happen, but it is a distinct possibility based on what I have heard and observed for myself. If all else fails, hopefully, at this coming Midwinter, someone will recognize me from my Facebook or Twitter picture and take me out to lunch or dinner.

Now there’s a benefit that I can get behind.