This is my last post mentioning the ALA conference for a while, unless I get around to announcing the winner of the Stupidest Program Title next week. We’ll see how my mood is.
It seems to me that the ALA is declining as a professional organization. In the short term, this is definitely true in terms of membership, which has declined a bit in the last year for obvious reasons. Not only are libraries broke – the big news from the conference I announced in my last post – but librarians are broke. Pay cuts, furlough days, travel funding elimination: these are all going to affect whether people come to ALA. Add to that the younger generation of librarians who seem not to benefit from ALA membership or attendance, and you’ve got the makings of a generational change that could significantly reduce the size of the organization. (I almost said "size and effectiveness," but that’s an open question.) What would such a decline mean for the profession?
The ALA would no doubt say that a decline in the organization would lead to less lobbying on behalf of library interests and the loss of the most prominent public voice on issues of information, reading, privacy, and all the other issues the ALA talks about. This is no doubt true. I’m not sure anyone listens to the ALA, and they sure don’t listen to the ramblings of the ALA Council, but it’s no doubt a prominent voice for American libraries. Plus they have those READ posters. So, lobbying, talking about libraries, and READ posters: these are the primary exports of the ALA.
But if the ALA wants to survive after the belt-tightening of the next few years and the generational shift that seems evident to me from glancing around the exhibits and meetings, it might want to consider not just the benefits American (public) libraries supposedly get from the ALA, but think more about the benefits actual librarians might get from ALA membership and attendance. I’ve been trying to list some benefits, but the list is pretty short. Here goes:
For academic librarians with faculty status, ALA participation is an easy way to rack up the professional development activities. Show up for a few committee meetings. Do a little work. Put it on the CV. This is a benefit of a sort.
For librarians who enjoy the idea of "contributing" something to the "profession," there might be some benefit. The divisions of ALA at least do some useful work and some offer publications and guidelines and workshops that can benefit librarians. Most of the librarians I know stay with the divisions reflecting their interest or institutional home, and couldn’t care less about the ALA proper. But the main impetus might be to contribute.
Then there’s the benefit of getting away from your library for a few days and talking in person to librarians all around the country. I have to say I find this refreshing and it helps give me a perspective on the problems and issues at my own library. It might, in fact, be the only personal benefit I get from ALA attendance, outside the good food and drink.
The question is, how many people paying their own way will go to an expensive conference for these benefits? I have a strange feeling that libraries cutting their travel funding now won’t be increasing it anytime soon. Why increase something if you’ve proven your staff can live without it? Just disregard the staff who are ready to kill people because they never get away from the library.
There’s been talk for years of having more "virtual" participation. If the ALA wants to save itself, virtual participation might be necessary. Virtual participants don’t come to conferences, but they do pay dues, and that’s something. I don’t see why anyone would want to be a virtual participant, since that misses the main benefits of ALA, but people do. It seems to me there are so many other ways to interact with other librarians virtually these days that ALA would be the most expensive and cumbersome. This is an organization that can’t even build a working website, so it’s hard to see how they’re going to facilitate a virtual fantasy world where librarians can interact as easily as in person.
I don’t have any suggestions, since I’m not sure what a lumbering organization like ALA can do to make sure its members feel like they’rebenefiting from attending conferences, but I sure hope they do something. I at least want the in-person conferences to last until I retire, so I can still hang out with my friends and blow off steam. After that, I really don’t care that much.
Click here for more ALA 2009 Conference News coverage from Library Journal and School Library Journal.