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The Value of Professional Associations

A reader comment last week really made me think about the value of the ALA as a professional association. Here’s the comment in full:

And speaking of ALA, my professor just tried to sell my class on joining the organization. A summary of what she said:

You should join the ALA – not because it’s a nice thing to do – but because it is what makes us different from the people that work at the information kiosk at the mall. It’s a professional organization, and that’s what makes us a profession. It provides us with our standards and guidelines. ALA members are standing on the shoulders of people who came before in the last 150 years.

That’s quite an interesting argument if you start to pull out the pieces. Let’s pull out the pieces.

it is what makes us different from the people that work at the information kiosk at the mall

Is that really the only thing that makes us different from working the information kiosk at the mall? If that’s true, I find it a little sad. The pay, hours, and work are the same, but we have the ALA! Take that, mall information workers!

Though on the surface it may seem banal, and even derisive, it’s actually quite insightful. From what I can gather, based on the work a lot of librarians do, the difference between working at the information kiosk at the mall and working in a public library really is membership in a professional association. What does that tell us, though? That if there were an American Mall Information Association the information kiosk attendants could join it and be “professionals”?

There is, for example, a National Concierge Association. It didn’t start until 1998, though, so were concierges not professionals until then, or even though they have an association are they not now? Is that really all it takes?  I would imagine that many “professional” librarians would think concierges aren’t really professionals like librarians are, but based on my experience a good concierge needs to know a lot more than most reference librarians.

It’s a professional organization, and that’s what makes us a profession.

This is basically a circular argument. Why are we professionals? Because we have a professional association! Why do we have a professional association?  Because we’re professionals! But having a professional association isn’t what makes a profession.

It’s the education, training, skills, relationship to the public and each other, and various other things that make a profession a profession. If one had to attend school or be licensed to work at the information kiosk at the mall, that would be an argument for professionalization.

It provides us with our standards and guidelines.

Well, it provides standards and guidelines, but the way this is phrased (provided it’s an accurate account) makes it sound as if the ALA provides us with all our “standards and guidelines,” or even our most important ones. I doubt this is true, or that most librarians even pay attention to all the standards and guidelines the ALA spews forth. How many of you could name more than a handful of such documents that you’ve ever read? Or even one, for that matter, especially since library school.

ALA members are standing on the shoulders of people who came before in the last 150 years.

This one is a hoot. It’s an indirect quote of Isaac Newton: “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” (I wonder if the professor knew that.) The way Newton phrased it, it’s humbling and inspiring.

But the way it’s phrased here (and again, it might not be accurate) is “standing on the shoulders of people.” That’s not quite as inspiring. If I stand on the shoulders of people, I might be able to see a tiny bit further, but most likely I’d be so busy trying to keep my balance that I wouldn’t see anything but the ground. I want giants, darn it, and I’m not sure I’ll find them in the ALA.

Also notice who is standing on people’s shoulders. It’s not librarians, who after all are the professionals, but “ALA members.” Here again, it’s supposedly the association that makes the professional. The implication is that any librarians who aren’t members of ALA aren’t professionals and don’t get to engage in all the shoulder-standing that ALA members do. It also means that all those vendors and library friends who are ALA members are thus professional librarians, unlike those librarians who don’t join ALA.

The whole argument gets it backwards, and shows a lack of understanding for how professional associations actually form. The association isn’t what makes a profession, the association is what comes after an occupation has acquired the traits of a profession, things like shared knowledge, skills, and interests. The association then supports the profession that already exists, and serves as the gatekeeper to make the profession hard to get into and thus more desirable and lucrative.

I think it’s pretty clear the ALA has never done that. It’s sort of supported library service, and traditionally given librarians a place to discuss issues of importance to the field. However, these days discussion and professional development and participation can take place more easily on the Internet.

And the ALA has never functioned well as a gatekeeper. By creating low accreditation standards, they guaranteed that anyone with tuition money can get a degree somewhere. That hardly makes the profession exclusive.

So join the ALA or don’t join the ALA, but it’s not the ALA that makes librarianship a profession. If librarianship is a profession, then it’s the nature of the field and not its leading professional association.  To say otherwise is to say that librarians in AALL or SLA, or PhDs with no MLS serving as bibliographers who join an academic association rather than ALA aren’t librarians, and it’s just not the case.

The profession of librarianship has never been exclusively the domain of ALA members or ALA-accredited MLS holders. That’s just something the ALA wants you to believe.

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Comments

  1. Hans says:

    Thanks for your blog. You might enjoy this poem/video about librarians:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zkcWgeqFmm8

    Good luck!

  2. Tom says:

    If you’re squeamish about joining ALA because you think it’s heavyhanded, why not consider joining your state library association instead? You also get member benefits, networking opportunities, resumé filler. State associations do important state-level advocacy in these fiscally constrained times.

  3. Raynor says:

    The only reason to join ALA is for conference discounts. And they obviously know this, since the surcharge for non-members is so drastic that you might as well join.

  4. If I Had a Hammer says:

    “The profession of librarianship has never been exclusively the domain of ALA members or ALA-accredited MLS holders. That’s just something the ALA wants you to believe.”

    Sure, it’s not exclusive…but try to get a job that expects you to have that MLS from an ALA-accredited program with something less. Even if my nifty Masters from Mansfield might make me an ideal candidate for the local elementary school librarian post, if I’m up against someone from Clarion or Drexel, with their only-slightly-more nifty ALA-accredited degrees, where does that put me on paper, or better yet (and more realistic), where does it put me in relation to other applicants on one of those job portal sites?

    When I left my “paraprofessional” library job some years back, my ALA membership didn’t get me into a single interview. Should it have? I made a point to mention that I was affiliated with the group, after holding a pretty spiffy title. Now, some years later and without the membership, I still find it difficult to get back into “the inside.” If membership does mean something now, should it and why so now? If it doesn’t, then what’s the point?

  5. Steve says:

    I look at the ALA and SLA and have a hard time comparing the two. While the ALA divisions can be a fantastic resource (particularly godort), the ALA itself has been worthless to me. For comparison, SLA has a number of different divisions (far too many actually) that accomplish less of an outside change, but the organization itself provides real benefit.

    The SLA conference provides more sessions that go into considerable depth on topics (vs 12 on how awesome X library’s Second Life setup is at ALA). The organization provides regular educational opportunities through their webinars and classes…ones that teach me more than I would learn from spending five minutes on Wikipedia. Overall, I think SLA does a better job of defining the profession than ALA.

    I think the professor was bringing up the weak arguments that he did simply because it is hard to demonstrate what the value is of ALA to an individual. He might have had more success by arguing the value of some of the ALA divisions or SLA instead.

  6. Spekkio says:

    In retrospect, I probably should have posted what I did under a different pseudonym, being that I’m still in the class. And I do respect the professor – she’s actually a reference librarian and she teaches a reference course. And finally, she was speaking extemporaneously. I just want to make all of that clear.

    That said, my note was taken during the class just as she was saying it. But in the interests of accuracy, I took a moment to listen to the recording of the class so I could provide a transcription.

    “I’m not someone that would advocate being a member because it’s a nice thing to do. I’m advocating being a member because we’re a profession, and one of the things that keeps us – makes us – separates us from the person who is sitting at the information kiosk in the mall is that we have a professional organization, and we have standards and guidelines, and we have things that people for 150 years before us have thought about, and we stand on the shoulders of those people who came before, if I can borrow that particular image. To take advantage of that, you should be a member.”

    With that said…I found the statement striking because I don’t hear a lot of good things about the ALA and what it does. And $25 is a lot of money. You can do all sorts of things with $25. If it were a dollar a year, I’d say yeah, that’s cheap.

    For that matter, according to the ALA FAQ, you don’t even have to be a librarian to join ALA.
    “Membership…is available…to anyone who supports librarianship, including library patrons, supporters, and Friends!”

    I have to wonder how many professional organizations and unions will let just anyone sign up. I suspect it’s a rather short list.

    And for what it’s worth, my research indicates that the ALA-APA (ala-apa.org) is the actual professional association for librarians and library workers…which makes the ALA itself…an advocacy group, I suppose. Oddly, though, ALA has resources for job-hunting (getajob.ala.org, joblist.ala.org) – things I would think would belong under the ALA-APA banner,

    Maybe ALA needs to reorganize…because as it stands, looking from the outside in, it makes no sense.

  7. Kim says:

    Student rates are cheap, Spekkio. I joined as a student because it was cheap. ALA raises the rates every year up to year three post graduation for those who are lucky enough to find jobs. Sometimes I wonder if upper management in ALA is as a species so far removed from the rest of us that they don’t have any idea what most librarians make. I guess the thought is that you keep getting raises and are making more money after a few years of being employed, but that’s mostly impossible now. For some people salaries have actually dropped, and in public libraries at least, there have been many closures and reduced hours and services. You wouldn’t know this when it comes to the dues, however.

    I think a lot of people join in order to belong to one or two divisions, and others join on a year they plan to go to the conference. You can’t belong to any division without being an ALA member and each division costs. Once I hit the three year professional mark, meaning my costs would be several hundred dollars, I dropped my membership. ALA priced me out. I didn’t want to be a member of ALA without being a member of a couple divisions. I thought the divisions were doing good work but you couldn’t join any division without also having to join ALA.

  8. Laura says:

    I come to librarianship from teaching. As a teacher, I didn’t care about joining my district’s non-union education association and I didn’t care about joining the AFT either. What I did find invaluable was my state and national associations for social studies teachers. It kept me up-to-date, provided good resources, and the conferences were great opportunities.

    And the same holds true for me as a library professional. My state and specialized organizations are much more useful, provide the development and networking opportunities that I want, and are small enough to feel responsive. This might not be true in your area, but if ALA doesn’t meet your needs (and it doesn’t meet mine), you might want to consider other professional groups.

  9. dwarf says:

    Not very relevant, but I find Hal Abelson’s retort to Newton’s “giant” statement amusing and perhaps more reflective of the reality for many of us:

    “If I have not seen as far as others, it is because giants were standing on my shoulders.”

  10. Kim says:

    Agreed, Laura. I’m on several boards and involved with my state library association and another specialized organization within my region. I’d join ALA if it were more affordable, just to be involved with a few of the divisions. But once I hit year three as a professional, with no raises due to the Great Recession, ALA priced me out of re-joining. Fees go up every year, incomes don’t.

  11. Annie Linney says:

    Who was the prof who said that?

    If we start naming names, perhaps we can get some of them fired.

  12. Post Postmodern Librarian says:

    The ALA just called me to get me to renew my membership I told them no because I am switching fields to Urban Geography. I have joined the Association of American Geographers. I get two journals access to half a dozen sub groups and their materials etc for about the same price as the ALA. In addition AAG publishes a list of all grants and job opportunistic every month. never seen the grants from ALA. The thing I really like is the open call for presentations for dozens of meetings and conferences. Since June I have been invited to do a poster for a conference in Austria and will be doing a presentation at the AAG annual conference. The point here is the AAG provides more resources, is more open then the cliquish ALA and the opportunities for professional improvement are not reliant on who you know but what you are willing to do. When the ALA opens its doors to all its members not just those who toe the party line and focuses more on improving methodology and practices vs the party line then I would consider the ALA a professional organization.

  13. Midwest SciTech Librarian says:

    Proud ALA non-member 1998-present

    Though, I suffer from not receiving my personal copy of American Libraries *sniff*

  14. TeenLibrarian says:

    Why is joining the ALA so expensive? Do they realize how little we make?

  15. James says:

    >By creating low accreditation
    >standards, they guaranteed
    >that anyone with tuition money
    >can get a degree somewhere.

    Truer words have never been spoken.

    Someone finally talked me into joining the ALA this year. I’m not going to renew my membership. The reality is that I really get nothing for my money. My state association is far more useful.

  16. Drew says:

    When in Library School, my college sent out a student membership letter detailing joint ALA and State student discount. After a year, most will discover it’s worthless. ALA knows this; it attempts to sucker students to join so to get revenue. Most librarians are not members! I even wonder if being a librarian is even a profession? Most profession require licensing like with CPAs, lawyers, MDs, State licensed engineers, nurses, architects, teachers with credentials, and so on…The ALA can grow into a real professional organization- but the leaders are not willing….it’s a losers game as students think joining will help them get a job…it will not. Pay the annual due to the ALA with you unemployment checks. Suckers!

  17. Devil's Librarian says:

    When I read the original comment, I immediately wondered if I was in the commenter’s class. Though it wasn’t something my prof said, rather it was the argument from our textbook. And yes, the argument went something like, “All the other professions have professional organizations–American Medical Association, American Bar Association. We have a professional organization. Therefore, we are professionals!”