March 20, 2018

With Economy Sputtering, ALA Midwinter Attendance Dips Sharply


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Despite advance registration numbers that kept reasonable pace with last year’s figures, the total attendance at the American Library Association’s (ALA) Midwinter Meeting in Denver dipped sharply from the 2008 and 2007 meetings. As of Saturday, total attendance in Denver was 9850, including 7,689 registrants and 2,161 exhibitors, down from Philadelphia’s total of 12,223 last year, and 11,822, in Seattle in 2007. The number of advance registrants in Denver was 7,191, versus 7,668 last year and 7,728 in 2007. The most dramatic difference: just 498 on-site registrants in Denver, versus 2,288 in Philadelphia and 1281 in Seattle.

ALA executive director Keith Fiels, addressing the ALA Council at the meeting, said he wasn’t alarmed. He noted Philadelphia’s proximity to thousands of libraries, compared to Denver’s proximity to the great outdoors. “I think at this point, we’re very happy with registration at Midwinter,” he said.

With the nation’s economic struggles, library advocacy emerged as a key theme in Denver. Lynne Bradley, who directs the Office of Government Relations in ALA’s Washington Office, alluded to the swearing in of Barack Obama as a time of hope and opportunity. She acknowledged, however, that the country’s huge economic problems and competing priorities in Washington present major challenges for libraries as they compete for resources.

Kendall Wiggin, Chair of the Committee on Legislation, acknowledged that many ALA members hold high expectations from Obama’s 2005 speech to the Annual Conference. However, he noted, “I think [Obama] has tempered that when he’s spoken to the nation,” given the call for responsibility in the inaugural address. “It’s up to us to advocate for libraries, not just up to the leadership of ALA.” Wiggin also noted that much of the federal recovery funding will go directly to states. “Libraries of all types have to be on their radar,” he said. Stephanie Vance, who advises ALA on advocacy issues, pointed out that 76 percent of states have a budget gap and some 147,000 associations are lobbying in Washington.

Meanwhile, as with private investors and endowed institutions, ALA also reported significant endowment losses in the past fiscal year, down 24.1 percent.  However, ALA officials reported at the Midwinter Meeting, thanks to budget adjustments and some new sources of revenue, net operating income in Fiscal Year 2008 actually exceeded expenses more than in FY 2007. Fiscal Year 2008, which ended last August 31, left ALA with net assets of $34.4 million, compared to $33.3 million at the end of 2007. Three months later, however, net assets declined to $24.1 million, primarily due to endowment losses.

In the short-term, ALA has adjusted by reducing expenses, but continued losses in the endowment—which is not relied on for operating income—could cut into scholarships and awards—and the longer term remains a question mark.

On the positive side, ALA membership continues to grow, Fiels told the Planning and Budget Assembly. Also, the next two Annual Conference sites, Chicago and Washington, DC, typically draw good crowds. In 2010, two division conferences, for the Public Library Association (PLA) and the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), should also deliver revenue. However, Fiels acknowledged, “2011 then looks like it’s going to be really, really difficult.” And, he acknowledged, “if travel drops off to zero,” because of increased costs and lowered individual travel budgets, that could change the picture even faster.

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