March 16, 2018

ALA and the Reunification of Librarianship


The American Library Association (ALA)’s burgeoning budget crisis and dip in membership show the group is having a tough time thriving as a multitype library organization. It might be easy to cast a net of blame across the tepid economy, the aging profession, even entrenched leadership in ALA itself. But we think ALA’s membership woes are caused by a lack of unity across librarianship, a problem that is reinforced by ALA’s organizational structure and too narrow publications. In the tradition of thinking such as Andy Woodworth’s “big tent” librarianship, we believe the leadership of ALA should be at the forefront of unifying librarianship, working to link our academic, public, and school libraries and librarians. Instead, we shudder as we see ALA working to reinforce silos that separate public, academic, and school libraries from one another, rather than bridges to connect them.

ALA membership figures rose almost 100 percent from 33,208 members in 1975 to 66,075 in 2005. Since that high-water mark in 2005, however, ALA membership has dropped 13 percent, a loss of over 8,500 members. That decline is contributing to a growing budget problem for ALA. Executive Director Keith Michael Fiels noted recently that publishing revenue dropped by 22 percent and that membership goals fell short of projections. Conference revenues are projected to decline this year in Las Vegas. Outgoing ALA treasurer Jim Neal reflected on its budget issues and noted that “ALA operates with a number of units which are income centers and others which are cost centers.”

ALA was founded in 1876 as a library association. In 1939 it began forming type-of-library and type-of-activity divisions, which were expanded in 1955. The development of standards for the various types of libraries exacerbated this disconnect by reinforcing the need for each type of library to respond to its respective standards. Today, that pulling apart continues as ALA divisions and their separate conferences focus tightly on the audience they are perceived to serve, rarely looking outside of their own comfortable walls.

Many universities are now adopting performance-based funding models, in which units are expected to generate enough revenue to cover their own expenses. If ALA were to adopt such a strategy, then its financially successful divisions would be self-sufficient. But what is the incentive for the successful division to remain in ALA when it could form its own separate association and no longer need to subsidize its less-profitable brethren? It’s an idea that has emerged in the past but is more and more a realistic alternative for financially successful divisions that already call themselves “associations.”

ALA could well face the dissolution of its membership into separate associations. Special libraries were at one time connected to ALA, for example, but have successfully forged an independent organization to address the specific needs of its members.

We need not risk similar secessions if ALA leadership can act to reunify our organization so that each member feels that the professional conversation they’re involved in overcomes any boundary of library type and speaks to the shared principles binding our profession. To reestablish itself as an association for all librarians, ALA must foster mechanisms that allow librarians and libraries to unite and share their common concerns. It’s not too late to the turn the trend around: there are ways we think the organization can create unity among members while also combating falling membership rates and declining revenue.

Cross-channel conferences

A glance at ALA’s 2013 conference in Chicago shows the walls among types of librarianship standing strong. Of the 253 major programs offered at that conference, only 11 (4.3 percent) were sponsored by more than one division. Academic librarians seem especially out in the cold, as there were no programs that were cosponsored by the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) and either the Public Library Association (PLA) or American Association of School Librarians (AASL).

This needs to change. At its conferences, ALA promotes the unity of librarianship when it addresses its key action areas in a multitype library context. At that Chicago conference, we were able to identify at least five programs that could attract a multitype audience. Two things became apparent in reviewing the rest of the programs at this conference. The process-focused divisions (Association for Library Collections and Technical Services, Library Leadership and Management Association, Library and Information Technology Association) were more likely to sponsor multitype sessions. Yet, most did not address issues beyond technical efficiencies. This missed an opportunity for communication among librarians of different disciplines. Also interesting, many library vendors could cut across type-of-library divisions in attracting customers. If vendors and exhibitors can appeal to everyone in the room, why should we expect any less of event programmers?

Planning for publishing

It’s not just conference scheduling that reinforces these silos—stovepipe offerings are also reflected in the recent titles published by ALA. “Type of library” books predominated, with a few exceptions in functional textbooks such as cataloging and reference. Several ALA journals do address the issues of different types of libraries at functional and technical levels but often without the bigger picture views that would bind those different libraries together.

ALA’s publications can be excellent, but, with few exceptions, they are either type-of-library specific (e.g., Public Libraries, College & Research Libraries, School Library Research) or are topic or service specific (e.g., Library Resources & Technical Services, Library Technology Reports, Library Leadership & Management), rarely providing in-depth treatment of the unifying key issues of the profession.

The faculty of our accredited LIS programs conduct an important percentage of library-oriented research, but there is little incentive for them to publish in ALA’s flagship publication, American Libraries, since it is not peer reviewed . We propose the creation of The Journal of the American Library Association, which would publish substantive articles and conference presentations spanning the various boundaries of librarianship and addressing ALA’s eight key action areas. ALA could use this to provide a mechanism to reconnect the different facets of librarianship under a single, unified, scholarly publication.

A shared foundation

In some ways, it’s not surprising that an organization of the size of ALA has been slow to evolve. The vast number of committees, specialized publications, and massive conferences that are the hallmark of the organization are not built for quick change. Many members are reluctant to leave familiar pastures as the library landscape shifts around them.

Moreover, as librarians are rethinking what their libraries are about, the answers they come up with often look different from library to library. Today, public librarians embark on innovation with Maker spaces, while academic librarians confront the reality of teaching information literacy to more students than ever before. School librarians, if they are lucky enough to survive budget cuts, are increasingly focused on Common Core curricular issues and the classroom.

But while it may look like they’re growing apart, different types of librarians still have common ground. We must identify those commonalities to build a more unified ALA.

Whether we work in a school, university, or public branch, librarians share a few core values. We value unfettered access to quality information. We share a belief that order is a necessary precondition for access. Inherent in the idea of access is diversity: we do not discriminate in the provision of service or in the provision of materials. We respect intellectual freedom and protection of users’ privacy. We act on these values by being careful stewards of what has been entrusted to us: the collections, the facilities in which the collections are housed, the services provided by staff. Thus, we value preservation. Librarians act both to preserve the past for the present and preserve the present for the future. Libraries are physical—and now virtual—representations of a community of inquiry in which people ask questions of one another, of data, of texts, and of images.

These values unite us and provide the solidarity we need to move together during the turmoil of a technological age that challenges many of our cherished principles. They separate us from all other professions, in turn helping to define our own. They are the things librarians of all stripes can agree on, areas on which we, and ALA, should focus in the future.



  1. I enthusiastically endorse creation of The Journal of the American Library Association. American Libraries once had footnotes and a gentle scholarship. It is now very thin, halved its schedule and does not unify the field as it once did.

  2. Stan Friedman says:

    Ironically, though special libraries “have successfully forged an independent organization,” the SLA has been dealing with these exact same issues.

  3. The reason I left is, I felt that ALA had exceeded it’s boundaries when it became “political”. For example, the time when there was a public reading of the Koran on their doorstep in Chicago, but never a reading of the Bible or any other books pertaining to any other of the many religions in America. If ALA got back to being about libraries and librarians, I would whole-heartedly join again, and this is the first movement I’ve seen toward this action. I felt ALA was not representative of me or my library, so why waste the money. Prove otherwise and you’ll get me back.

    • Christina says:


    • You do realise the Qur’an is one of the most defaced and banned books right? Not just in libraries, but also in bookstores? It’s a not a religious thing, it’s the right to access information thing.

    • YetAnotherUnderemployedLibrarian says:

      @Lisa Rabey

      Do you have any sources?

      How could it not be seen as a “religious thing”? This was ALA’s response to some attention-seeking troll “pastor” in FL who said he was going to have a Koran book burning. Rule 1. Don’t feed the trolls.

      ALA is quick to jump on whatever is in the mainstream newsmedia outlets just to prove that they’re still current and relevant; ie. Aaron Swartz.

    • Amen!

    • Or better, not reading ANY religious tracts? You are always going to offend someone. Why should we impose Christianity OR Islam?

  4. I join every other year to get the PLA conference discounts. The idea of unity between the various types of librarianship sounds great in theory. But I think the honest truth is that library budgets continue to be slashed across the country.

    When many libraries already have an anemic collection budget how can they justify paying membership dues for their employees or paying for travel/hotels/food/registration for a professional conference?

  5. Deborah Williams says:

    I would love to see a publication like the proposed Journal of American Library Association Libraries adapt to the changing needs of society and librarians learn on the fly based on those needs. Wouldn’t it be nice to share those experiences across all library types in one unified publication from a unified organization.

  6. I agree that there is much value in different types of librarians working together. (I’m active in a business librarianship section of NCLA that is split pretty equally between academic and public business librarians, and that mix of work environments and experiences has proven very useful to the group.)

    However, is there evidence that ALA revenue and membership are dropping because of the segmentation within ALA? I’ve heard folks say that they are members of ALA *because* of the value they get from ACRL, BRASS, PLA, etc.

    • Well, if you have to pay for a division in addition to ALA itself to get a lot of value, that prices out a lot of people.

  7. I’m not so sure the ALA declining membership is due to just the lack of unification. I think it’s also because the economy is down and membership dues are expensive, especially if one wants to also join some committees.

    • I agree. It get’s expensive when you join divisions in addition to ALA.

    • It gets expensive when you join divisions in addition to ALA. Excuse my grammar in the previous post. Maybe it’s time for some coffee.

  8. Steven V. Potter says:

    An important issue around membership is a point that we JUST discussed at the PLA Membership Committee meeting on Saturday morning. Whether you are talking about your local Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Club, or Library Association, membership organizations and associations MUST provide value for the members. If members cannot perceive value from being a member they soon become ex-members. This is very clearly seen with PLA and the “up and down” in membership numbers that correlate with the PLA Conference.

    The challenge is to create value. This is true for those pressed up against economic hard times. It is also true for new professionals. But, creating value is hard. Many of the traditional reasons that people joined membership organizations was to tap into a network. With social networks, it is easier to find a cohort online and you don’t have to join an expensive organization.

    So, what can the professional organizations offer in terms of value that can be universally appreciated and valued by the membership. I think if we can answer that question, then we can determine the best next steps.

  9. Christopher Kuechmann says:

    I have been a member of ALA for about 27 years. Yes, the costs do bother me. However, I feel that I am getting value from the publications that I receive, particularly from ALSC and PLA. I am also the only staff member with a Master’s Degree, ALA-accredited. Other places that I have worked paid my dues. Here they do not. I am working though to get this changed and hopefully this will change for next budget year beginning in October. Networking with other members also means a lot. I valued my participation in the International Book Fair in Guadalajara which has an ALA connection and support.

    Christopher Kuechmann
    Val Verde County Librarian
    Del Rio, TX 78840

  10. I’m cautious of jumping to the conclusion without supporting data that this lack of unification is connected to declining membership numbers. That being said, I’ve had this exact issue on my mind because of what is addressed at the end of the article. I do believe that now, more than ever, we need to focus on the values and principles that unite all types of librarianship. The traditional career ladder in which a young librarian picks a type of librarianship and then moves up through that position (possibly all within one organization) is still very much in place in our profession, but that’s beginning to break down in the face of collaborative efforts – and that’s a good thing. At my own academic library, for example, a DPLA project involves not just digital services but our archives and outreach through a local public library system. I strongly believe that we need more opportunities and more support for involvement in groups that span library types, not just because it unifies us as a profession but also because it prepares us to think innovatively about the future of our profession.

  11. Christian Esquevin says:

    ALA reflects libraries at large in its divisions by specialty. Coming from a public library world, virtually the only time I interacted with academic librarians was through LAMA (now LLAMA). Even locally, I only have a relationship with one of the State University libraries because of a past relationship with an ALA colleague. So there’s more than just changing ALA if we want to bring down these divisions.

  12. I stopped being a member of ALA years ago because the organization didn’t represent me. I don’t work in a library. I work in government contracting information centers. Why should I play for the membership, receive a journal that is not useful to me, etc., etc..?

    I also feel that the organization was too slow to respond to Google back in the 1990s when Google staff announced that they were going to classify information to be accessible to the public. At the time. I thought, isn’t that the job of librarians? Not computer programmers, please! I So ALA didn’t address that at the time. Maybe it has since but I don’t know of it. The profession of librarianship has been pushed out of the way by people who can search for themselves, obtain their own materials and so on.. We became obsolete and therefore don’t need an organization. Pretty grim.

    • Google has not replaced librarians. How often does simply searching in Google find you real information you could put in a paper for school? All the top links are paid ads and wikipedia.

  13. I’m an academic librarian. The reason I dropped my ALA membership is not because of lack of unity, it’s because of too much unity. I don’t want to have to pay ALA to be a member of ACRL. ACRL was of value to me, but not enough to make the cost of ALA dues worth it. None of my colleagues at our institution are members, either, for exactly the same reason.

  14. Valerie Horton says:

    There are journals that are attempting to be inclusive of all types of libraries, look at Collaborative Librarianship – It’s entire mission is to bring libraries together.
    The Journal of Library Innovation also doesn’t have silos.

    Maybe the question to ask is – why weren’t these publication created inside ALA? Maybe ALA shouldn’t be waiting for journal editors to come to ALA, but should be reaching out to what is already happening in the field and using collaboration as a tool to help break down the silos in our profession.

  15. Cost is a huge factor. I can’t even join ACRL without paying the hefty ALA dues first. We have to self pay all of our professional memberships and for me it just hasn’t been a good value for the money. Customer service isn’t that great and I’ve given up trying any type of webinar because half of the time they don’t work. Don’t have those problems with other providers. While we thought it was funny because our stapler does die all of the time, this type of article doesn’t do much to help our professional image if we want to be taken seriously. Certainly, it doesn’t warrant the membership dues!

    • Brenda Braham says:

      Absolutely it is cost for me. I only belonged to ALA when I was a student many years ago. When your first job pays $22,500, you can’t afford the membership. I have always felt the annual cost was too much. Why not lower it and see how many new members you pick up?

  16. Many of the points in the article are valid; there’s history there, where the SLA group started and see this list of organizations, .
    Many states have organizations who try and struggle at times to serve all types of libraries.
    No one single agency is likely to handle the “serve all” needs — publications, conferences, meetings, etc. though ALA’s structure does provide much of it now. A mega-forum of leadership across all the organizations might work as a body of professionals to speak out and focus on selective issues impacting all libraries. Some like a board or panel that has the Directors/Leaders of the other bodies as members. Might work with today’s tools and platforms.
    I still don’t think blaming ALA for “failing” somehow to bridge all types of libraries successfully in the U.S. is a valid point.
    *Speaking only for myself*
    Michael aka DrWeb

  17. Sue Searing says:

    Another journal? You can’t be serious! When UlrichsWeb lists over 700 peer-reviewed journals in our field, another one will just add to the information overload. ALA needs to get a better handle on the welter of information it already publishes in print and on its website.