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ALA 2009: Cui Bono?

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. Library Journal ALA Annual Conference News

Click here for more ALA 2009 Conference News coverage from Library Journal and School Library Journal.



  1. ALA ALA says:

    I have never go to ALA. I will never go…unless I get the urge to try to hookup through twitter (I am a young, straight, cute male librarian:) .

  2. Mr. Kat says:

    “What would such a decline mean for the profession?”

    Welll Duhhhhh!!!!!


  3. brokenspacebarsareapain says:


  4. another dude says:

    If you really are a young, good-looking, straight single male librarian (and aren’t arrogant, sexist, or a jerk) you sure as h*ll don’t need twitter to hook up. You just need to show up, smile and make eye contact. Yeah, yeah, I know – someone is going to say there’s no cute female librarians, we’re all just dreaming, etc. I admit the cute single female librarians are few and far between – but ALA is so huge that the odds are just good for guys who are reasonably good looking and not jerks.

    Conferences of state library associations in the south are actually better though, as the female public librarians are usually cuter on the average. Just an opinion though.

  5. ALA ALA says:

    Thanks another dude. I will check out state library associations in the south…lol! I went to SLA in DC and there were some really nice single female librarians who totally stood out. The DJ party made it so easy to meet a lot of them.

  6. got the MLIS, now what? says:

    As a member of the new generation of librarians, I have a hard time understanding the usefulness of ALA as a lobbying group. From where I sit, I see them doing very little for us in terms of government funding and social appreciation of what libraries provide to their city, state and country. While the ALA divisions are useful (the ACRL has provided lots of good info for someone who wants to go into academic libraries), I have a hard time wanting to pay basic membership fees IN ADDITION to all the division/round table fees for an organization that claims to stand up for our rights without much to show for it. I will doubtless have to join to access the job lists and other membership benefits, but it’s a tough sell when the money could be used for other things…like paying off my grad student loans.

  7. ALA is dead because smart librarians have discovered the future.

    You don’t have to waste thousands of dollars to travel to some lame convention center to trade ideas. That is the whole beauty of electronic social networking. From listservs, to blogs, to all other virtual get-togethers; smart librarians are connecting in much more timely and efficient ways.

    Go on, keep going to your precious conferences where you get sloshed on martinis and let your bun out with some rep from a book jobber.

    I would much rather stay at work, getting things done and advancing the profession while advancing personally and professionally.

    Thank you and have a nice day.

  8. nolajazz says:

    I hear you “got the MLIS, now what?” – I’m paying off those grad school loans that got me my “high paying library job” that didn’t even provide a cost of living increase this year. So there went my ALA membership (PLA, YALSA, & ALSC too). If ALA would stop acting like most of our libraries in the U.S. are all huge and tech crazed, realize that most librarians get paid a pittance, and reduced their fees a little, more librarians might actually feel like it’s worth it to join.

  9. Dances With Books says:

    Actually, if it is a the job list you want, “got the MLS…,” that is freely available on the ALA website. I tend to look it over every so often.

    I have never found the ALA to be particularly useful outside of the divisions in my areas of interest (Instruction Section, which is part of ACRL, a couple others), but the expense is simply not justifiable. It was not justifiable before the economy tanked, and it is much less now. As for going to the conference, some of us actually work for a living, albeit a very meager one. Heck, in our case here, they cut funding to the state conference, and it looks less likely to come back.

    Anyhow, it can’t all be that bad for ALA. I mean, a few of the gurus out there were all fawning over the fact that attendance to the conference itself was higher. So I am guessing between the well-heeled library administrators, the celebrity twopointopians, and some others who get paid to go, they still made quota, even if the membership is down.

    And that is fine by me. As I said, some of us actually work for a living.


  10. New MLIS - never ALA says:

    I don’t ever want to go to ALA. One poster said social networking works great. I have found that to be true. Tons of librarians on facebook that are friends with other librarians. Lots of librarians on Twitter. Just establish a presence. Highlight interesting projects that your library is doing or that you are doing. You will find that either a lot of people are trying projects similar to yours or that you are one step ahead of others which makes you stand out. Or post interesting news stories or articles in a timely fashion.

    Just my three cents.

  11. I belong to ALA in order to belong to my division, and was glad to hear that I can become involved online now since I can’t afford to attend the conferences regularly. This was my first ALA conference which was made possible because I could stay with relatives. My library paid my salary but didn’t pay anything beyond that so there is no way I could have afforded to go. Professionally, I found the conference valuable for connecting with old friends, finding out more about my division and about useful new resources that I’ll incorporating into programming. However, I ignored what was going on with the organization as a whole because it doesn’t seem to reflect what I do. I don’t understand why the organization meets twice a year since members have told me that much of the work is now done online. There seems to be a pretty big disconnect between the upper echelons and the rest of us regarding cost. Two meetings a year and a cost to join ALA, followed by the cost for each division is too much. If I had my choice, I’d just pay to be a member of my division. I don’t care what ALA has to say about gay marriage.

  12. another f-ing librarian says:

    ala annoys me, even though the annual can be a real shot in the arm if one chooses one’s sessions carefully. it shouldn’t *lower* our dues. it should be lobbying to raise our salaries so it can *raise* our dues. but as al says, it’s the american *library* association; not the american *librarians’* association. so there’s a built-in tug-of-war in the organizational goals. our institutions, after all, would like to keep us cheap.

    the other place where ala *really* falls down — to the detriment of both libraries and librarians, is in talking about us. it should be better at that, and it should teach us how to talk about ourselves and what we do. for now, as a group we tend to bleat more than actually talk — and we rely *far* too heavily on the voluntary suspension of disbelief. as in, “we’re important because we say we are.” not terribly effective. if anyone out there has any good, articulate, non-smartypants, effective stuff i could say to people, post it to your blog and tell me where your blog is. ’cause nothing i’ve thought of myself working.

  13. Can anyone think of a ‘profession’ which pays less than librarian, while requiring a minimum of five years of college and at the same time find want ads which ask for an MLS or, failing that, equilivant experience? What has ALA done for you lately?

  14. ALA has done nothing for me. Facebook, Twitter, and free listservs is all I need.

  15. Auntie Nanuuq says:

    “I would much rather stay at work, getting things done and advancing the profession while advancing personally and professionally.

    Thank you and have a nice day.”

    I’m usually not Snarky, but here goes…..Advancing “personally” at work in a library? LSHIWMP! No such thing!

    Oh my bad…sorry, I forgot all those “How to be a better person/supervisor/librarian” trainings we go to….Yah, that’s good for us “personally”….However I’d much rather evolve personally by taking an outside of Library yoga, meditation class or non-library cruise in order to develop my personal self.

    “If you really are a young, good-looking, straight single male librarian (and aren’t arrogant, sexist, or a jerk) you sure as h*ll don’t need twitter to hook up. You just need to show up, smile and make eye contact.

    Is this possible? If so, some of us older Librarians know more tricks and might be willing to share our knowledge, thus helping you “advance personally”! Bu Wa Ha Ha Ha!

    Ja, und ver mor fun too!

  16. NotMarianTheLibrarian says:

    You either are or aren’t a better person/supervisor/librarian. Some things cannot be taught because those who need the learning don’t think they’re bad people, supervisors, librarians, whatever. Sails right over their dim little heads. Reminds me of a mandatory sexual harassment session I had to attend once. It wasn’t the women doing the harassing, it was the men and not a one of the worst offenders “got it.”

    And AL=RK? Being willing to attend conferences actually confers brownie points and offers of advancement in some organizations. Thankfully I don’t work in one of those any longer. :)

  17. whining guy says:

    would lead to less lobbying on behalf of library interests

    Um, yeah, like the current lobbying has been effective in maintaining even level funding for libraries!

  18. “Can anyone think of a ‘profession’ which pays less than librarian, while requiring a minimum of five years of college and at the same time find want ads which ask for an MLS or, failing that, equilivant experience? What has ALA done for you lately?”

    I have always thought that (only) social workers have it even worse than librarians. But I don’t know about whether the “or equivalent” part applies with them.

  19. “Um, yeah, like the current lobbying has been effective in maintaining even level funding for libraries!”

    Also, the rise of social networking is cutting into ALA’s usefulness there too. It’s increasingly easy for librarians to be visible to their patrons and their greater communities.

  20. Libgrrrl says:

    I live in Chicago and didn’t go to ALA. Someone had to be at the desk while all the employees with seniority debated social issues. Nevermind the fact that we are understaffed to begin with. Sounds like it was a waste of money to me.

  21. I Like Books says:

    5 years of education? What I don’t get is people who take a library degree as an undergrad, and then an MLS as a grad. Those 12 extra classes don’t really build on the undergrad degree, and probably don’t teach them anything they didn’t already learn. If you need the MLS anyway in order to get in, I can’t see that there’s ever a reason to do library studies as an undergrad.

  22. Mr. Kat says:

    The undergraduate degree doesn’t have to be in LIS – but to get an MLS, you must have a four year degree. SO if you want to be a librarian, you need five years of college.

    The thing is, a real masters course of study takes two years.

  23. Techserving You says:

    My MLIS was two full academic years (16 courses) but I know it is anomalous.

  24. I don’t know if your degree is anomalous, Techservingyou, because I had a program that was also two years. My program (probably like your’s) was what you made it; it was possible to skim by, doing little. Those who did didn’t find jobs. In my opinion the AL has gone downhill — not anywhere near what he/she/them/it were before moving to LJ — yeah, I went back to read some of the early blog posts. I think I started reading this blog because it was on LJ and I enjoy Maureen Dowd of the NYT, seeing some similarities in the AL perspective regarding the library world. No longer, and I’m wondering if I’ll bother to keep reading at all. Professionally, I got a lot out of the annual ALA conference that AL mocks, wondering if we we attended the same conference at all. I was happy that I was able to attend for the first time, and will take what I learned and the valuable connections made to benefit the people the people my library is trying to serve.

  25. lifelonglib says:

    Yes, I went to Annual and yes, I really enjoyed it-it’s reinvigorating and validating and all of that. I do have issues with the lack of cohesiveness among the divisions (and the dismissive attitude-dare I say snobbery- some have toward others-are you reading this, all of you academics?). Also was disturbed at the person chosen to win the Robinson award given by PLA. Donna Nicely is someone who is consolidating school and public libraries-two institutions with similar basic philosophies but two totally different purposes and methods of patron service. I, as a former school librarian, would not feel qualified, without considerable further training to do the job of a public librarian. Does she really think a public librarian can do what a certified teacher librarian can?

  26. When I got out of library school in ’01, I was advised that it was important to be an ALA member in order to find a job — that I would essentially be excluded from hiring pools if I didn’t mention my membership. I don’t know if it was true or not, but that was the only reason I ever joined.

    In my current job, I think that half of the librarians aren’t members, and none of them really care.

    And as a married man, I shouldn’t seek out the sensuous pleasures of the annual conference. Besides, other than the alcohol and sex, what’s the point of going?

    So I don’t plan on renewing my membership.

  27. William says:

    Didn’t Leslie Burger solve these problems already with her Emerging Leaders initiative?

    I’m just sayin…

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