By Emily Ford
Membership in the American Library Association means professionals are bound together by the tenets of librarianship. Technically, this means we commit to these tenets in the form of dues payable to ALA. Being a recent library school graduate I am new to ALA membership as well as organizational involvement. However, I find that the previous statement points to perils inherent within ALA that could, if not addressed, lead to the organization’s downfall.
This is not a problem that has gone unnoticed by many within the organization. This year, I was part of the ALA Emerging Leaders program–a program intended to create more active ALA members and participants. In this program six Emerging Leaders projects centered around membership recruitment and retention issues within ALA and its various divisions. Other membership and participation initiatives include current ALA president Jim Rettig’s member participation initiative, not to mention the New Members Round Table (NMRT). Drawing on my Emerging Leaders experience, I would like to further examine ALA membership structures and provide suggestions that will help to topple this perceived “professional obligation” of ALA membership. We need to create an inspired and invested community of librarians and professionals who will feel proud to be an ALA member and to serve their organization.
In order to understand my suggestions, it’s important I provide some background on the current ALA climate and membership. There seem to be three general categories of ALA members, in the form of a pyramid. The base level, level 1, consists of those who pay dues and who have minimal investment in ALA as a professional organization; the middle and smaller group of individuals, level 2, consists of those who pay dues, attend conferences and are nominally to marginally involved in the organization; and the tip of the pyramid, level 3, consists of those who pay dues, belong to divisions and serve on committees. As I understand it, the shape includes the largest amount of members in level 1 and the fewest amount of members in level 3.
The basic problem with current membership and participation initiatives is that they do not target the largest population of ALA members, level 1. Members in level 1 are those who are most apt to say they are “professionally obligated” to pay their dues. Instead of bringing the movement to members, initiatives like the Emerging Leaders program, Jim Rettig’s “Craigslist of opportunities for members to get involved in ALA” and the NMRT are initiatives that pro-active, motivated individuals will seek out. If we were able to mobilize level 1 ALA members by bringing community and participation to them, we could create a larger sense of community investment as a whole and dispel those attitudes of membership as “professional obligation.” Over time, this model of community investment would lead to a flattening of the ALA membership pyramid—changing the shape of ALA membership into one that is a globe of overlapping and active communities. In order to create this membership model, ALA, its members and leadership should investigate how to involve level 1 members in association activities and thereby create an organization comprised of a richer and more diverse professional community.
The financial membership model of ALA creates a certain attitude among members. Their investment in the organization is only as important as the amount of their check. Instead, ALA might consider adopting another membership model that incorporates service to the organization as a stipulation of membership. This is the model of both the National Honor Society and Beta Club. Requiring members to serve their professional community can only create a stronger community that better represents its largest constituent base. Examples of this service might be acting as a guest editor for a portion of American Libraries or other journals published by ALA divisions, writing op-eds for journals, or otherwise serving ALA in capacities, as they are able. Changing the parameters of ALA membership is something toward which we need to strive. While this service model may not be feasible to adopt for a good many years, there are other issues that we can address more directly.
Cost is a major deterrent for the increased involvement of many level 1 and level 2 members. Paying membership dues to ALA and its numerous divisions can be quite expensive. This deters individuals from serving on committees (one must be a member of a division to serve on a committee of that division) and contributing to ALA’s general body of work (one must also pay conference registration and travel to serve on committees). New librarians struggle with student loan debt and as a result do not have room in their budgets for personal memberships. They may also work for libraries affected by slashed budgets and national policy decisions and funding practices. In response to these conditions many libraries are no longer able to support their employees’ professional membership costs. This means that individuals must use their personal funds to pay for membership in ALA and its divisions. Coupled with travel costs to conferences, it is simply financially unfeasible for library professionals to participate on a higher level than they do (even before recent economic collapse).
A simple way to make conference attendance and professional development easier for those who cannot afford to travel is to create webcasts of conferences and workshops. We are in the age of virtual conferences and seminars, and they have proven successful. It should plain and simple be the standard that ALA conference programs be made accessible virtually. If pricing is an issue, ALA might consider creating a price structure for “virtual” attendance to ALA conferences. Members and their employers would be better able to afford this model of conference attendance and involvement. If ALA were truly committed to including level 1 members, then it would create and implement ways for individuals to engage virtually by using a combination of videocasting, chat programs, message boards, and other participatory and collaborative applications. Because of their ability to participate in professional programs and conference activities, virtual participants will feel as if they have more stake in ALA than they did before. Consequently, we will see these members begin to actively seek other avenues of participation with ALA.
The level 1 ALA constituent is not the only constituent that ALA should reach and better utilize to create an organization that reflects a community beyond “professional obligation.” There are level 2 participants who attend conferences. The next logical step would be for these members to engage in service opportunities such as sitting on a committee or hosting and presenting at professional programs. One way for ALA to show its commitment to these level 2 members would be to mandate a seat on every ALA committee for a new member or conference attendee. Soliciting member service via ALA governance and policy will show that the organization as a whole is committed to the needs of new members, member recruitment and member retention.
However, once a member begins to serve ALA as a committee member cost can still be an object. For level 2 members to become more engaged and sit on committees this object must be addressed. Most ALA committees require members to attend two conferences each year. Instead of mandating in-person attendance for committee members at both Midwinter and Annual Conferences, shouldn’t we be encouraging the use of those collaborative tools and technologies (chat, wikis, web sharing applications, online conferences, etc.) that we as professionals tout? If ALA were to move to a model of mandatory in-person committee participation at one conference a year, costs would be cut in half for committee members, thereby enabling more new professionals to better afford conference attendance and committee participation.
Conferences themselves need to adopt new models to attract greater participation. In addition to the mix of meetings, presentations and workshops that comprise ALA Midwinter and Annual meetings, hands-on professional service opportunities would enhance conference goers’ experiences. Instead of passively sitting in a conference session, librarians and conference attendees could engage in service learning workshops or service challenges. A group of professionals would be tasked to create a body of work to serve the organization or create a professional development tool in one day. The service could be the creation of a new resource guide, a new web portal, or a new best practice statement. Whatever the participants created, it would be a piece of professional work as well as enable professionals to network with others in their areas of interest. Producing a body of work will be more professionally satisfying to some conference goers, and will give a diversity of participation and service opportunities that will appeal to a larger audience.
New members will not be recruited nor will members remain active within ALA unless the organization as a whole engages in dialog about how to remain a viable, interesting, and diverse professional community. We need to advocate for and attempt to implement membership model and policy changes within ALA. These changes will encourage greater member investments in their organization and help to reshape the ALA pyramid into a globally shaped membership that is dedicated to ALA’s success. This will make our association a more diverse and stimulating organization of which we can all be proud.
We need to think creatively and to create programs and workshops that embrace virtual participation. We need to break the mold of traditional ALA membership. The next time you attend a conference or a committee meeting, bring up these issues and ask questions. Propose and implement pilot service projects at a conference and publish your successes and challenges. Help to create new models of participation and share them with your professional community. The more experimenting we do at a grassroots level the more we are able to best find the models of participation, service, and governance for a sustainable and successful ALA. By continuing to adopt these changes in ALA, the membership pyramid will eventually flatten and the globally shaped ALA membership can form.
Thank you to Kim Leeder, Jami Haskell, and Lori Shmulewitz for reading several versions of this post. And thank you to my Emerging Leaders group members, Kim Leeder and Nicole Cavallaro; and my Emerging Leaders project mentors, Joseph Yue and Mary Pagliero Popp for forcing me to think about these issues.