On the ALA Membership Pyramid

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All Gizah Pyramids. Photo by Flickr user Ricardo Liberato c/o

“…i [sic] only renew [my ALA membership] out of a sense of professional obligation, and also because of the fear that i’ll [sic] put it on my resume and get busted as not being a member.” –c-dog


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.

44 Responses

  1. Many comments in this thread address the symptoms rather than the root cause of this problem, in my opinion.

    Advocate for higher salaries. Move forward on the issue.

    Active steps on this issue will increase organizational support.

  2. Rory Litwin

    I think the problem with this line of thinking is that it assumes many more librarians would like to be actively involved than presently are. I think the lack of involvement among members is mostly because of personal preference.

    By way of analogy… I support Barak Obama, but I didn’t want to put any time into campaigning for him. So I wrote a check to his campaign. It wasn’t exactly out of a sense of obligation that I did that, but because it was an easy way to lend support to a cause that I believe in. Also, I have the sense that they’ve got all the people they need and can handle who are volunteering time.

    To me ALA is a similar thing. I think most members pay dues not exactly out of a sense of obligation but because it’s the easiest way to lend support to something that they believe in. I don’t think ALA has too much difficulty finding the volunteers it needs to serve on committees. If a person wants to be involved at that level, I think the door is pretty much open, especially now with electronic participation options increasing. I think most members, though, don’t want to contribute time and would rather just contribute by paying their membership dues, voting, and being counted among the big number of members that gives weight to what ALA says and does.

  3. @Ellie– Thanks. Cost is what drives most people away, I know; for something that gets nearly $200 of my hard-earned cash, the only benefits I get from the ALA are the periodicals they send to me; I use them for my own research. (I think I might be the only one who actually reads them.)

    But in terms of networking and hiring, the ALA is essentially useless. Conferences and events are either insanely expensive in and of themselves, or they take place halfway across the country– and since I work two part-time jobs to make ends meet, flying to these things is out of the question. That’s why I’m so hipped on options like blogs and wikis and Second Life– they offer a way to interact and gain information even though my employing organization won’t support my attending.

  4. Carolyn, I’m not sure how salaries are the root of the problem. If I made more money, I might be relatively less annoyed at the price of dues, but it wouldn’t really make me feel better about ALA.

  5. Rory – I think that’s an excellent analogy. I don’t agree with it 100%, but I think there’s definitely a place for that type of “member” in thinking about the structure. I want to disagree about the door being open since a common complaint that I’ve heard discussed is how hard it is to get on a committee. The returning refrain is “just volunteer,” but you may be right that ALA already has more volunteers than it can handle. Hence Emily’s suggestions for creating more opportunities for involvement.

  6. Derik: If most librarians made at least the ALA suggested minimum, perhaps more librarians would be like Rory in writing a check to their favorite causes…be it a political candidate or ALA. A $200 ALA membership is significant amount of after-tax salary for many librarians. When ALA has a larger base of members (active or not), there is a greater probability of members using and purchasing ALA services and/or goods, whether virtual or hardcopy in addition to growing the organization. More members translate into lower cost of services.

    2007 ALA Financials

    The above link includes informative graphs and the following summary: “ALA continues to be strong financially, which allows it to be strong programmatically. There are always revenue and expense challenges though. The dues increase is adding revenue as expected, but membership retention and growth remain a challenge. Net margins for meetings and conferences have shown no growth over the last ten years. Conference expenses are increasing faster than revenues. Publishing has invested in new technologies and is still searching for the right business models to make them pay off.”

    If the salary structure remains low, why would anyone enter the field? Why would a low paid librarian take any kind of ‘risk’ to improve the library or library world? Working for the ‘greater good’ is admirable; societal norms draw a correlation between perceived value of work and salary. The ALA Allied Professional Association endorses a minimum salary for professional librarians of not less than $40,000 per year. Does this figure accurately reflect librarian salaries coast to coast?

    In addition, a higher salary structure would increase the perceived value of librarians and (hopefully) increase public support. I believe it’s a cycle…professions that have low salaries have low perceived value, so what is the motivation to pay more? And, as long as raises are doled out as a percentage of base pay, the low paid professions again get hit, i.e. 5% of $25,000 is certainly different that 5% of $75,000.


    Rory’s comment -“I think most members, though, don’t want to contribute time and would rather just contribute by paying their membership dues, voting, and being counted among the big number of members that gives weight to what ALA says and does.”

    Why don’t they want to contribute time? Is the decision dependent on the perceived value they hold for not only what ALA represents but also what it does. Do member expectations and participation levels affect organizational impact on local and national levels?

  7. Carolyn: My point is that having a better salary wouldn’t necessarily improve one’s desire to give ALA money.

    Salaries may be at the root of the issues you mention (perceived value of libraries, recruiting) but that doesn’t translate into liking ALA more.

  8. I suspect most librarians, who make below the ALA recommended minimum, would support an organization if they believed it was instrumental in getting more dollars into their pockets. Every librarian might not necessarily send ALA money, though the probability would increase as member librarians tie value to organizational support.

    More members increase revenue and in turn present opportunities for new reductions in costs of services i.e. conferences, publications, webinars and more.

    I truly enjoyed volunteering time to assist with the new ALA website. I found ALA HR staff to be very helpful in providing support documentation for my group’s EL project. I enjoyed sharing usability details with Rob Carlson and other ALA IT folks.

    I am passionate about recruitment efforts and to that end I ask…what will make you “like ALA more?”

    If ALA falls out of favor, what means of national networking will supplant it?

  9. I honestly have no idea what would make me like ALA more. Perhaps I am not properly indoctrinated into the idea of professional organizations or maybe contemporary methods of online interaction, networking, and sharing have eliminated a lot of the traditional roles of a ginormous professional organization. I’m just not seeing the benefits, beyond padding the resume. I wonder if there’s ever been a study on what members see as the benefits of the organization.

    I should say, that I do see the policy/govt advocacy function of ALA as important. Though I’ve researched it closely to see if it’s had much effect.

    If ALA falls out of favor it would be replaced by something new. Perhaps something more agile. I have no idea, it’s not something I’ve given a lot of thought to.

  10. properly indoctrinated – ouch

    I have been involved in community efforts that made a difference. Things change.

    I will give your study idea some thought.

  11. That indoctrinated comment wasn’t meant as an insult or anything. Just me amusing myself as I write.

    I do believe community efforts can make a difference. I do see I’ve a typo in my comment. It should say “I’ve NOT researched it closely”. That is, I know ALA does advocacy, I’ve just not paid attention to the outcomes.

    I think it’d be an interesting study to find out what people like. It could potentially work as a marketing effort (so and so loves ALA because…).

  12. Emily Ford

    I’ve been following these discussions and wanted to chime in again…

    Aaron: I really do like your expansion of the pyramid–this is a great complement to the framework of understanding I see. And I can’t wait for the unicorns.

    Rory: I think you’ve poked at another level that can be added to the model.

    Jenny: This model does exist, but only in the Student to Work program and not for those of us who have finished school.

    Carolyn: I am agreeing with Derik for most of this conversation. I have found myself using the term “indoctrinated” for ALA for quite a while and I use it earnestly. What’s more, a friend of mine and fellow Emerging Leader has referred to ALA as an “elitist monolith” and I quite fully agree. Yet I find myself participating in this structure–to a large degree of consternation. ALA may not be for me in the future, and I think this is what the organization is battling, a whole slew of librarians who don’t really want to participate in that “elitist monolith” or to become “properly indoctrinated.”

  13. Every individual brings a unique perspective to an organizational system. I agree with much has been said and actually was amusing myself to some extent in this thread. Presently I’m focused on NJLA but continue to pay my obligatory ALA dues. I am open to joining a productive committee/round table if you have a recommendation.

    While I was visiting Seattle, as an EL, I was indoctrinated into promoting the value of having fun in libraryland. I credit the fish mongers of Pike Place Market who continue to serve as my mentors for literacy advocacy.

    BTW-I plan to visit Woodbury Public Library at 1:00 pm this afternoon for the opening of the Smithsonian’s exhibit, Key Ingredients. Woodbury

    Public Library Key Ingredients Exhibit The exhibit should be fun, stop by if you need to get out more. Derik: Nice photostream!

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  16. Emily,
    I think that your post is an excellent reminder of the value of getting younger members involved in discussing the future of organizations such as the ALA and PLA. You raise several intriguing ideas for discussion. We in the Public Library Association (PLA) have seen strong support for increased online participation. Last spring the PLA membership voted overwhelmingly in favor of shifting many of the traditional PLA committees to online communities of practice (CoPs). A PLA Emerging Leader group spent time this past summer creating a plan to manage that shift, and out of their recommendations we created PLAspace. Launched last month PLAspace is still taking shape but the number of CoPs and registered users has grown rapidly, and it is all being driven by dedicated PLA members. At this time anyone – member or not – is able to create an account and participate, and I’d like to encourage you and every young librarian to do so to make your voice heard.

    Doug Dawson | Manager of Web Services, PLA

  17. Just to piggyback on Doug Dawson’s comments, PLA also presented its first-ever Virtual Conference in conjunction with the most recent PLA conference, and it was a huge success for a first-time effort. I testified before ALA Council to the fact that there was great demand from those attendees — by way of comments in the live discussions as well as evaluation comments — for more and similar events to be presented by ALA as a whole. I definitely feel like PLA is really making great strides in trying to implement the types of interactions and technologies that can enable members to make the most out of their professional experiences through PLA, and that it’s really hard, slow work making this type of progress within a large organization like ALA.

    Andrea Mercado, Co-Manager, PLABlog.org

  18. Emily Ford

    I’m so glad to hear of such efforts and successes for PLA. I recently had a conversation with some volunteers of mine who are public librarians who expressed the difficulty of being involved in ALA because of institutional support. The efforts that PLA is making for virtual attendance and by creating online communities of practice will certainly help professionals participate on national levels, especially those whose employers don’t support conference attendance except for once every few years.

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