Revisiting the ALA Membership Pyramid

Photo by Flickr user Neil Burrows (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)



Almost three years ago, Emily Ford wrote a post on ALA’s membership pyramid.  In this post, she commented on the need for the American Library Association to engage people she called Level 2 and Level 3 members – those who paid dues to ALA but who were not involved or only marginally so.  She argued that failing to do so would lead to the organization’s irrelevance and downfall.  The topic generated 44 comments, second most of all of our posts to this date – and it did so in the opening weeks of the blog.

The comments included a response from then ALA president-elect Camila Alire, who acknowledged the issues in the post:

We hear you! We have heard your concerns from many other folks. We know that we have to stay relevant to folks coming in as new members and members for less than 5 or so years. We know we have to think/act out of the box.

Don’t give up on ALA. We are working on it — but we are such a “process” organization that it is taking more time then we would like to admit.

Alire followed through on her promise and established the Young Professionals Task Force whose charge was to look at issues of engagement and retention with young professionals.  The initial work of this group resulted in a list of recommended actions for the Association to take.  The list included some concrete steps to more fully engage young members.

The Task Force presented its recommendations to the ALA Executive Board in hopes that they would spur action on behalf of young members.  What happened was revelatory for the group, and reflection on the events that followed provides a road map for not only young members to get involved, but for all Level 2 and Level 3 members to participate in changing an organization to meet their needs.

ALA Doesn’t Have a Magic Wand

ALA’s Executive Board did not take long to respond to the Task Force.  In short, they told the Task Force that it was asking them to endorse several recommendations that they have no ability to endorse. The recommendation would either have to go to the policy committee of ALA Council, or to Divisions and Roundtables. Executive Board couldn’t simply make these recommendations happen.

In a column for American Libraries, former ALA president Jim Rettig echoed this message:

With all due respect, if ALA members of any age group are waiting for a “magical entity” named ALA to bring about change of the sort and at the pace the Young Librarians Working Group and many other members want, my experience over more than three decades indicates that they will have a very long wait.

ALA is us—change for its members comes through our initiatives. The most helpful thing ALA can do is provide an environment in which members can continuously refine and redefine what participation means—an environment with not just appropriate tools, but also with enticing incentives. The best thing members can do is use that environment to get what they want out of ALA. A little rebellion is a medicine necessary for the sound health of our Association.

To put it bluntly, ALA is not your mom.  Each member is responsible for using what resources the association provides to shape the organization into something worthwhile, and from an initial look  at the association’s website, ALA (the BIG ALA, not its divisions) offers many opportunities for individuals looking to engage with the association and its work:

This list of resources alone allows motivated members (even those without any financial support) to take legislative advocacy action on a national or state level, discuss copyright issues with other librarians and copyright policy experts, and develop online communities around topics of interest or need.

With additional money and time, members get access to discussion groups and social events at the conferences and the ability to participate on the ground in national legislative action.

Successful networking and a body of professional work will earn members the potential to run for office, increase members’ chances of getting involved in committee work, and having connections to draw upon when looking for jobs.

There isn’t a shortage of opportunities, and at first glance, ALA is providing the environment in which members can connect and make the association worthwhile.  Are these opportunities enough to make ALA worthwhile?

So What’s The Fuss?

Despite these opportunities, we still see people who believe the association is irrelevant, has a closed and elitist structure, and provides low value for the amount of investment ALA requires.

The Young Professionals Task Force responded to Rettig’s column by agreeing that ALA members are the drivers of change and value in the association, but also reminding readers what it is like to be new:

To new members, who are still trying to memorize acronyms and study the organizational chart, and who have never spoken to anyone in a position of power within the association, being an ALA member feels like being a guest on a cruise ship: you’re just along for the ride.

New members’ lack of knowledge and information is a barrier to participation in the association, even for those motivated to get involved in association work.  In a recent research article titled “New Kids on the Block: My First Time in a Political Community,” Dudash and Harris uncovered that political involvement is partly defined by “’having knowledge’ or ‘having information’ about politics” (p. 475). In the instance of politics, involvement means casting a vote for a candidate and engaging in discourse about issues.  In associations, it’s not entirely different – we also have elections and engage with others to learn or teach.  Armed only with cursory knowledge of the association, new ALA members will have trouble finding meaningful ways to engage beyond attending a typical conference program.

Going back to Dudash and Harris’s political research, we find a telling example of how young people make connections and get involved in supporting a cause or a person:

I wasn’t an Obama supporter, none of us were, but we went to this house party for Obama. We felt like we were a part of the party, even though we weren’t supporters. It made us want to be supporters. Even a house party made us feel a part of something. (p. 476)

The party led to an engaged group of individuals more likely to investigate issues, take action, and participate in the political process.  How can we help new members of ALA – those without a complete picture of what the association is and does – get to a point where they feel like they are a ‘part of something’ and the want to be involved in making the association better?

#makeithappen is How to Make It Happen

The only comment posted to the Young Professionals Task Force’s response to Jim Rettig was by JP Pocaro of 8bitlibrary.com, plugging an unofficial ALA Annual Dance Party in New Orleans.  It’s a way for people who enjoy dance parties to ‘feel a part of something.’  Even with no stated professional purpose, it serves one.

It is easy for people who have been members of ALA for a long time and whose schedules are filled with meetings, discussion groups, and “official networking events” to perceive dance parties that last into the night as a misuse of time at conference; however, these parties do serve an important purpose for professional librarians who like to dance or go to dance clubs.  Even if there are no professional discussions, it fosters a sense of belonging and gives people a reason to get together.  It makes being a part of ALA more valuable, because people develop friendships that turn into professional discussions later in the conference.

The dance party is not sponsored by ALA.  All of the initiatives at the beginning of this post that are sponsored by ALA are quite different than the dance party. There’s formality, structure, and in some cases, an application process and acceptance or rejection.

There is a need for both, and if ALA wants to remain true to its vision of fostering an environment in which members receive incentives for reshaping what participation means, then they need to support all types of events, including dance parties and impromptu networking events and presentations.

Looking at their activity, they do to some extent.  For example, at ALA Midwinter in San Diego, a space was set up with a projector and screen in the main hall of the convention center, complete with round tables and power and connections for laptops.

There are other examples of librarians – particularly young librarians – working outside of the official ALA structure because it doesn’t meet their needs.  For example, the ALA Think Tank sprouted out of a need for sharing expenses at conference, coordinate shared experiences amoung attendees, and the need to be able to respond to new ideas quickly without having to suffer through ALA’s bureaucracy.  If participants in the Think Tank want to hold an impromptu flash mob in to raise awareness of the importance of libraries, they don’t need a conference programming committee to do it.  As their hasgtag suggests, they just #makeithappen.

Action Items for ALA and its Members

The first and most important object for ALA should be to support these member created initiatives – even those that are outside of the ALA structure.  Continue to share news, events, and links to Unconferences, Think Tank groups and Dance Parties over official communication channels like the ALA Facebook Page or Twitter feeds.  People new to the profession look to ALA first, because the association is the primary organization of the profession.  It gets visibility in library schools and in libraries.  Let’s add these non-ALA opportunities for participation to the communication we give new members.

The ALA Membership Committee could create a welcome packet for new librarians that features the structure of ALA and a way to find their home in association activities, including committee work, conference attendance, ALAConnect groups, the New Members Round Table, and others.  The packet should also feature non-ALA activities that a new librarian may want to be involved with, depending on preferences and needs.

ALA might even consider sending financial support to these external groups if possible without attempting to absorb them.  Help these member-driven groups to develop the environment for young librarians to succeed.  This may require some maneuvering if ALA by laws do not allow for financing non-ALA initiatives with its finances.

Seasoned members need to take the same approach.  Many members are extremely good at involving new librarians in association activities.  For example, mentoring programs in the New Members Round Table and other units of the association deliberately set up structures by which experienced librarians play host to new librarians.  These mentors provide great advice for a new librarian to get involved with the formal structure of ALA, like advising people to go to committee meetings even when they are not on the roster in order to network with people that might place them on the committee.  Mentors give people strategies on which conference programs are the best, and they encourage people to apply for programs like Emerging Leaders.  They recommend these paths because that is what has worked for them – but that might not be the right advice for everyone.

What members need to do is to be aware of all of the other member-driven events going on that new librarians might be more attracted to than the official cadre of ALA initiatives.  These external groups (like the Think Tank) might be just what they need to grow as professionals, even if it’s not what people have needed in the past.

In time, young librarians become … not young librarians.  The association becomes less confusing.  People in positions of power in the organization become less intimidating.  Life as a professional becomes normal.  Perhaps then these members will find ways to shape the association itself into what they want and what it needs to be in the future.

The Pyramid Revised

ALA has done a fantastic job of trying to support young librarians.  Participation options are plentiful for those who can work in its structure.  Those who thrive in those situations rise to become what Emily called Level 1 members.  There will still be a massive amount of members who pay their dues, attend conference, but don’t get involved in committee work or other activities of the association.  These are Emily’s Level 2 members.

In the new model, there will still be Level 3 members, defined as dues-paying members who join as a professional obligation, like the fact that ALA provides toolkits and advocates on library issues.

If ALA and its membership do a good job, though, we eliminate the disenfranchised member that was also part of Level 3. These members create their own structure to thrive in and occupy a shadow Level 1 kind of member, engaged, active, making change and participating at high levels in whatever structure they create that works for them – all supported by the association and its members.

Much like the now official unconference that happens, the methods and models these young leaders develop will become part of what it means to be a member of ALA.

What Works for You?

If you are familiar with initiatives not mentioned in this post that happen outside the auspices of ALA, please share them here!  What can members do now that will make the association better for its membership?  Let us know in the comments.

Many, many thanks to Jody Bailey and Emily Ford for taking the time to clean this post up, offer encouraging remarks, and making the post much better than it was in draft form.


Ford, E. (2008, October 15). On the ALA membership pyramid [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2008/on-the-ala-membership-pyramid/.

Young Professionals Task Force. (2010, June 11). Young Librarians Working Group final report and recommendations. Retrieved from http://connect.ala.org/node/105013

Rettig, J. (2011, January 4). Is the association ripe for rebellion? [Web log post]. Retieved from http://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/features/01042011/association-ripe-rebellion

Johnson, A. (2010, September 23). ALA is not your mom [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.abbythelibrarian.com/2010/09/ala-is-not-your-mom.html

American Library Association. (2008, April 23). ALA | American Library Association website.  Retrieved from http://www.ala.org

Young Professionals Task Force. (2011, April 4). ALA is us, and we’re looking younger every day [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/ala-members-blog/ala-us-and-we-re-looking-younger-every-day

Dudash, E.A., & Harris, S. (2011). New kids on the block: My first time in a political community. American Behavioral Scientist, 55, p. 469-478.

Keeter, S., Horowitz, J., & Tyson, A. (2008). Young voters in the 2008 election.  Retrieved from http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1031/young-voters-in-the-2008-election

Sweeney, P.C. (2011, February 21). The revolution won’t be televised, but it will be Facebooked [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://pcsweeney.com/2011/02/21/the-revolution-wont-be-televised-but-it-will-be-facebooked/

Kleinman, D. (2010, November 24). The ALA alienates librarians because it is politicized, elitist, group think oriented, not very professional, and generally does not serve the needs of librarians [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://safelibraries.blogspot.com/2010/11/ala-alienates-librarians-because-it-is.html


5 Responses

  1. I love your post, Eric, and I love that you are posing some very challenging ideas to our largest professional association. Give financial support to unofficial groups–well, I am quite cynical and think this is never going to happen, but I LOVE that you are mentioning this possibility.

    For me I still have a bit of sourness for ALA, even though I am very involved as a newsletter editor, a committee member, and as a Young Professionals Task Force Member. I think the thing that still gets me is this:
    Participation options are plentiful for those who can work in its structure.

    I’m not a fan of ALA’s structure. At all. If it were up to me we’d tear down the ALA Sandcastle and begin rebuilding. I know I’m fantasizing.

    The structure is established in our history that goes back to 1876 (according to ALA’s web site). Can an organization this old and this huge and this established and rigid re-invent itself? I want it to, so badly, and that’s why I keep participating.

  2. joan

    Eric, this is a great post; and thanks to Emily for pointing it out to me.

    I have been in a few different places with ALA: I used to feel like a confused, uninvolved but willing member. Now I’m slightly less confused and chair of a committee. And I do still find the organization baffling.

    ALA is a bit like an old building or house that’s had so many additions over so many years that you can’t even tell where it all started. People added new committees and sections to various divisions while similar functions were popping up in other silos. It’s overwhelming, when you’re a new librarian and there’s no one obvious group or place to focus your efforts.

    ALA could probably use a big re-organization. But not only am I sure that’s not going to happen, I don’t think anyone who has climbed the power structure would be motivated to do that. A year-long presidency isn’t very long, and I’m sure the presidents have other pressing concerns beside trying to help a young person figure out if they should be in the ACRL University Libraries section or RUSA MARS or LITA or whatever. We just muck through this on our own and try to find a spot to sit where we live the room and the people in it.

    So I get the frustration, and I think smaller initiatives are fantastic. But I agree with Eric that complaining about ALA is a bit like complaining about the government or traffic: it’s venting but probably won’t lead to anything if we don’t take action.

  3. An impressive post, Eric. You covered a lot of ground in an evenhanded way. Having spent my first career in IBM, I can see how the size and complexity of ALA is mysterious, intimidating or even apparently irrelevant to new librarians. I don’t have any insights into making ALA into the organization it should be, whatever that is. But I did notice two things not in your post that may be worth addressing.

    The first is the culture of the organization. After basically saving IBM from disintegration, CEO Louis Gerstner wrote in his book, “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?”, that culture wasn’t the most important thing in remaking IBM, it was the only thing. Does the culture of the ALA and librarianship generally need examination and change?

    The second is accreditation of library schools. Do the requirements for accreditation reflect today’s requirements for success as a librarian? The blog posts and comments of many recent graduates suggest that schools are not providing what today’s librarians need. What is the ALA doing to adapt accreditation to the profession’s new reality, and is the organization engaging students and recent graduates in a discussion of accreditation?

    1. Thanks, Michael!

      The culture of ALA varies from silo to silo. I suspect you’ll find different norms, values, visions in each division of ALA. LITA is as different from PLA as YALSA is to ACRL. So many members participate in their divisions and begrudgingly pay their ALA dues on top of their division dues (despite the fact that dues paid to ALA support the work of divisions in some way).

      So if I had to assess, the culture of big ALA is one of isolation. The structure supports that culture with its massive silos, but to some extent, members perpetuate it by wishing they could just belong to their silo and not the big ALA.

      I have hope that cross-divisional (or non-divisional) efforts will shift that culture. The dance party and Think Tank mentioned in this post don’t align themselves with any particular division, and its in these member-driven events that a new culture of ALA might rise (ironically, from non-ALA events).

      Is there more ALA leadership (board, council) could do? Aside from establishing task forces and committees, what ideas do you have? I must admit, I’ve been to one board meeting and no council meetings during my membership, so I can’t answer that question. Moreso, I can’t assess whether the board or council WOULD do something if the culture supports the status quo.

      To your second question: The Committee on Accreditation is in the middle of a 5-year review process of its “2008 Standards for Accreditation of Master’s Programs in Library and Information Studies” document. I looked at the first round of comments on the document, and only 32.8% of respondents identified themselves as practitioners! That might contribute to why standards for accreditation of library schools are out-of-sync with practice. (Not to mention the vastly different skill sets required of practitioners in the library field.)

      So is ALA engaging recent graduates? Not as much as they are engaging LIS faculty. Is this the practitioner’s fault? After all, the outcomes of new standards directly affect LIS faculty, but only indirectly affect practitioners. Naturally, LIS faculty are going to be more engaged.

      Again, if we (practitioners) are going to complain, there are venues to participate in change – but finding those venues is a little difficult for those confused by ALA’s structure.

  4. Emily

    Does it matter very much, and is ALA different from other professional organizations of its size and type? I’m an uninvolved dues-paying ALA member, and I’m comfortable with that. I have other local groups, issues, and organizations that absorb my energy, but support ALA because it is the one organization that represents all of us, if blandly and abstractly. What else could a giant organization do? The times ive tried wading in, most ALA work seems to be about reproducing ALA. I’m not interested in doing that, but trust that enough people do that ALA will still be there when I need information about the broader field, access to publishing and conference opportunities, or the JobList. Council elections are competitive, which tells me interest in running the place is sufficient. Does ALA really need everybody? What’s the participation density like at the Modern Languages Association or the American Psychological Association? Could it be that we’re doing fine?