I spent this weekend at the annual face to face meeting of the Alaska Library Association’s (AkLA’s) Executive Council, which is made up of our E-Board (President, Treasurer, etc.) and the chairs of all of the association’s committees, roundtables, and chapters. It’s a great group of people, with a lot of energy, and I always come out of the meeting feeling really good about my involvement in the organization—usually also with new things on my to-do list. This year’s meeting was no different, though I have also come away a little troubled.
Like the American Library Association (ALA)—and perhaps many other volunteer organizations, inside and outside the library profession—AkLA has fewer members than we used to, meaning we also have less money to spend. In balancing our budget, E-Council managed to cut the 2014 predicted expenditures down without cutting any of AkLA’s most important services to our members, but I suspect we aren’t going to be able to say the same again, next year, if our membership doesn’t increase. A lot.
One of the tasks I took on, for after this meeting, was joining the Membership Committee, to try to help come up with ways to recruit new members, retain existing members, and entice lapsed members to rejoin.
I don’t have the perspective to know if this is true, but I’ve been told by multiple people that, back in the day, librarians were expected to join professional organizations. It was just what was done. This may be true (and based on some ALA Council discussions I’ve witnessed, I’m definitely prepared to believe it), but if it is, there’s been a shift. Librarians—actually, I’ll go out on a limb and generalize to most professionals—don’t join professional organizations just as a matter of course, anymore. They join if they perceive value. Anecdata: as an electrical engineer, I never seriously considered joining IEEE. The idea of “networking” was vague and unsatisfying (“I already talk to my coworkers, and my resume gets me jobs, not my so-called ‘network'”). As for other organizational benefits, I would have balked at paying for a personal membership just to get to standards and research papers I could use to do my work, when my employer would pay for the specific things I needed, when I needed them. I wasn’t in the field long enough to need continuing education, so not even that aspect appealed to me.
Library organizations might be even more tenuous in their value proposition, I think. Our publications 1) mostly aren’t that great* and 2) are often either available online for free to non-members or require extra money on top of the membership fee, anyway. I’m a LITA member—why do I have to pay so much money for Farney & McHale’s book on analytics, just to name one book I covet? (And why isn’t it available for Kindle, grr?) Mailing lists tend to be publicly accessible, so you don’t have to pay to benefit from an organization’s listservs. Often the rate to attend conference or training as a non-member is more expensive, but it’s less expensive than the event plus the membership fee.
And so I’m left feeling kind of sympathetic with the people who don’t think a membership is worth it. We (on behalf of AkLA, ALA, and a number of other organizations I’m part of) haven’t done a great job of selling membership in our organizations, making it clear what value we bring. When pressed, sometimes I find it hard to express the value to a non-member, myself.
Why do I pay my dues?
In my mind, the most important thing that ALA and AkLA provide for their respective memberships is lobbying (by which I mean paying lobbyists and also giving those lobbyists direction and priorities). Study after study has shown that the return on investment from lobbying is ridiculous—far better than any other way an organization could spend its money. AkLA’s lobbying efforts have been very successful, especially considering that libraries are generally considered a liberal institution, and Alaska’s a pretty conservative state. We have a fabulous new State Library Archives & Museum building going up in Juneau, and we have big construction projects happening on libraries all over the state each year—projects that would never get funded without the coordination AkLA provides and the work our lobbyist does. Our numbers of librarian jobs—especially school librarians—have decreased, but not at the same rate as in many other parts of the country, and also, I think, not at the hands of the state legislature.
ALA’s lobbying, I’m a little less sure of. I don’t hear about many big wins. I support the idea of lobbying for libraries and library ideals at the national level, but I’m not entirely sure what our lobbying money has accomplished. That’s probably on me, for not watching ALA’s Washington Office more closely. As my Council term approaches (well, I guess it’s begun, but I haven’t gone to a meeting yet), I’m going to have to start paying a lot more attention. That’s on me, as an elected officer.
But I’m not sure that it’s reasonable to expect a member of AkLA (or ALA) to inherently know that we pay a lobbyist and that he’s very effective. I don’t think the average AkLA member realizes that all those fantastic public library projects happen because of their professional organization. And I guarantee our non-members don’t know. Why would they?
So getting that news out seems vital to me. Perhaps that information alone would reawaken the “join organizations for the greater good of the field” instinct that our forebears reportedly had, but that we seem to lack.
Before I got on the lobbyist boat, though—I guess before I saw those studies cited—I paid my ALA dues pretty much entirely to keep participating in the New Members Roundtable. I learned a lot, doing committee work for NMRT, and I got experience that I couldn’t have gotten any other way. The value of that was phenomenal. AkLA’s a kind of similar story, though it was less the committee work and more the right to participate in E-Council’s meetings, where the direction of the organization (and, in some ways, the state’s libraries) is set.
But you have to be careful how you make that sales pitch, don’t you? “I joined so I can be on committees” is ridiculous-sounding to librarians, most of whom are already very committee-laden. “I joined so I can do work,” uh, also no good. But “I joined to practice new skills,” or “I joined to get a new perspective on my work” — something along those lines might be more effective. For my fellow borderline control freaks, I think “I joined so I can help move the field at large in the right direction” is probably a strong pitch, if a little hard to believe. (I hold no illusions that my one voice is going to change ALA’s direction in any noticeable way, though I’ll still give it my best shot. AkLA, though, absolutely.)
Honestly, the lobbying and the right to be on committees (and the experience I get from that, as well as the good feeling of helping out) are my two primary reasons for paying dues. I don’t see the organization’s existence as a good thing, in and of itself: its only value is in what it accomplishes, whether that’s lobbying or continuing education or whatever. I am not benevolent enough to care that my membership fees help pay for scholarships (sorry—too many of my graduating cohort still aren’t employed as information professionals, and it feels cruel, to me, to entice more people into librarianship); I don’t see tremendous value in awards ceremonies or publications or the maintenance of open-to-the-world listservs; and I’m still pretty convinced I can continuing-education myself, if you’ll forgive me for verbing that noun. (The one exception to this is that I’ve stayed a member of the Pacific Northwest Library Association as a kind of thank-you for their fantastic leadership institute. I’m a member to kind of help pay that back—and for no other reason.)
Now I find myself wondering if that makes me some kind of special case, or if my viewpoint is fairly common.
If you don’t mind commenting, please do! Why do (or don’t) you pay professional dues? (I apologize for the delay in replying, because I’m going to be away from the computer for a week. But when I get back I’ll reply, because I want to discuss this!)
* Sorry, sorry! I imagine every article you ever wrote, dear reader, was wonderful; however, I seem to do a lot of my reading digitally and at point of need and therefore haven’t personally gotten a lot of value out of flipping through C&RL News or the LITA magazine (which I’m not even receiving anymore, what’s up with that?), just to name two publications I’ve received in the past. Ironically, the only one I do read regularly is AkLA’s little quarterly newsletter, Newspoke — which is free on the web.