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Paying Our Dues

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.

Published in#el12alaalaalaskaconferencesengineeringleadershiplibrarianshipnew librarianPNLA


  1. I plan to write a blog post about this myself … right now I pay my dues because, as a student, it will never be cheaper for me to sample what these societies offer to me. As a result of that awesome value for students, right now, I belong to ALA, SLA, ASIST, ACM, SSP, Baynet, and maybe onr or two others I don’t remember at the moment.

    Those societies where I’ve actually gotten involved, somehow, are ALA (I’m on the OITP committee–just started) and SLA (I’m the IT division newsletter editor). The ALA involvement I almost missed out on–I filed an application and heard nothing back after a reasonable time … months and months later I got a committee appointment in an email that I almost missed.

    At SLA it was much easier–I told the IT division that I wanted to do something, and they said “sure, you can help with this” … and when that ended I picked up the newsletter.

    Ideally, this helps get my name out–I graduate this coming May–but I also enjoy the people with whom I work. If there wasn’t something cool or fun here then I wouldn’t do it.

    The real question is “what happens when I have to pay full fare to all these places?” Changes will have to be made …

  2. ITAL went open-access a year or two back — I’m not sure if we’re still publishing a print edition? Anyway, you can totally RSS that, which is what I do:

    Why do I pay my dues. Well. Partly it’s that being in ALA in general, and LITA specifically, has given me access to all these people who move me and inspire me and help me grow. No, I wouldn’t have to be a member to meet them — I could do code4lib and twitter, I could attend (or crash) conferences as a nonmember — but I’m realistic about the fact that even in the digital age, the face-to-face still matters, is still an accelerator, and putting on that show takes money.

    And partly it’s that ALA gives me this great choose-your-own-adventure canvas. There *is* a lot of professional development I can DIY, but there’s some things (particularly about leadership) that I can only learn with big groups of people, with organizations, with access to more resources than little-ol’-indie-me has. And yeah, ALA’s sometimes dysfunctional, but I treat that as a learning experience, as a way to generate and test hypotheses and learn how to be effective even in an imperfect world (which is, let’s face it, the kind of world we all live in all the time).

    That means I put a lot into it to get stuff out of it, and I think that’s problematic; as Henry notes, organizations that make it easy for people to find places their energies are welcomed have a huge leg up in retention. There SHOULD be an easy mode for ALA (Ms. Councilor). But in my case, I feel that what I’ve gotten out of it has manyfold repaid what I’ve put into it.

    Plus which, I could hardly keep my Board seat if I didn’t pay my dues ;)

  3. This is a good conversation. I think you ought to share it with the ALA Chapter and Council lists. I almost did myself, but since you’re on Council too, you should be the one to decide.

    I pay my dues to AkLA and ALA for different reasons. I pay my dues to AkLA (at the highest tier) because it is my professional duty as part of the Alaska Division of Libraries, Archives and Museums to support the libraries of my state. If I worked in the Museum I’d join Museums Alaska and if I worked in the Archives I’d join ARMA. AkLA facilitates networking and training for librarians separated by vast distances. As a state with a lot of non-degreed librarians in teeny tiny rural communities, I don’t mind that most of our networking and training events are free. I like to think that my AkLA dues work to build the Alaska library community, which needs all the help it can get. I also get value at the annual conferences. It often gives me a reality check that Juneau-based people like me need.

    I pay my ALA dues partly out of conviction that if I participate in my state association, I should participate in the national association. Partly because I’m a huge fan of GODORT and I can’t be a member of GODORT without being a member of ALA. Finally I pay my ALA dues in part because they offer resources like the ALA wiki and legal defense that would be hard for individual libraries to maintain on their own. I’m uncertain of the effectiveness of their lobbying efforts but we need someone besides fanatic copyright holders in the halls of Congress.

    One thing I’d like to see change is that I want ALA to find ways to change their revenue streams so that they can offer free or really low cost ($25 or $50 per course) training to members. Or maybe offer discounted blocks of training to members. Nonmembers could take training at higher rates. I personally could accept higher dues if I could get more training opportunities out of it. On the other hand on my salary, it is easier to say that higher dues are ok. But I’m not sure whether other revenues could come from. Publishing really seems to be struggling and so do our conferences.

    Going back to my first paragraph, I do think ALA Council needs to hear from people justifying why they do or do not pay their dues. It could help membership drives. Thanks again for starting this conversation.

    • FWIW, that’s the price point that LITA offers webinars at to members. We also offer all our education (webinars, web courses, preconferences, etc.) at a discount to ALA members, and a further discount to LITA members. And our journal ( ) is open access.


      It is, as you have guessed, hard to offer a lot of low-cost education, because it’s an important part of the revenue picture. But there’s some of it around, here and there.

  4. […] She hasn’t for some years now. In light of Coral Sheldon-Hess’s adroit discussion of financial pressures faced by professional organizations, the Loon’s webbed-foot-dragging seems worth scrutiny, as the Loon doubts her own thoughts […]

  5. Genesis Hansen

    Hmmm…interesting questions. The advocacy/lobbying piece is a big part of why I pay dues to both ALA and my state library association. I’m actually keeping an eye on the EveryLibrary PAC to see if they end up being a game-changer in how some of that work is done. Their targeted approach has been pretty effective thus far and I’m interested to see how it scales.

    The associations also give me the opportunity for professional growth and involvement that differs from my day-to-day work. The thing is, at least on the State level, there aren’t enough committee opportunities to justify that as a reason for most people to become members, so I don’t know how effective that can be for convincing people to join.

    In my state association, membership + conference registration is cheaper than non-member conference registration for all but the highest membership tier (those making $85,000+) and even then the difference is only $5. If an association is trying to recruit more members and their non-member conference admission is less than member admission + membership, I’d suggest some rethinking of the conference pricing. That’s low-hanging fruit, right there. Especially when you consider how much more the conference admission would cost if membership dropped significantly.

  6. Eloise

    I pay my dues to ALA, and am a member of PLA and ALSC. I am likewise a member of my state association and its public library and children’s services sections. To be honest, paying my dues is not a hardship, and I am happy to support the profession and its advocacy efforts.

    What I have started to, um, resent is the pervasive message from many library leaders that you cannot reach your full potential unless you attend conferences and volunteer on ALA committees. I can get excited about attending a conference every 2 or 3 years. I don’t WANT to go to every single one, even if my library paid for it (which, in this economic climate, they don’t).

    I have the same mindset about committees. I can do one every few years, but it invariably feels like doing what you do at work for free, and on your own time. And I ultimately wind up (that word again) resenting the responsiblity.

    There are organizations and hiring managers who consider ALA involvement to be the end-all-and-be-all of advancement at their libraries. They’re wrong, to be blunt about it. With blogging and online platforms, there are less expensive and time-consuming ways to create a national profile and converse with others in the profession.

  7. I belong to very few professional organizations. In fact, I may belong to none at the current moment. Simply put, I feel as if these organizations do very little to address the issues most essential to our profession.

    ALA, for instance, sets the tone for many issues but can point to few real accomplishments. It may throw a big conference and hold plenty of meetings, but our profession is still among the least diverse in the country. Libraries have no real political capital outside of their local communities. Breaking into the profession is a laborious, expensive process that offers few rewards. These large-scale issues that affect the health of the profession as a whole have seen little movement in the past ten years – to say nothing of the last fifty.

    It’s easy to point to these organization as tools for professionals, but they provide little other than networking and training opportunities. We don’t need these mammoth organizations for that. It’s easier than ever to create engaged groups of people without a significant financial or time expenditure.

    Clearly, painting these organizations with a wide brush does nobody any favors. There are excellent groups, specifically at the state or specialized level, that positively contribute to the growth and development of libraries and librarians. As a professional, you have to audit. You have to figure out where your money is going. A broad blanket of support for anything related to a library is short-sighted and actively harmful. Libraries have problems. Those problems can’t be fixed with mere good will. If you pay, do so for a reason. Point to a specific purpose. Be able to identify how that organization has improved the health of your career, your library or your colleagues. Otherwise, don’t give money.

    The reason why I don’t pay anything to these groups despite it being a tradition or professional duty or otherwise is because these national organizations have set the tone for years and have so few wins to show for it. Are libraries healthier than they were 20 years ago? 10 years? 1 year? I don’t think so, and I don’t want to subsidize it.

    This is a very negative post, and for that, I apologize. I fully expect and deserve criticism as these organizations clearly help some people. But this is a subject that needs to be discussed more openly, and I thank Coral for bringing it to light.

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