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Midwinter Blues

no-winterThe American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting has got to go. It’s a strain on the organization, where I define “the organization” as both 1) its members and 2) its governance. I’d like to look at both of these facets in this post.

Returns on members’ investment?

If you don’t care for math and trust me to make reasonable back-of-the-envelope calculations, just read the bold parts, in this section.

According to the ALA Conference Services FAQ, ALA Midwinter brings in $350k after expenses, compared to Annual’s $1-1.5M.

Over the last 5 years, we’ve had an average of 10,417 attendees at ALA Midwinter. Based on the FAQ, it seems that at least 2,000 of those are staff of some kind or guests, which I assume means “non-paying.” So we’ll round down to 8,000 paid attendees, to make the math easier.

I don’t have numbers for how many of each kind of ticket they bought (Early Bird Member? Student? One day? Exhibits Only?), and there’s a huge range of prices, from $35 up to $330. To be conservative, let’s make it 20% exhibits-only (at $35 apiece, that’s $56k), 20% one-day members (at $140 apiece, $224k), 20% early bird students ($70 apiece, $112k), 20% early bird members (at $175 apiece, $280k), and 20% advance members ($195 apiece, $312k). That’s $984,000, which, remember, is extremely conservative—it assumes lots of cheap tickets, with nobody registering onsite or as non-members. So I’m comfortable rounding up by 1.6% to say attendees spend at least $1M on registration fees.

The FAQ says at least 4500 hotel rooms are needed for Saturday night of the ALA Midwinter Meeting. Using the average rate for a double room over the last two years ($165.62), it’s clear that attendees spent well over $745,000 on hotel rooms. (MUCH more, clearly, since that’s just one night of a 3-5 night conference.)

Again, from the FAQ, “On average, 18% of attendance is regional. … At the 2003 Midwinter Meeting in Philadelphia, over 45% of attendees came from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Washington DC, Maryland and Virginia.” Presumably, the other 55% had to fly, or possibly take the train. Let’s assume there are no Alaskans or Hawaiians, and everyone is a good bargain shopper for flights, getting a $250 round-trip fare. So, given 55% of the 8,000 paying attendees spending $250 per pop, it’s safe to say attendees spent at least $1.1M in travel to get to conference. Normally much more, since the 45% number of regional attendees was well above the 18% average.

From the FAQ: “The ALA Midwinter tradeshow typically includes 900 booths (approximately 450 exhibitors) and requires over 200,000 gross square feet of convention center space.” Looking at the booth reservation form, it appears that exhibitors paid $900 per 100 sq. ft. of space. We know some of the booths are far more than 10’x10′, but we also know not all the floor space can be used by booths (walkways, for instance, take up a lot of space—so we can’t use that 200k sq. ft. number). Let’s go ahead and lowball this number, treating each booth as 10’x10′, or $900. Vendors/Exhibitors spend at least $810,000 for space.

That’s at least $2.8M ($2,829,000) spent by attendees, plus $810,000 spent on exhibit space, in order for ALA to make a revenue of $350,000.

One important point: I’m not claiming that ALA is misspending this money. That isn’t my point at all. From the FAQ, “The Midwinter Meeting includes over 2,400 separately-scheduled events, and requires almost 300 meeting rooms.” Someone has to arrange and pay for that. A/V at hotels and conference centers is incredibly expensive, and the staff time to organize so many events boggles the mind. Not to mention bringing in speakers (who cost money), lugging the entire ALA office apparatus to the conference center, and … look, it’s a lot of overhead.

My point, or at least my assertion, is that the financial cost to ALA members is disproportionately high, compared to the financial benefits to the Association, for ALA Midwinter.

Let’s say I am a member who buys early-bird, I can get that absurdly low-priced plane ticket I mentioned above, I arrive on Friday, I split an average-priced hotel room, and I leave on Monday. (As a Councilor, I actually have to stay until Tuesday. But we’re going for a lowball average number.) By my math, it costs $673 for a reasonably frugal person to attend Midwinter, not counting food, cabs/shuttles, or tips. Only $175 of that is paid to the Association, and only a very small fraction of that—definitely less than $45—turns into ALA revenue. I know, some of the hotel price turns into meeting rooms, but I’m pretty sure the $45 cap still applies (since I got there by dividing $350,000 in revenue by 8,000 paying attendees).

Just putting this out there: I’d pay $45 to attend an online conference; that’s a much better deal than the $700+ I pay for Midwinter. And I’m sure vendors would throw in a little cash to put their names on said conference, or to be able to pitch their products during certain sessions, too. (I know there’s nonzero cost to putting together an online conference with lots of meetings. I think we could figure it out, though.)

Homogenizing governance

I’ve established the cost, sure, but now I want to talk about what this high cost means for the organization. TL;DR: It means that we have a not very diverse group of primarily well-paid, powerful people making decisions about the organization’s future (including the question of whether or not we continue doing this conference that not everyone can afford). I don’t think this is good.

Do you know who is disproportionately unlikely to be able to afford two conferences per year at over $600 a pop? Younger/Newer librarians, library workers without the MLIS, students, people from less affluent areas, people from more far-flung parts of the country, and people whose employers don’t pay for conferences.

Do you know who is also disproportionately unlikely to be able to attend two conferences per year? People with certain disabilities, solo librarians, rural librarians (not quite solo, always, but certainly small-staffed), single parents, and anybody who doesn’t have enough clout with their organization to get the requisite time off.

And then there are some people who might not want to spend travel money on two ALA conferences per year, even if they can afford it. For instance, some people have really specialized jobs (technology/systems librarians come to mind); and others are deeply embedded in a particular subject area (e.g. law or medicine). I’m sure many of us face a choice between smaller, often cheaper conferences that are better targeted to our branches of librarianship, versus the big tent that is ALA. I really feel it among the techy librarians, but that’s where I live; probably other librarian subcultures are affected, as well. And I wonder if this has an age/time-in-career aspect to it, too: I really, really feel the relative lack of professional development at ALA, versus LITA Forum or Code4Lib, because I’m newer to the library technology field.

Here’s the thing about governance: attendance at both conferences is required, to participate in ALA Council—and Executive Council and many ALA committees and the boards of several (most?) of the divisions and roundtables, too. Council actually requires attendance at both conferences for three years, as does being President of pretty much any board.

So is it surprising that, when I look around the Council chambers, I don’t see a lot of young people, a lot of techy people, a lot of disabled people? (Now that I think about it in these terms, it sure puts the stupid resolution we passed, last Midwinter—and the poor reception I got when I stood up to talk about it—into perspective.)

A couple of years ago, when I was on the New Members’ Roundtable board, NMRT was the largest roundtable in ALA, with over 2000 members. There are 60 student chapters of ALA! But you wouldn’t know these things, looking at Council.

When I talked to people about why they weren’t ALA members, some expressed the feeling that ALA is run by big library systems (or at least representatives thereof) and has only their welfare at heart. I don’t know enough other Councilors to confirm or deny that suspicion, but I now wonder if an analysis of Council would find that they were right.

I would hope, in a body of 170 people, whose job is to represent the entire Association, that the demographics might map a little more closely to the organization’s at large. But I think we’ve stacked the deck, by insisting on this two conferences per year model.

And I think the younger librarians can tell. A number of my librarian friends are in ALA, because that’s where I met them. But as I grow my network, I meet more and more “new” librarians (in the field 10 or fewer years) who don’t feel represented by ALA and who refuse to join. And with the way things are right now, I can’t in good conscience talk them out of that decision.

So what’s an association to do?

I really meant it about the online conference/meeting option. I think we should investigate that. We need to stop signing contracts for Midwinter meetings right now and spend the next 4-5 years looking at the problem of “How do we make back that $350,000 without continuing to drain our members (at least the less affluent ones) dry?” That puts us within three years of the last currently-scheduled Midwinter meeting, in 2021. (We’d end this tradition in San Francisco! Goin’ out with a bang!)

If we just can’t come up with a viable solution in that time—unlikely, in my opinion, but possible—that should still be enough lead time (3-4 years) to arrange contracts with cities to hold the smaller of our two conferences, for the following five years (through 2026), and then we go back to trying to plan Midwinter’s demise.

We need to solve the electronic participation problem for Council and for our various boards and committees even sooner. Because we’re losing good people and valuable perspectives. I don’t think you should have to be rich, powerful, and able-bodied to participate in your association’s governance. I also don’t think you should have to swear off of conferences that better meet your professional development goals, to be able to afford to participate.

That said, I don’t think the Association will find those solutions to be in its financial interest, until we come up with an alternate revenue stream to replace Midwinter. I don’t think anyone will work on any of this in earnest until we have a deadline. That’s why Midwinter has to go.

There’s a lot to be said for having established leaders on the governing bodies of our associations, and I would never suggest that their experience isn’t valuable; it is. But diverse groups make better decisions. Having a better range of voices will help our governing bodies make decisions in the best interests of all of us. And Council is huge; it has room for all kinds of voices, if only we can make it possible for a broader swath of our membership to participate.

Published in#TT4ALACouncilalaconferencesCouncildiversity


  1. Peter Hepburn

    Thought-provoking, thank you. One thing to be aware of: 3-4 years out is generally not enough time for ALA to schedule Midwinter because of the large footprint involved. In order to ensure the space currently needed, ALA has to case further into the future. Of course, a smaller, more-focused footprint would mitigate against that. Anyway, that’s not the point of your essay, I realize. back to chewing on what you’ve said!

  2. So here’s a thing I’ve been wondering: does conference actually make money?

    I haven’t examined the big-ALA budget, so I don’t know about Midwinter. But I have spent a great deal of quality time with LITA’s. And our Forum line reports a profit, too. But our budget reports the entirety of staff expenses as a single line – “Administration”; it doesn’t allocate staff time to the budget lines it supports.

    I strongly suspect Forum runs a profit only if we consider staff time free. But it’s not, and I bet we need a lot of staff time to make Forum happen, and if we accounted for it clearly we’d see a deficit there.

    Back-of-the-envelope what you’re paying to send a large fraction of ALA staff to conference for a week – some of that at overtime wages – and there’s a substantial chunk of that $350K right there, before you’ve even accounted for planning time.

    Now, that’s not necessarily a reason not to have conference. Nonprofits can and do have unprofitable budget lines all the time if they’re strategically important, and they can be covered from profitable lines elsewhere. But I think “should we keep this profitable thing” is a very different conversation from “is this unprofitable thing strategically important enough to keep”.

  3. Now personally, my first conference was Midwinter and I’ve always had a giant soft spot for it and that is going to cloud my analysis; I am just far too attached to it to endorse dropping it, regardless of rational argument. So I try to be cognizant of that and keep my voice quiet on this issue (most of the time ;)

    And, okay, I do think there’s a value to face-to-face communication. There are some information flows that happen predominantly, or exclusively, after-hours (maybe after some wine). There’s a comfort level people can build from face-to-face work that supports their virtual work – I mean, I’ve worked for an all-virtual company and we still had quarterly face-to-face meetings, not only because in some ways they were more productive, but also because we needed that bonding experience to be real to one another, to be emotionally salient. Some people are good at feeling genuine bonds with others they’ve met only online, but that number is not large enough to sustain an association.

    It’s possible this is a need experienced far more by the leadership than the members, and we can’t really justify having giant conferences to sustain the leadership’s need for team-building. But it’s possible it’s not – that we need face-to-face interactions to build the feels, to make ALA feel present and meaningful and important enough to devote time to. Maybe we can do that on one conference a year (and with its corresponding reduction in likelihood that there will be a conference this year near you, wherever you happen to live – well, except I guess AK and HI ;). Code4lib does – but they’re also small, and use IRC. Maybe we can’t.

    I do think your point about diverse teams and quality thinking is very important (I have similar concerns about divisional boards, and in particular about the lack of diversity on mine). And I suspect we won’t solve the virtual participation problem until we have to.

  4. $25×2 Checked bag
    (some people dont check bags, fair enough)
    $450 Flight
    (i’ve gotten it for way less and also for way more)
    $350 Hotel
    (Low end)
    $350 Bundled Registration
    (that could be lower/higher depending on if you go to both mw&annual and how far in advance you pay AND if you are member)
    $25×2 Cab to/from airport
    (How do you get everywhere else? real cost: much higher)
    $8+8+20×6 MPOW’s Breakfast/Lunch/Dinner
    (Real cost: much higher)
    My minimum comes out way higher…

    • So does mine—obviously, coming from Alaska and staying the extra day for Council—but I was going for a reasonable average for a very frugal attendee.

      My real number is closer to $1300 per ALA conference, less for shorter conferences in less expensive cities. I buy airline tickets with miles when I can, to help decrease the cost.

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