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Monday, February 9, 2015

ALA Membership: the rhythms of change

Shortly after I got my library degree, I joined the American Library Association (ALA) and went to my first conference. It was, for a young man of my modest means, insanely expensive. I don't mean registration and membership dues, I mean travel, lodging, and meals. I got a little help from my employer, but not much.

And ALA was big. It was impossible to catch everything I wanted to, and I spent a lot of time running between things.

In retrospect, I think I could have planned better. But at the time, I concluded that ALA activity, particularly involving conferences, was simply out of my reach. So I paid my membership, read the magazines and a couple newsletters, and that was about it. I focused my attention on local, then statewide and regional professional groups. I wound up in leadership positions in many of them (the state chapter's public library division, the state library association presidency), which was terrific experience.

I came back to ALA in a big way when two things changed: first, I was further along in my career and had more money; second, I had an issue (ebooks) that urgently required national action. ALA president Molly Raphael appointed me to the Digital Content Working Group (DCWG). I had the pleasure of working with a high level committee dedicated to getting things done. And we did.

My experience is neither unusual nor definitive. Not everyone follows the same path of professional involvement. But ALA, finally, is our biggest room, our strongest collective voice. It's where we do, or should, wind up.

At midwinter 2015, a lot of ALA members were very worried about declining membership. There are a few bright exceptions:  YALSA and ALSC have managed to grow -- reflecting a surge of interest in youth.

But to me, the issue isn't really about ALA. It's about that sometimes awkward moment of generational change. Boomers are moving out. Millennials are moving up. There are Gen-Xers in the middle, but despite their many gifts, their birth numbers are less than half of the generations on either side.

And what do we know about the Millennials, the next generation of librarians?
  • They are coming into the profession just as a near-Depression wreaked havoc on libraries of all kinds.
  • Many of them accepted less than professional positions, often at less than full time wages or benefits, just to get their feet in the library door.
  • Many of them have staggering student debt.
Why is membership falling? Give me a D. Give me a U. Give me an H.

They're broke!

But they won't always be. And eventually the Boomers, kicking and screaming, will make way for their successors. (To be fair, that same recession meant a sudden erosion of Boomer retirement savings. Scary.)

What to do about it? Well, many divisions, committees, and roundtables have already figured it out. We need a continuum of professional engagement.
  • Sign up, get emails.
  • Get info about local meet-ups.
  • Get invited to inexpensive local or regional workshops.
  • Get encouraged to present at them.
  • Get celebrated for your successes. That might be institutional recognition. It might be state association awards.
  • Get introduced to the next level conferences - and on the strength of past presentations, get free registration, or greater institutional support.
  • Get invited to an ever larger sphere of professional activity and engagement.
Along the way there are so many free tools to connect people. And being connected is part of what it means to be a Millennial.

But I want to underscore something else: it is the duty of leadership (supervisors, department heads, and directors across the board) to invest in professional growth, the essential asset of staff. There are, in fact, best practices of budgeting in this regard, and not just for libraries. How much should an institution spend on a combination of tuition reimbursement, continuing education, and conference expenses? Answer: two percent of the salary budget (exclusive of benefits).

That's not an ALA problem. That's the demonstrated need for a professional commitment by our members. Don't look for a national association to solve a profoundly local problem. Step up. Support your staff.

And have faith in the rhythms of change.


Rick Ashton said...

Jamie, I think you are wise to indicate that professional involvement is both a local and national challenge and a set of personal choices. As an ALA member for many years, I've come to see the proliferation of divisions, boards, committees, round tables, task forces, discussion groups, and other gatherings as attempts to create human-scale engagement in a large organization. Your own involvements with ALA are a result of the human-scale work you have done for many years at local and state levels, gaining the knowledge, experience, and confidence to prepare you for ALA presidential leadership. Makes sense to me.

James LaRue said...

Yes, that's right. We try to scale things to a place where they make sense to us.