By Meredith Farkas | May 15, 2008
I’ve been thinking a lot about the discussion last week about speaking, being compensated for speaking, transparency, the profession and it’s (perhaps?) inferiority complex, and so much more. Everyone contributed such unique and interesting perspectives, some I agree with, some I don’t, some that made me change my perspective a bit. We’ve all had different experiences that have colored our view of things. The real fact is that there are no absolutes. We all have to decide for ourselves what is right or wrong for us, and we shouldn’t judge people for making different choices than the ones we do.
Lots of people have strong opinions about what is appropriate and inappropriate for speakers to get. But I wonder how can we judge right or wrong when there are such differences in how speakers are treated at different conferences? It was clear from the comments on my post that speakers in Australia tend to pay registration while speakers in the UK not only don’t have to pay registration, but usually also have their travel expenses reimbursed. And here? Well, clearly it’s a mish-mosh or we wouldn’t be having this discussion.
With that mish-mosh, we have to ask ourselves how some organizations can manage to comp speakers’ registration and some can’t. We heard from Michael who runs the Massachusetts Library Association Conference:
We would never require a speaker, from anywhere, cover the cost of their own registration on the day they are speaking. As g says above, it doesn’t cost the association any money to let someone come for free. I am a firm believer that you have to spend money to make money at these types of events, and MLA has been making a profit for the last several years under this philosophy. I give away a lot of free registrations, and hopefully many of those attendees will become members of the association, or come back to the conference the next year, or support MLA in some other way.
But then we also heard from a woman who helps to organize the California Library Association Conference who stated that the speakers constitute around 1/4 of their attendee costs. So, clearly, if they’ve been depending on registration revenues from this population, it’s not something they are going to change. I have no idea what percentage of the Massachusetts Library Assoc. Conference’s attendee population is speakers, but it’s interesting to me that they can manage to comp the registration of speakers. As can the Vermont Library Association (though we’re small fries up here). I have no idea how these large-scale conferences are planned and budgeted, but it’s pretty clear to me that the people organizing conferences in different states could probably benefit from talking to each other and sharing tricks of the trade. After hearing about how the Vermont Library Association Conference is planned and run, it has become very clear to me that some state conferences are run much better and more efficiently than others. I certainly have sympathy and respect for those who run conferences and have to make difficult decisions.
I’ve heard from others that invited speakers are different from non-invited ones and should be compensated. I think it’s fine to make that distinction if that’s what the organization chooses to do. People can decide for themselves what is or isn’t acceptable to them. I think the big problem is that invited speakers are not always compensated. I was asked to speak at the New England Library Association conference back in 2006. They told me they’d pay my travel expenses but couldn’t pay me an honorarium. I figured since it’s a big conference in New England and it sounded interesting, I’d do it. A few days later, I get an email saying that because I live in New England (even though I’m not explicitly a member of NELA), they couldn’t reimburse my travel expenses and I’d have to pay registration. Needless to say, I’ve never been to the New England Library Association Conference.
We also saw the argument that people who would have gone anyways should have to pay their own expenses including registration. I often wonder how people know that someone would have gone anyways. It’s not like every member of an organization attends the conference. I would not have gone to ALA Annual in 2007 had I not been invited to speak by three different groups. Yet, I still had to pay registration while another speaker on one of the panels I was on got paid because they’re not a librarian. I can live with organizations having the rule that everyone who is a member or even everyone who is in their target population has to pay registration. People can make any policy they want. But there is no logic to the idea that all of those people would have gone to the conference anyways and that’s why they should pay. It’s like saying that all handgun owners would all be going to NRA events. No likely.
Another argument I’ve heard is that we have a duty to serve the organizations we’re a part of. I personally don’t feel like our feeling of duty should go beyond paying our dues — unless we want it to. We all serve the profession in different ways. I don’t serve at the state level, because I’m so involved nationally. I’m involved with ALA and I contribute to the profession through the many projects I’ve been a part of that have nothing to do with an organization. There are so many different ways to contribute that no one should be made to feel like it’s their responsibility to give to their state, national, or any other organization.
It was made clear in the comments that there are two negative things that can come from not spending more money on one’s conference speakers. The first is that you get a lower quality of speaker. Plenty of in-demand speakers will not speak for free unless they are a member of your organization (and some still won’t). The second (and most frustrating) is that you discourage from contributing those new librarians who barely make enough to support themselves. I know, I know, the benefits to your career, yadda yadda. But how much does that matter if they can’t make their rent that month because they spent hundreds of dollars (or more) to speak at a conference? The woman who works on the CLA conference stated that “our member/leaders have chosen to deeply discount conference registration for students, support staff, retirees and members who are unemployed.” I see nothing there about brand-new-just-out-of-school librarians. Librarians who probably aren’t making a lot. Librarians who are just now starting to have to pay off their student loans. Maybe a good solution is for CLA to offer free registration to speakers who are 0-3 years post-MLS and deeply discounted registration for those in that same group who are not speaking. This might bring some great new untapped talent to the conference.
There are some people whose response to those who complain is basically “suck it up.” From what I’ve noticed, these tend to be people who have spent quite a bit of their own money on conferences. It feels to me like the “I walked ten miles through driving snow uphill both ways to school” argument. Ok, so you spent $2000 of your own money on library conferences recently. That was your choice. To say that people who want to be compensated are “whining” is just as bad as those people saying you’re crazy for spending that much money.
I’ve also heard people say that folks are greedy for wanting to be paid to speak. While I don’t think our profession as a whole devalues itself, I do feel like people who make that argument devalue us and themselves. Absurd! Why should we not get compensated? We work hard to create a presentation, we travel to get to the conference, we speak, and they charge people to hear us speak. I feel like my time and intellectual property are worth something. That doesn’t mean that I’m not willing to speak for free. I donate my time for things I feel connected to, like local libraries, my state organization, library schools or any webcasts that are offered for free. I’ve actually refused honoraria in a number of situations where I didn’t want to cost the organization any money. But that was my choice. I also speak for free when I think the opportunity will be really good for my career or to travel somewhere I’ve never been before (like Denmark and Iceland). Money isn’t the only benefit.
I feel strongly that each of us needs recognize the value we provide when we speak, decide what that means to us, and then make decisions about speaking opportunities accordingly. You should define whether it’s an honor to speak; not someone else.
I also find it frustrating for people to advise others to give up an important career opportunity because their acceptance of that might be a tacit acceptance of librarians not getting compensated for speaking. It would be very easy for me to tell my friend to not go to the conference and tell the folks at CLA why. However, giving up that opportunity might be a mistake and one person doing that isn’t going to make a difference. Anything like that needs to be done on a larger scale and in a more organized way. Asking one person to sacrifice a career opportunity for all of us is unreasonable.
I think the economy for speakers is skewed by the whole tenure track process. Whether or not those of us who aren’t on the tenure track choose to speak for nothing, there will always be people who have no choice but to take the opportunities they can get because their job depends on it. And of course they’re in the same boat as those other new librarians not on the tenure track in terms of being the lowest on the totem pole salary-wise. I was offered a job at an institution where librarians are tenure-track faculty and have to write and present, and they were actually given less professional development funding than I get at my University where I’m not tenure-track. This makes no sense to me. If this is a requirement of your job, then it should be funded. End of story. And I know other faculty have to do this, but do tenure-track library faculty get paid the same amount as teaching faculty do? And do they always get the same amount of conference support?
Steven Bell said that my friend should have “[found] out in advance if the conference you want to present at gives speakers free registration or not. That should be easy to do and will save a lot of hassle for everyone involved.” I agree that it’s important to find things out in advance, but is it that easy? I’ve seen a real lack of transparency from people organizing conferences. Yes, my friend should have found out what the deal was for speakers at the California Library Association Conference, but why the heck does the organization make that information so difficult to find? I looked all over their website and found no information. I created an account and logged into the site where people were supposed to submit their proposals and couldn’t find it there either (see below).
So, why bury this information? Why not make it more obvious? I don’t think anyone does it to intentionally keep people in the dark (at least I hope not), but still, it still ends up making people feel like they’ve been deceived (and really, to send someone an email right after their proposal is accepted saying “all conference related expenses, including registration fees, travel and hotel, are at your own expense” instead of before feels like a bait-and-switch). I’ve been there too. I’ve been asked to speak and was told that all my travel expenses would be covered. Then it was, well, everything is covered except ___. And then the money they were willing to pay for a hotel wouldn’t cover a hotel in the area. Etc, etc. I know these people weren’t trying to lie to me, but the effect was the same in that I felt deceived and annoyed.
Every group has different rules. Some make it so easy to make arrangements and get reimbursed. With others, you practically have to sign over your first-born. That should all be made clear before people make a decision to speak. When I ask for all the information, I find that I only get the whole story perhaps 50% of the time. And it shouldn’t be that way, because it only leads to ill feelings from the speaker. That person is traveling (perhaps a very long way) to speak at your conference. They are preparing a great presentation for the people paying to attend your conference. It seems only right to give them all of the information up-front so they can make an informed decision.
I think transparency is the critical thing missing in all of this. And maybe it will help to have a wiki for conference speakers like the one Cliff Landis created, where people can disclose how they were treated when they spoke. But it’s even more important for conference organizers themselves to make everything crystal clear to potential speakers. While pay is nice, communication is the key to a happy speaker. Lots of people probably will choose to speak for free and even to pay registration to speak, but they should be given all that information ahead of time so that they can make that choice.