That Jenny Levine. Always looking for a buck. I mean, the nerve of her thinking that if she’s speaking at a conference and flying out to it on her own dime, that she shouldn’t have to pay (registration) for the pleasure of hearing herself talk. It is her sacred duty and priviledge to speak at any ALA Conference and she should not expect to be “paid” (and by pay, I mean losing slightly less money than she would otherwise). In addition, it is a conflict of interest for the ALA to “pay” librarians to speak at conferences (ostensibly because it’s their duty?). And if ALA did start paying speakers, well they’d go completely bankrupt! What gall she has to think that she is doing a favor for the PLA by speaking at their conference when it is actually the other way around. She should thank them for the priviledge of spending all that money to fly out to Boston to share her amazing ideas with her colleagues.

Well, at least those are some of the arguments I’ve heard this week in response to Jenny’s discussion about how ALA makes its members pay registration for the conferences at which they are speaking. For me, a librarian very interested in starting to speak professionally and who is really on the fence about ALA, Jenny’s comments brought up a lot of feelings in me. I’ve read the comments on Jenny’s blog and on other people’s blogs. I read the comments (some ridiculous) coming from the ALA Council Listserv. And I just found myself getting more and more pissed by the whole thing. So here are some of the important points that arose in my mind when Jenny brought this up.

Point 1: Do We Really Make Enough Money for This?

Contrary to what people outside of the profession might think, librarians do not usually get rich from being librarians. Rich perhaps in the sense of satisfaction that comes from helping people, but not rich in the “bling bling” sort of way. If I wanted to be really honest, I’d tell you that I literally cannot save a dime right now from my paycheck each month. And to call Adam and me frugal is an understatement. The only vacation we’ve been on this year was to visit our family, and the only expenses there were the plane tickets (heck, we probably save money in the long run with all the free meals). We buy NOTHING. So the idea of spending $1,000 more or less to go to an out-of-state conference is absurd. Should I eat this month or pay the mortgage or should I go to a conference? Tough choice there…

But there’s institutional support, right? Well… sort of. Unfortunately, libraries, also are not rich. While Microsoft may pay for its employees to fly all over the globe to conferences to spread the gospel, librarians are rarely so lucky. I see some librarians going to 10 or more conferences every year and I wonder how they are able to do it. The amount of money my institution offers per year in professional development money would pay for one out-of-state conference and one conference within driving distance. Anything else I do will be out-of-pocket. Even my ALA membership was out-of-pocket (and I still question why I paid around $150 to an organization that doesn’t represent me in any way). It’s great to say, as one council member did that “even if budgets are tight finding enough money to support the efforts of those who are actively and productively involved with the sharing of information should receive higher consideration than if often does among Libraries and Library organizations.” Who wouldn’t agree? But usually libraries aren’t deciding can between professional development dollars and that new hot tub for the staff lounge. It’s usually decisions that involve essential services and staff. And when it’s between collection development funds of professional development funds, I think it’s obvious which one would get the axe.

One councilor on the Council listserv wrote this:

Working in ALA is… dedicating yourself to a cause higher than your own dinner plate. Chalk it up to living life longer and better when you can freely give yourself to a greater cause – and expect nothing back. Not even a free registration or expenses paid. ALA may look like Big Daddy to some, but we who work within it know that it must earn its way (no tax subsidies or town council gifts) – and we must help it every time we begin an activity or select a speaker.

Yes, librarianship is a helping profession, but librarians do not need to be martyrs. We shouldn’t have to live on ramen noodles so that we can speak at conferences. I listened to this dogma enough as a social worker and it’s just as silly coming out ot the mouth of a librarian. Social workers shouldn’t be allowed to make money. Social workers who went into private practice were thought of as sell-outs because only poor people have problems. It’s like some people can only feel like they’re doing a good thing when they suffer. Librarians sacrifice enough by being librarians (and getting paid so little) that it’s not their duty to serve the ALA. Librarians should help their patrons. They shouldn’t have to make little money and they shouldn’t have to sacrifice their financial well-being or the well-being of their family so that they can speak at a stupid conference.

Point 2: Are these the only ways we can “serve the profession?” (or does it have to cost $?)

If I won the lottery, I would travel all over, sharing my passion for technology in libraries with the world. My desire to share is even greater than my stage fright, which crippled me for years in high school and college. I love sharing ideas with all of you on my blog, but I would enjoy it even more to talk with all of you in person. Going to the ALA Annual Conference last year was so exciting, not for the sessions — which I got nothing out of — but for the conversations with fellow bloggers. I would love to be able to share my ideas with larger groups of people and not just those who happen to read blogs, because a lot of the time I’m probably just preaching to the choir. I can’t wait to do my OPAL talk on wikis and my talk on social software at the Vermont Library Association Conference in May (where they are comping my registration). I hope people get something useful out of them. And I hope that I’ll be allowed to speak at Internet Librarian next year. All I want to do is share ideas in any available format. This is how I can contribute to the profession. I’m not a joiner. I hate committee membership — it never seems like anything useful gets done. I don’t want to talk and talk about policies and procedures. And maybe that makes me a bad librarian, but I don’t care. What I want to do is share. This blog, my book, the wikis, and any professional speaking I do is how I will serve the profession (though I really don’t see it as “serving” because it makes me happy).

I guess this brings up an important issue. In the past, there were certain ways that librarians contributed to the profession. They wrote articles for professional journals, they served on committees for professional organizations, and/or they spoke at conferences. The first option involves research and time. The latter two involve travel, expense, and time. Is that the only way to contribute to the profession these days?

The Internet has opened up a whole new world of opportunities for sharing information and furthering the profession. Committee work can go on entirely online (though it still doesn’t in most cases). People can give speeches at home and make them available as a podcast or better yet, as a screencast with visuals. People can share their library’s success stories on Web sites, blogs, and wikis. We don’t have to wait a year to hear about the cool things going on at Michael Stephens’ library. We can hear about it that day on his blog. I am co-chairing a conference in April that is entirely online and entirely free. People can present papers, podcasts, screencasts, etc. The only barrier to participation is the time it takes to prepare a presentation, not the ability to pay. OPAL does things the same way. I hope that these will serve as models for the future, especially for a profession whose professionals make so little money. We can find better ways to network, collaborate, and share information!

Point 3: Paying for the Privilege of Speaking (or Speaker as Sucker)

Adam and I spent a lot of money to fly across country to his friend’s wedding a few years ago. We stayed in an expensive hotel and spent a lot on a gift. We were not invited to a rehearsal dinner. We were more or less ignored at the wedding. It’s not like we expected anything special, but it would be nice if someone said “thanks for coming. It’s so nice to have you here.” It would have been nice to know that the sacrifice we made to get there was valued. In 2004, Adam and I had a destination wedding in the Napa Valley. We created a Web site with information about attractions and hotels in the area. We put together really cool gift baskets for everyone who came (including a Frommers guide to Napa) and everyone who came was invited to the rehearsal dinner. We made sure to let everyone know how much we appreciated having them there. Yes, the wedding was really about me and Adam, but it was important to us that people leave our wedding not feeling like they wasted a lot of money. And I think we did it pretty successfully.

That is where ALA has it all wrong. Just like a wedding some people may be obligated to speak at the ALA Conference. But if you want good speakers and happy speakers, you will make them feel valued. It can be as simple as comping their registration, taking them out to dinner, or getting them a gift. It’s just as easy for Jenny to speak at Computers in Libraries as it is for her to speak at the PLA Conference. So why would she choose the latter over the former when Computers in Libraries doesn’t charge her a registration fee? Perhaps this is why the talks at the ALA Conference always look so boring while I wish I could clone myself for all of the great sessions offered at Computers in Libraries. It’s just like in libraries. The places that treat their employees the best will get the best employees. If the cost of going to the conference outweighs the good feelings the speaker will get from giving the talk, then they will probably decide not to give the talk.

Point 4: The Conflict of Interest vs. the ALA Will Go Bankrupt

I have heard both of these arguments coming out of people’s mouths and in some cases at the same time. Walt Crawford actually made a good case for the “conflict of interest” issue:

It’s a standard ALA policy that members of the organization can’t be paid for speeches at ALA conferences… I think it’s a necessary ethical policy, in fact. In other words, you’re not paying them to present at their conference–you’re paying them to attend your conference. If it’s “them,” then you’re not a member–and you should not only get in free, you should probably receive some compensation.

Interesting argument, but the ALA is not really paying them to give their speech. The ALA is just not wringing more money out of the speakers. To some extent, it also assumes that the speaker was planning on going to the conference anyways. This is not always the case. Some people only go to the conferences to speak and if they have to pay to get into the conference, then they are literally paying for the privilege of speaking. Another problem is that most people, even members, don’t see ALA as an “us”, but as a “them”. Maybe because it’s such a large and unresponsive organization. Maybe it’s because it’s behind the times, as seen in its Web site, its use of technology, and its leadership. Maybe it’s because the ALA doesn’t work to engender a feeling of cohesiveness. Maybe it’s because we don’t feel it represents us in any way. Maybe it’s because we only pay our dues to get the magazines. For whatever reason, most people just don’t see the ALA as something they’re a part of. So I don’t think that argument is going to sit well with most people.

My husband has spoken at the American Optometric Association as has his father. His father has been a lifelong member of the AOA and whenever he has spoken at one of their conferences, he has received a very generous honoraria (like $1,000 or more). They’re a profession. They’re a helping profession, in fact. But optometrists apparently don’t feel the need to be martyrs while contributing to the profession. And good for them!

Another thing: Walt seems to be the only person who has made this argument without making the bankruptcy argument in the same breath. Here’s what I read on the council listserv:

the explanation has been that it is considered a professional courtesy and responsibility for us to present to one another. When I have broached the subject and suggested we consider doing otherwise, I was assured that this would bankrupt the conference.

It kind of waters down any legitimate argument when the money issue rears its ugly head. Someone mentioned that it would cost the ALA $100,000 to waive registration for all of its speakers. To someone without a sense of context, this may seem like a lot of money. But here are some interesting facts based on ALA’s 2003-2004 financials. ALA spends $5.6 million dollars on ALA conferences. $100,000 is a drop in the ocean! In addition, ALA makes $9.4 million dollars on ALA conferences. So they are in no way losing money on the conference. Even if the case could be made that the ALA couldn’t afford to spend $100,000 on its speakers, they could make up the money in other ways. ALA makes an unreal amount of money off of the companies that advertise and exhibit at the conference. There were over 1,600 booths at the ALA conference. If they charged each exhibitor $62.50 more, they’d make enough to cover the speakers’ registration. Crazy, huh?

What I really wonder is how Information Today manages to hold all of their conferences while comping the registration for their speakers and getting the speakers a cute gift. They’re a for-profit company so they certainly aren’t going to have conferences where they lose money. Maybe ALA could learn something from Information Today about conference management? Or maybe just about how to treat the people who ensure the continued existence of their conferences?

Point 5: What Does ALA Do With All This Money?

I decided to do a little research into ALA’s financials and I was frankly shocked and appalled by the amount of money that goes through this organization every year. To give it a little bit of context, I thought I would compare it to the National Association of Social Workers, which I was a member of when I was a therapist. The NASW did amazing work in fighting for better salaries for social workers and lobbying the government regarding the causes social workers cared about (i.e. child welfare, civil rights, mental health insurance parity, etc.). We also got a lot of great benefits including cheap malpractice insurance. So I was shocked to see how much less the NASW spends each year.

Organization ALA NASW
Number of Members 64,000 153,000
Expenses $43,025,000 $19,591,637

Scary, huh? How does an organization less than half the size spend more than twice as much money per year? I really don’t understand it. They spend more than $25 million on payroll and operating expenses alone! And I would feel really good about that if I thought that the ALA was doing a lot of good. But I don’t see it. And I certainly don’t see them representing a younger generation of members. When there is talk of a shortage of librarians rather than a shortage of entry-level jobs (which is the reality), new librarians feel betrayed. When the ALA is so behind technologically and its President insults basically anyone interested in any sort of online publishing, digitization, or Web design, techies feel betrayed. When the ALA doesn’t lobby for better pay for librarians, those of us who barely make ends meet feel betrayed. What does ALA stand for? Who do they help? It is an organization that represents libraries, not librarians.

Why do we need the ALA? Is ALA really relevant anymore? Does anyone really feel like ALA represents their interests? At my job, none of my colleagues has been to an ALA Conference and have no interest in going. They seem to consider the ALA pretty irrelevant. And that perspective is only confirmed when the only thing the ALA Council can seem to accomplish is passing a resolution on Iraq!!! The ALA is a huge organization that is hard to understand, hard to feel a part of, and hard to know what it stands for. I paid out-of-pocket for my membership this year, but it will certainly be the last unless the ALA changes. But they won’t. They made more on dues in 2004 than in 2003. It’s basically a ringing endorsement for politics as usual.

One thing I do know is that I, like Jenny, will never speak at an ALA Conference until they decide not to charge speakers for registering. I know it is pretty meaningless since no one probably even wants me to speak — other than crazy Vermonters 😉 — but I will take my stand nonetheless. We librarians stand up for our patrons so often, but sometimes we need to stand up for ourselves.

Update: Check out Jessamyn and Steven Cohen’s excellent posts on this same subject as well as Jenny’s follow-up.

ALA, American Library Association, conference, speakers, professional organizations, registration, librarians, librarianship