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.
|Number of Members||64,000||153,000|
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.
As Meredith mentioned above, i’ve spoken at many medical, IT and eye care conferences.
Paying to register for a conference where you’re a featured speaker is unheard of. I probably wouldn’t even consider such an invitation, unless the circumstances were incredibly special (ie, it was for a charity.)
Large professional organizations are enormous money-makers for those who run them. If you don’t believe me, just ask for the budget of any organization to which you belong. If they are losing money, they are doing something horribly wrong. (Notice, too, how these big organizations always locate their headquarters in some seriously expensive, downtown location like Chicago or New York.. you’ll never see them set up shop in a cheap place like Lincoln, NE… wonder why that is?)
Getting an honorarium to cover the cost of travel and the opportunity cost of missed work is not “greedy”, it’s common sense, and is a show of respect on the part of the sponsoring organization. If they think so little of a speaker that they can’t offer them any sort of compensation to cover their costs, then perhaps they weren’t qualified to speak in the first place.
Here’s a concrete example — a while back, I was asked to speak at a conference in Portland, OR. I live on the east coast, but the organizers thought that I would enhance their program by presenting.
The trip took — literally — two days out of my schedule just for travel, plus another 2 days to give the lecture (two hours each day, a total of 4 hours.)
They gave an honorarium of $1500. This barely covered my travel & hotel costs, let alone the 4 missed days of work!
Had they offered me no compensation, AND made me pay to register at this conference ($500) there was no way that i’d even consider going — on principle alone.
When an organization pays that way, it almost ensures that they are going to get lesser quality speakers, because only the most desperate will agree to those terms.
I actually help run a professional organization (founded last year). Recently, we gave a conference in California. Since we’re just starting, we’re small (less than 200 members so far), and thus don’t have the piles of cash like more established groups. Despite this, we coughed up a $500 honorarium for every speaker that showed up at our meeting.
Why? Because to not do so would be unthinkable.
Good post, Meredith. I’m teetering on the brink of ALA on a day-to-day basis; I too feel a massive disconnect, and I see it up close and personal as well. The part that bugs me the most is the vast disregard for the contributions made by librarians such as Jenny.
Merredith–I stated the policy. I think there is–well, let me change that to “may be”–an ethical issue; I’m not sure how strong it is. I also don’t believe it should apply to divisional conferences (and was surprised to find that it did, at least for PLA). In fact, when I was asked to do something at a LITA National Forum that I wasn’t planning to attend, they did say registration would be comp’d–so in the PLA case, I wonder. (The thing I was asked to do was something I wasn’t willing to do; money wasn’t the issue.)
I didn’t raise the “bankruptcy” issue because I think it’s absurd. I didn’t raise the “giving back” issue because there are lots of ways to give back–and some speakers aren’t so much giving back as raising their own profiles. And, while I may disagree with Jenny Levine some times, she sure as heck has provided plenty of worth to the profession on her own dime; “giving back” is just not a reasonable argument in her case.
There’s a lot to think about in your post. I’m not on the brink for ALA, at least not yet (LITA is a different issue), but that’s me: I’m not in the business of convincing other people why they should belong. Sometimes I’m not sure of my reasons, but at least before weblogs, the two conferences were the primary way I stayed in touch with professional colleagues–and I still treasure the face-to-face. (I don’t have the money, time, or energy to go to ten or even four conferences a year!)
Commenting on a comment: Docwolf was sold a bill of goods. That $1,500 wasn’t an honorarium–and I’ll bet it was reported to the IRS, and he owed taxes on it. Expense reimbursement is expense reimbursement; an honorarium is over and above that. ( I usually ask for two checks, only the second of which gets reported, since reimbursed expenses aren’t income.)
Hi Walt, i was just simplifying the case to make it clear.
The point was, if the organization doesn’t try to make a speaker whole — at the very least — the speaker has little motivation to disrupt his life & come speak.
Sometimes I think that people in “caring professions” have an issue with low self-esteem, or that they do not value themselves or their time highly.
Donald Trump gets $1.5 million dollars to do a 30 minute talk. That is obviously an extreme example, but no person’s time — whether they are a Plutocrat or a guy working at Burger King — is valueless, and organizations need to grok that if they want to be considered first-class.
When ever any person or organization says that they are doing you a “favor”, or conferring a great “honor” on you by letting you speak – but won’t compensate you in some way for your time – run away. Fast.
“The point was, if the organization doesn’t try to make a speaker whole — at the very least — the speaker has little motivation to disrupt his life & come speak.”
It took a while for me to understand the “disrupt your life” part, but a lot less time to grok the concept that if what I have to say is valuable, the organization should demonstrate that.
Whoof. Nice math there, Meredith. I get happier about dumping ALA by the day.
Yeah, I thought if nothing else, those numbers would really speak to people.
Meredith hits one out of the park
I was going to comment on Jenny’s post concerning the ALA and conference fees, but my thoughts seem irrelevant in the face of Meredith’s incredible post. Excerpts below, with small amounts of commentary:
Librarians sacrifice enough by be…
Thanks for the post Meredith. This is something that needs to be discussed openly and often.
I like your #3.
Also, I think we need to remember (part of your #1) that not all organizations can afford to pay to send people to conferences AND some of us are self-employed. For the last seven years, I have paid for me to go to conferences, even those that I have spoken at. There is no massive organizational budget behind my efforts.
BTW — slightly off topic. In SLA, the board (I believe this is still true) is not paid anything, not even money to cover expenses. I would like to run for the board, but can I afford ($) to do so? No.
This post made me want to stand up and applaud!
Awww shucks… 😉
Jenny’s point was clear and well taken and Meredith’s comments capped it extremely well. ALA is too monolithic; too concerned with social issues that should, at most, be sidebars to their pressing need to address real library problems in one of the most crucial times of change libraries have ever faced; and they’re far too concerned with their almost divine right to the meager earnings of librarians rather than in crafting an effective plan to improve the social and financial standing of its members (that’s a real and pertinent mission that needs to addressed in something other than talking points).
Here’s the deal for me. ALA members are predominantly liberal in their stands concerning government. All you have to do is read through a few sites put up by librarians and you’ll get a lot of knocking of big government. Bush is knocked regularly because he’s an oil man and makes his decisions about the government because he’s taking care of his cronies and letting down the little people. Now my statement isn’t about Bush so everyone relax. Let me put on my commenorative Che beret and say that ALA is big government. They do not represent librarians’ needs anymore; they represent their corporate interpretation of our needs.
It would be nice if ALA paid librarians to speak at conferences, but that’s not my point here. And it would be nice if all librarians wanted to participate by donating their time to the worthy work of ALA. . And I’m not saying that they should even cover the cost of transportation and housing for speakers–though everyone agrees that would be nice. The issue is the statement that is being made by an organization when it charges its members (which it acknowledges as underpaid) for participating in an activity that generates sizable cashflow for the organization.
ALA is a dinosaur and needs to change dramatically and quickly or they will be replaced by the evolving ability of librarians to communicate quickly and effectively with new technologies. As someone mentioned above, in the past the primary reason for participation was their uniqueness in providing a means of intercommunication. They can kiss that goodbye. Blogs and RSS feeds are only the tip of what’s coming and if ALA doesn’t get serious about a real mission pertinent to the professional needs of librarians and a purpose for themselves that working librarians can relate to–then the only word that comes to mind is “dodo”.
Bravo! I dropped my ALA membership earlier this year for political reasons, but also because it’s not really doing anything for me. I think the most important part of this post is where you compare the operating expenses of ALA to those of NASW. That says a lot!
If you want to know where all that money goes, check out the ACRL staff list in their latest issue of C&RL news. I don’t begrudge anyone a job, but they have a huge staff and it just seems to promote a lot of bureacracy, in my opinion. I really wonder about this. I don’t want ALA to necessarily run on a shoestring but I don’t know what is going on here. I think this debate about ALA and money is, like other commenters said, only the tip of the iceberg.
And yet, there is something really nice about the face to face interaction, once you find a place at ALA (not that easy). I hope this organization can somehow get a clue.
also, ALA is really important to some people in the profession (I am thinking here about academic librarian catalogers). there’s no reason, though, that they couldn’t go off on their own.
My biggest problem with ALA conferences is the incredible redundancy. There are the same sessions every time. its too big for anyone to keep track.
When I was a member of ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy steering committee, we had twice-yearly retreats that were completely paid for by ALA. Even though I was working for an organization that would have paid my way!! Perhaps that’s where the money is going . . . we had some mighty fine dinners and swanky hotel rooms. And I can’t say that the work was any more important than some of the other committees I have served on.
I could be mistaken but re: the comment about the ACRL staff. I don’t think that ALA dues is paying for those staff – I think it is ACRL dues and the various revenue-generated activities of the division. In fact, every time I have been involved with planning an ACRL event, we have to budget in something like 20% that ACRL pays to ALA for “indirect costs” …. clearly the financial set-up of ALA and its divisions, roundtables, etc. is not as well known as it could (should?) be?
I just renewed my ALA membership today, after a year-long lapse. I gave the ALA $110! I am a young librarian, and am interested in the LHRT (library history roundtable) and also the ACRL and its publications C&RL, C&RL News and RBM (Rare Book and Manuscript Journal.) I am not interested in the ALA as much as I am in the ACRL, but in order to join one I have to pay for the other. I appreciate this post Meredith, as it raises awareness about how the ALA is overpriced and more importantly, alienating. But perhaps there are just too many librarians for all of them to have an equal voice within its professional organization? I do not expect to attend any ALA meetings anytime soon, but for some reason I read about them and hope that some day, my professional situation might allow me more room for conference attendence. I am also a graduate student where my master’s thesis might be about library history in America, if so, I hope to submit to the LHRT for award considerations. For this reason, I sent off my 110$ today – so that I can join the weird club that is the American Library Association and its mysterious round tables. At the end of the day, one must really admit that the ALA is a fairly respectable force in American culture? Perhaps its good that it has lots of money, so that it can continue to raise awareness and be strong. My 2 cents.
[…] A little over two months ago I wrote about the issues I have with the ALA. This was in light of Jenny’s complaints about the ALA charging her registration for PLA when she was flying to Boston just to speak at the conference. For me, it was pretty much the straw that broke the camel’s back. A few months before I had reluctantly paid my ALA dues — which my employer does not cover. I didn’t even know why I was doing it. I guess I wanted to hold onto a glimmer of hope that ALA could get better. Between Michael Gorman, speakergate, and a whole host of other issues, I have pretty much lost hope. Two months ago I vowed not to speak at an ALA conference until speakers are better appreciated for their contributions (and not just those who are A-list bloggers/celebrities). And now I’ve pretty much decided that I no longer want to be a member. I just don’t feel like it represents me, and I don’t want to continue to support politics as usual. I especially don’t want to pay more (in light of the dues increase) to support politics as usual. […]