I’ve written some posts critical of ALA in the past and have had a number of people encourage me to get involved so that I can try to make a constructive difference (instead of just complaining). So, when I was asked to be on two committees whose missions I felt strongly allied with, I said yes to both of them. I’m definitely not afraid of work (Five Weeks to a Social Library swallowed my life for far more than just five weeks), so I figured I could definitely handle any work I was asked to do.

What I didn’t know much about was the price of participation. I knew that I would need to go to Midwinter to make all this work, and I was fully willing to do so. This year, Midwinter is in Philadelphia, which is only a 1-hour plane ride from Vermont (a direct flight even!). I was willing to spend the money to make this happen… within reason of course.

My library director asked me to spend less time away from work this year at conferences and whatnot (and participation in ALA isn’t exactly encouraged at my place of work), so there was no way I could spend an entire week away from work. I figured I would only go for the couple of days that I would need to be there for my committee meetings (and I crossed my fingers that the meetings would be on consecutive days — or even on the same day).

When the hotels opened up for registration, I thought, ok, soon I’m going to hear about the dates and times of the meetings, since they must announce these things before the hotels book up. When I looked at the hotels in October, they were completely booked, but I did see several non-conference hotels that were a tolerable cab ride away and weren’t booked up. While I could book the hotel in advance, since hotel reservations can be canceled without losing any money, I couldn’t book my plane tickets until I heard about when the meetings were scheduled. So I waited. And waited.

On Friday, I heard about the date and time of the meeting for one of the committees I volunteered to serve on. The other, I have no idea about. Fortunately, the one I did know the date for was on the same day as the Top Tech Trends panel (and not at the same time. Score!). I still hadn’t heard about the date and time the other committee would be meeting, but since it was nearly mid-November already and I fly out of a pretty small airport, I figured I should just book my tickets and hope that things would work out. So, this weekend, I went on the web and looked for a flight that would get me in early on Saturday morning and get me home on Monday. That way I would have Saturday, Sunday and early in the day on Monday at Midwinter.

When I looked on Kayak, Orbitz and Expedia, I was horrified. The flight to Philadelphia, which is usually under $200, is $475 for those dates. I checked the other closest airport, more than 2 hours away, and found that it was even more expensive to get to Philadelphia from there. Well, I guess I could choose the $260 flight that flew from Burlington to LaGuardia, from LaGuardia to Pittsburgh and from Pittsburgh to Philly, but I’m not a masochist and dealing with connecting flights in January is a gamble to be avoided at all costs. I suppose I could also have taken the train from Vermont, which leaves once a day from Montpelier, but that is a 12 hour ride each way (from 9am to 9pm) so I would end up losing two full days traveling (which means more time away from work). Plus, I hate trains and the thought of spending 24 hours alone on one really doesn’t sound like a lot of fun.

So basically, my options are, spend $475 on the plane, $400 on a hotel, $160 for registration and more on cabs and meals to go to a few meetings; save $300 but spend two days on a train; or not go (yes, I’m sure there are other options that involve hostel stays and hitchhiking, but honestly, I’m just not willing to be that miserable to get to Midwinter). Adam is supportive of my career, but I would feel like a jerk spending that much money.

Yeah, honey, I know we said we can’t afford to buy you a new car (though you’ve had yours for 12 years), but how about I spend over $1,000 to go to ALA Midwinter for a day and a half?

It makes me wonder how other people swing this. Do their places of work fund most of it? (My place of work does offer funding, but it gets eaten up by one national conference per year and one local one and I already did Annual.) What does that mean for those whose jobs don’t fund it? You have the choice of either spending your hard-earned money on ALA conferences or you can’t participate. This means that the people more likely to participate are the people from libraries that support participation (both in time off and money), which consequently means that there is little place in ALA’s hierarchy from people from “have not” libraries who aren’t willing to shell out the money themselves. And do we as librarians really make enough money to spend several thousand dollars per year to participate in ALA? I could conceivably spend 10% of my salary on ALA membership and participation in a year. It’s like the Catholic Church.

Perhaps this means I’ll be kicked out of everything because I can’t fulfill my duties as a committee member (honestly, I have no idea what the rules are since, when I looked for the ACRL committee I’m on on the ACRL website, I couldn’t find it). The irony is that I really do want to help and would put in any amount of sweat to do a great job for the people heading these committees. What I don’t understand is why virtual participation isn’t encouraged. There are so many enthusiastic people out there who would love to make ALA better, but just can’t afford to attend the meetings. On most committees, it’s still an ALL or NOTHING deal (virtual participation seems to be rarely allowed, even in a committee charged to develop a virtual conference). Sure, each of these committees has a listserv attached to it, but there isn’t much activity on it (save a few voices), so it’s clear to me that most stuff gets done at Midwinter and Annual, with the listserv being a space to share notes and plan face-to-face meetings.

It makes me think back to the planning of Five Weeks to a Social Library. There were six of us, from all over the U.S and Canada, planning this big online extravaganza with absolutely no experience. We didn’t have the luxury to meet in person before the course; in fact, we barely had time for the three IM meetings we conducted between August and February. Almost all of our planning took place via e-mail, on a wiki and in Google Docs and Spreadsheets. I think if you have people who are accustomed to collaborating and communicating online, it’s very easy to get them to plan things online. Some people are just so used to having to have a meeting to discuss things that they can’t imagine doing it any other way. And I think that’s the problem. If you have people who are totally cool with online participation and others who are totally against it, you end up with a split committee where one half is GTD-ing online and the other gets everything done when they meet in person. Both end up missing a lot of what’s going on.

We live in an age now where it is very easy to collaborate online. Between blogs, wikis, instant messaging, VoIP, and web conferencing software, we can plan almost anything in the online medium. At the same time, air travel has become very unpleasant, inconvenient and expensive. Furthermore, most librarians do not get funding to attend conferences. Imagine if most committees had all of their meetings online. It would open up participation to all these people whose only barrier to participation is money; people who may never have attended an ALA conference in their career. When we put out a request for proposals for people to create content for Five Weeks to a Social Library, I was blown away by the over 30 people who quickly volunteered their time and effort to educate others. Lots of people want to do good for the profession; they just don’t want to go broke doing it.

Were virtual participation in committees the norm, why would we need Midwinter? If all the “business of ALA” were virtual, Midwinter would largely lose its reason to exist. And that’s a big revenue stream for ALA. I wonder if this is a big part of ALA’s reluctance to allow virtual participation. My friend Jason Griffey wrote a terrific post the other day suggesting some alternatives to the current revenue streams and discussing what a great success the LITA BIGWIG Social Software Showcase was as a new model for participation/engagement itself. It’s a not-to-be-missed post from someone who is working from within to shake up ALA.

Maybe it’s my generation. Most of us don’t buy into the “ask not what ALA can do for you, ask what you can do for ALA” line. We want to understand what’s in it for us, especially in an age where we don’t need conferences and committees to network with other librarians nationally. 20 years ago, there weren’t many alternative ways to serve the profession and network. This has changed. For me, I want to be a part of ALA because I want to do good for the profession, not because I think it will help my career much. If I don’t feel like the work I’m doing is directly going to help people, and is just feeding the machine, I don’t want to do it. I can just throw myself into another project like Five Weeks to a Social Library (any of us can). Also, I don’t want to sacrifice my happiness for ALA. If I have to choose between going on a vacation and going to Midwinter this year, I choose vacation.

So my generation is alternatively skeptical of what the ALA can offer us and passionate about working to improve the profession. If participation continues to mean making the kind of sacrifices it does now, the ALA is going to lose my generation, save those whose libraries fund their participation in ALA or who have to participate in ALA to get tenure. Not that they won’t still do great things for the profession; they’ll just do it outside of ALA. There need to be more ways that people can come together and create something like the BIGWIG Social Software Showcase or Five Weeks to a Social Library within the confines of the ALA. While we can talk about revenue streams until the cows come home, if we don’t attract new members with benefits that speak to their needs/wants, you will lose untold money in the long run. We can’t pretend that things haven’t changed.