How Much Is Enough?

I’ve been hearing more and more, recently, about people dropping out of service and professional development opportunities because they cannot secure funding from their institutions to attend. A member of a statewide committee I am on said this fall her continued membership would be contingent on her institution’s ability to pay for her travel to the meetings (since this is Ohio, that only ever involves driving, and her institution is only 25 miles away from where meetings are held). My ALA committee recently accepted a proposal for a panelist at a Midwinter discussion forum, but the panelist just e mailed me to say her institution would not provide her with funding to go, and were there any funding opportunities for her? I asked a coworker just this morning if she was going to Midwinter or not and she said no, and that the reason she wasn’t was because of funding. “Our travel stipend only pays for most of a trip to Chicago,” she said.

Well, she’s right about that: my official faculty stipend is $500 a year (though after you add in the extras it can be as much as $1500). And professional travel is not cheap. Someone planning to go to Midwinter next month can expect to spend well over $1,000: $165 for registration, $129/night (plus 12.5% tax) for the cheapest hotel on the official list, $71 per diem for meals (according to the U.S. General Services Administration). My flight from Ohio cost $405, airport transportation via the Super Shuttle in San Diego is $16 round trip, and airport parking back home is $10/day.

I find conferences energizing. At them I get great ideas, stay on top of what’s going on in the field and always meet interesting people. I learn lots, sleep little, and talk talk talk. But what are our institutions’ obligations to pay for this kind of professional development? What’s the payoff to them when we attend? A tight-fisted fiscal officer would point out that service can be done locally and research can be presented through publications rather than presentations. To learn new things, people can take webinars from the comfort of their own offices. And, while librarians who do national service and presentation may see it come back to them in the form of slight pay increases, it’s not enough to offset the cost of the travel itself. I don’t attend national conferences merely for my own benefit (do I?). Are we really supposed to do this just for the love of it? While no administrator has ever come out and asked me to quantify the institutional benefits of my professional development, is it really only a matter of time?

I asked if ALA had any funds to tap into for my committee’s speaker, and the answer was that “there is a long-standing ALA policy against providing stipends to librarians.” I’m sure the reasoning is that librarians should support the work of the organization and the development of our professional colleagues, but, facing financial pressures and funding shortfalls, it seems like many librarians are opting out.

According to my calculations, I spent over $1800 of my own money attending conferences and meetings this calendar year after all my reimbursements (which were well over $1500 due to a generous conference scholarship and part of the pot of travel money not used by my tenured colleagues). For me, it’s money well spent, but it’s also a lot of money, and I know it’s a lot more than many can afford. I don’t think our institutions are trying to send the message that professional development is not important, but I wonder if more and more of the rising cost of conference attendance has been shifting to the individual over the last decade and, with the economy being what it is, we’ve reached a kind of breaking point. Is conference attendance going down? I looked at the attendance for several conferences over the past few years, and it’s inconclusive: NASIG attendance has gone down, but ALA attendance has fluctuated and ER&L conference attendance is up. But I know ALA sections are worried about declining participation in committees and have been promoting virtual participation. Is this the answer?

It seems like the strategy of self-funding conference attendance, on top of membership and section fees, is not viable for the long term, though I’m not sure what the answer is – giving more breaks to presenters and other participants, upping virtual opportunities, or consolidating our opportunities so we get the most bang for our conference dollars.

Like many, my take-home pay is going down on January 1. But my rent isn’t going down, and neither is my student loan payment or the price of gas or any number of other essentials, so I am going to have to find other places in my personal budget to cut back. I’m not sitting out San Diego, but I wonder how many of my ALA committee members will make it.

About afry

Amy is the Electronic Resources Coordinator at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and the instruction liaison for the Art Department. She received her library degree from the University of Illinois in 2003 and has been a librarian at academic libraries in Missouri, Minnesota and California.

12 thoughts on “How Much Is Enough?

  1. Part of the problem is that institutions are trying too hard to quantify professionalization in order to squeeze more bang for their buck out of shrinking budgets. Many in the corporate world have already been through this: why fly across country for a meeting when you can just teleconference? Why have annual retreats when you can just give a little money to each office for a “summer outing”? There is no way to show a direct relationship between these type of events and productivity, profit, or brand recognition so why bother having them?

    So why do some corps continue to support these costly activities? Because you can’t replace face-to-face, real-time collaboration. Whether the purpose is for sharing ideas or just learning to work well with others from different backgrounds.

    What administrators fail to take seriously (or do and just ignore it) is how falling morale affects work life and how beneficial conferences are to keeping morale high. Like you said, attending conferences energizes you as a librarian. It makes you feel like you can tackle any problem, overcome any obstacle, even save the world! And we DO bring that back to our jobs in the form of new ideas and a zeal for cooperation.

    The same can be said of faculty members attending academic conferences, though they have the added incentive of tenure. I hope that academic libraries and the institutions that support them will continue to encourage and financially support conference attendance. Otherwise, they will need to seek out other opportunities for creating the same effect at a local level.

  2. It’s always tough in ACRL years: midwinter, annual, and ACRL, all in six months? No way. It’d be hard for me to justify that expense to my employer, because it seems ridiculous to me.

  3. I have some money in my budget for conferences and related expenses, but it wouldn’t be enough to cover all of the various big conferences and wouldn’t pay for ancillary expenses, though a limited amount of travel money can come from the college. I tend to spend it on one-day management seminars and such like instead. With the larger events, there’s also the problem of whether it’s worth it for me, as the only librarian here, to be gone, and not get any of my other work done for that time period.

  4. Thank you for raising this important point. With wages dropping and furlough weeks increasing, I cannot afford to join the sections of ALA I would like to, much less attend any conference whatsoever. If the ALA wants anyone other than library directors from major institutions attending future conferences, it would seem that some sort of virtual route should be explored.

  5. This is a tough issue for me. Even when the economy was good, I never had a job that paid for me to attend conferences. And yet I made the necessary sacrifices and arrangements to pay my own way for every Midwinter and Annual (and PLA) for the last 7 years. Has it been worth it? I would say absolutely, for one the networking is unparalleled, and the opportunities for writing, publishing and paid work have made big differences in my career. The “my institution won’t pay for me to attend” excuse, is just that, an excuse. If you are really serious about being professionally involved, you’ll find a way to get to attend conferences.

  6. I work for a public library. I love conferences because I always learn; about the profession and about new technology and new books. My employer cut all travel money in August. So, this year I paid for conference fees out of my professional development funds ($750 year) and just paid the rest out of my pocket. I spent about $4,000 to go to three conferences; ALA, CLA and ALSC. I wanted to be more active in ALSC, was asked to be on a committee and in the end didn’t join because my library won’t support me. I was told maybe the new director will want to do this, so the interum won’t even go so far as paying me my salary while I am at the conference (I asked for a committment to mid-winter and ALA). I am not going to take a chance on not getting paid in addition to spending my own money to go.

  7. I attended the YALSA Symposium in November. Speaking to fellow attendees, I got the impression that 1) funding for conferences like this is, unfortunately, rare; 2) we have many, many colleagues who would love to go to conferences but could not get either the time or the funding from their administrators. Yes, time is as much of an issue as funding. I requested a professional day to attend the Friday preconference, which dealt with materials and services for GLBSTQ teens, an area of particular interest for us; I ended up having to take this as a personal day. Same with a couple of other conferences I will be attending–IF I can afford it, at this point.
    Also, at least in my state, we must acquire a certain number of Continuing Education Units every 5 years to maintain our professional certification. Yes, we have in-school PD throughout the year, but it does not amount to anywhere near the hours required for certification renewal, and none of it in my district is geared towards information literacy. Yes, we library media specialists are happy we’re getting CEUs for sitting and listening to a speaker a few hours a year, but we would much rather be learning something we can apply to our day-to-day work via a professional conference.
    Finally, kudos to webinars, especially the free ones!!! And kudos also to conferences that post handouts, PowerPoint slides from presentations, etc., for those of us who could not attend in person.

  8. “If you are really serious about being professionally involved, you’ll find a way to get to attend conferences.”

    The motto of self-righteous library martyrs everywhere. At what price professional involvement? My library hasn’t seen raises for years, head honchos proudly tout “salary savings,” and no raises for the foreseeable future. Yeah, people who don’t want to go will find any excuse, but thousands of dollars out of pocket? Don’t think so, not until I reach management–or administration. Being an entry-level librarian costs too much in the first place.

  9. I don’t question whether a conference is worth it, I have (nearly) always found them to be worth the cost. That being said, I dropped my membership in ALA because there are other more specialized conferences related to my job and the related organization memberships were significantly cheaper. I end up getting more bang for my buck. As for Jennifer’s comment about “my institution won’t pay for me to attend” being just an excuse, I’m sorry but that’s awfully narrow minded to assume that others have as much discretionary funding available to them (either from their own pockets or their organization) as you do. It’s unfair to question devotion to the profession based on what is (or isn’t) in someone’s bank account.

  10. Loved going to conferences and gaining so much valuable knowledge and meeting many wonderful people over the years. However, I always paid for the events out of my own salary, which needless to say wasn’t much. Two years ago after witnessing my department being downsized to a mere three people from nine over a period of seven years, I saw the handwriting on the wall. I am now out of the profession for good and am pursuing my own craft business. Frankly I feel that ALA is “snowing” young people just getting out of library school. My gut feeling is that this profession is on its way out and there will be very few jobs in the long-term. Like many other professions, the cost of going to school has become so prohibitive for the average person that it will take a good chunk of one’s lifetime to pay off education loans. And we all know just how low the salaries are in the library world and how few jobs are to be had even at those low salaries. It’s time to take a good, hard look at the library profession – and that brutal reality check should begin at library conferences because this profession is clearly on a downward spiral.

  11. Academic library directors should limit their own attendance at these annual national conferences unless they foot the majority of costs themselves. Their line librarians, department heads, and professional staff are often the future of a still viable but changing profession.

    As an academic library director, my first priority is to those who are presenting, so I find the funds to get the presenter there. Next I support those who are in association leadership. We have several staff pursuing the MLS so I like to support their involvement, which is usually less costly given their student status and volunteer work at the venue. Funding these activities is great for the individuals and the institution.

    However, the support is not 100%. I encourage scholarship and special faculty funds application, cost sharing and contribution for food and mileage, etc. and of course planned rotational attendance each year. I think the engaged professional does not expect the institution to fund everything. Professional leave is a considerable benefit in itself.

    Let’s face it –with blogs, virtual conferences, and local and state association conferences, there are plenty of opportunities for routine networking without paying for the hotel, meals, airfare and big costs of out of state conference attendance. Library directors do need to be mindful of accountability to students and their families as well as taxpayers in federally and state funded institutions.

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