Questioning The Value Of ALA Membership

Once again there is discussion in the biblioblogosphere about the value of joining ALA. You can read posts about it here and here. There are good points in both of these posts – and in the comments (though I had to take issue with Meredith’s remarks about ACRL – see my comments on her post), and many of us long-time members of ALA would do well to give thought to them. It seems that most of the concern of the younger generation is that membership in ALA is too costly and that it doesn’t provide an adequate forum for information sharing and connecting with colleagues. I’m not sure what ALA can do to make membership less costly. It’s already a bargain compared to other professional associations. As I said in my comments ALA and all the sections sponsor many programs and activities that could only be paid for by additional fees (e.g., belonging to a section, participating in an online workshop, etc.).

Why aren’t more library administrators supporting their younger members involvement in ACRL? Further, more needs to be done to get new librarians involved while in library school. I’m sure many of the schools have ALA chapters but I can’t comment on how active local librarians are in working with faculty to get students engaged. We need more discussion about and support for local initiatives.

Perhaps ALA could extend low cost memberships for the first few years of a new librarian’s career. I think I’d be willing to pay more to make it easier for new members to join at an early stage in their career. After all, if we don’t get these folks involved our association might not have a future.

There also has to be greater support for ALA and ACRL at the local and regional level. Since it is less expensive to participate locally, that is how many of us first get engaged in the national organization – so let’s capitalize on the existing network. ALA may be better off to allow newer members of the profession to participate locally at a lower membership rate than to have them be unable to join at all.

And with ALA’s evolving online community, these locally-oriented members could also have a voice in national level activity without needing to pay their way to national meetings. On the ACRL College Libraries Section committee I chair we get tremendous work done by email, phone calls, and virtual chat sessions.

I think we all, veterans and newbies, get more out of our ALA membership when we are actively involved. It all comes back to getting out of it what you put into it. However, if we don’t make it easier for folks to get in the door we can’t expect them to have the chance to put themselves into being an active member.

7 thoughts on “Questioning The Value Of ALA Membership”

  1. There are some serious challenges for ALA in the messages posted on those other blogs, but my hope of their being seriously engaged in is slim.

    Steven wrote that: “I’m not sure what ALA can do to make membership less costly. It’s already a bargain compared to other professional associations.”

    It may be true that ALA membership is less costly than SLA or MLA (medical, not music) membership, but: (1) it is climbing swiftly with proposed increases to annual dues both for ALA and for various divisions (a compound dues increase that few seem willing to seriously discuss); and (2) ALA is NOT a bargain compared with scholarly societies. I belong to the History of Education Society, the American Educational Research Association, and the Association for the Study of Higher Education, and not one comes close (even after AERA doubled its annual dues last year) to what it costs me to be a member of ALA.

    Regarding local and regional involvement as an alternative to national involvement. It’s true that this results in significant lesser costs, e.g., travel, but the value provided by local involvement depends very much on the vitality of your local chapter. New England and the Mid-Atlantic have great regional activities, as does Ohio. In Washington, the ACRL chapter was less robust (although the annual conference co-sponsored with Oregon was usually worth going to), and likewise here in Kansas. Both chapters do good work, but they are not as active as my experience suggested to be the case when I was in Ohio. If one result of this discussion is an enhanced network of state and regional activities that can be interconnected via the Web, that would be a great thing. Of course, for those of us on the tenure track, it would also be important for state and regional activity to begin to receive the sort of professional reward that has typically been associated with national-level activity, and that’s an entirely different issue.

    For me, this year will likely be the last that I can justify the expense of remaining a member of ALA, ACRL, LAMA, RUSA, and AASL. I get a lot out of every association, and each reflects an interest and an important aspect of my career, but they’re all raising or thinking of raising their dues and my annual check to ALA is now approaching what I spend on food for my family for a month, and that ain’t right. I dropped ALISE a couple of years ago (until I rejoined under a sponsorship through my work for San Jose State this year), and I dropped SLA a couple of years before that. Come September, it will likely be AASL – a dimunition of my professional involvement that will approximately equal the proposed increases everywhere else in my annual ALA dues.

    For people coming in, the higher annual expense of initial involvement may keep some good people from become as connected with ACRL as I did right out of library school and becoming committed to active professional involvement as part of what they do. And, that’s a serious problem for all of us.

  2. I think many of the people who are commenting on this issue are less concerned with the cost of ALA in absolute dollars than we are with (a) what we feel we get for that money and (b) what exactly ALA is doing with that money. For many people it isn’t that $X is too much, it is that they don’t feel it is worth it. Even if ALA/ACRL dues were substantially lower, I doubt I would join right now.

    A side note: this is a group blog, yes? But the front page is the only page that I can see which notes the author of the post. The RSS feed doesn’t show the author, this individual archive post doesn’t show the author, the category and date archives don’t show the author. I’m not a WordPress guy, but it looks like you need to get this tag in there on those archives and RSS templates:

  3. “What we get for the money” is a critical issue and one that I brought up very plainly in ACRL Leadership at an earlier ALA meeting (I really don’t remember which one – one conference room looks much like the next). I’ll be the first to say that I get a lot out of being an active member of ACRL – top-flight publications, solid professional development opportunities, and, most importantly a network of colleagues across the country. Key issues others have noted though, include:

    1) the ALA premium – many would happily pay ACRL dues if not also required to pay ALA dues as a foundation because they don’t see as clearly the benefits of membership in the parent organization;

    2) the free availability of many of these benefits – OA access to C&RL and C&RL News, access through full-text packages to other ALA publications, open access to virtual networks such as discussion lists and blogs.

    For me, joining ALA/ACRL as a student was automatic and I maintained my membership straight through. I went to ALA annual as a student because it was in my home town and I joined an ACRL committee that trip and never looked back. It was, in fact, the openness of ACRL committees to involvement that made me an active ACRL member, as opposed to an active RUSA member (I have been a RUSA member just as long, but in a more passive mode owing to experiences that go back to that first conference). All of which is to say that I got involved with ACRL as a natural progression and benefitted greatly from it, but the repeated threads about the value of membership makes me worry that we are not being as successful in inducting new members of the profession into what should be their leading professional association and that’s bad news for all of us.

    How does ACRL make its case to people who do not “automatically” join the way I did, and how does it articulate the value of membership to people who, like me, eventually feel the need to choose which association(s) to pay dues to?

  4. Marc is right that this is the claim, and I have no reason to doubt that it is true if the goal was to have an independent ACRL look just like an ACRL that is part of ALA.

    I think the key questions are:

    1) what is at the heart of ACRL in terms of its benefits to members?

    2) can that heart be sustained only within the framework of ACRL as part of ALA?

    3) can we engage, as a community, in a productive dialogue about what we see at the most valuable aspects of engaged membership in ACRL?

    I think the claim that ACRL dues would be substantially higher without ALA support assumes that the entire ALA structure is necessary to provide the core services that ACRL (or an independent organization dedicated to meeting the interests and needs of academic librarians) provides has to look the same way that it does now.

    Consider the metaphor of the Journal of Academic Librarianship and portal: Libraries and the Academy.

  5. Many students view library school as an opportunity to explore the variety of paths that their degree might take them down, so ACRL should recognize that it competes for student members with other ALA divisions and round tables as well as other library or information organizations. My library school (the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) had student chapters of the Society of American Archivists (SAA), Special Libraries Association (SLA), and American Society for Information Science and Technology (ASIS&T).

    But the competition for LIS students’ interest also comes from state library associations, the American Association of Law Librarians (AALL), the Art Librarians Society of North America (ARLIS/NA), the Music Library Association (MLA),

    When I was in library school (2003-2005), I became a student member of the Art Librarians Society of North America (ARLIS/NA) and ASIS&T along with ALA, ACRL and the New Members Round Table (NMRT). One friend of mine joined ALA, NMRT, LITA, and ASIS&T. Another joined SAA and ALA, another SLA and ALA, and another ALA and AALL. We were each trying to find our professional place within academic librarianship.

    I think it is to the benefit of the profession as a whole for students to emerge from graduate school with a clearer picture of their place in librarianship (or elsewhere). It is difficult to navigate the complex organization that is ALA, and students will appreciate the opportunity to explore the organization prior to committing to professional membership.

    I’ve heard rumors within ALA about considering a membership model in which free membership to one division is included in the cost of ALA student membership. This would facilitate the process of getting to know ALA. It would offer more easily perceivable membership value to students immediately, and would help ALA compete with other LIS associations that students consider giving their time and money to. ALA student membership costs might need to be adjusted in order to accomodate this, of course, but it ought to wind up being less costly than the current price of two tickets.

    Increasing student exposure to ALA divisions might also encourage the founding of student chapters for ALA divisions. UIUC recently founded the first ACRL student chapter (; one affect of this is that “ACRL” is no longer merely one in a long list of incomprehensible ALA acronyms for students.

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