Yes, it is that time of year again. Soon, your American Library Association membership renewal form will be arriving in the mail. Receipt of this renewal notice prompts many ALA members to ask themselves, why should I keep up my membership? What do I get out of it? What I want to say about membership renewal has to do with the two alternate ways that ALA members view the association: as a real association constituted by its members, or within the framework of a business-to-customer relationship.
Over the years, ALA has gradually become more of a customer-oriented publishing entity and less of a representative body and association for a professional group. Membership dues presently make up 15 to 20 percent of ALA revenues, as compared to 100% in the first days of the association. (Net profits from publishing activities are greater than revenues from membership dues today.) ALA is still governed by Council, the member-elected body that directs ALA management concerning any new activities, so it has to be recognized that this long-term change ultimately has been based on an accumulation of directives from the membership. ALA members have asked ALA to become what it has become.
As an organization with 60,000 members and a 55 million dollar budget, it should not be surprising that ALA is many different things to many people. Through its divisions and offices, and through the work of both its employees and its active members, the organization pursues a range of activities and goals that most of us don’t think about when we think of ALA. Usually we think of ALA in terms of what it offers to us in our own narrow areas of interest and own little corners of librarianship, whether in terms of publications or opportunities for committee work. It is easy to undervalue the association as a result of failing to appreciate the full range of its activities. This is especially true when Council (never forget that it is an elected body of the membership) makes a statement that turns out to be controversial. Such statements tend to overshadow everything else that Council has worked on and decided in a given session, not to mention ALA’s other activities (55 million dollars can go a long way). It is a shame that people form strong opinions about the association based on what are minor activities in relation to the whole, and that few members put effort into keeping up with what ALA is doing. (ALA Publishing needs to take some of the blame here for choosing to use American Libraries primarily as a magazine about the library scene in general, missing opportunities to highlight the association’s diverse activities.)
So, on the one hand I am suggesting that before deciding not to renew your ALA membership, you should take some time to study what ALA has being doing. A good place to do this is to look at ALA’s annual reports (the source of most of the facts in this posting).
In addition to taking a broad view of what ALA does, I think it is also important to consider two ways of looking at the association and its basic role. Those who look at their renewal form and ask, “I am getting my money’s worth?” are generally considering ALA in the context of a business-to-customer relationship, and trying to calculate whether their membership sufficiently benefits them personally. In that way of looking at ALA, the opportunity to volunteer one’s efforts to a committee, to participate in governance, or even to vote is not very meaningful, and ALA might as well not be a membership organization at all. Not to be too harsh, but I think that is a selfish way to look at one’s relationship to the association.
I have to admit that ALA as it presently exists does encourage members to have that kind of a relationship to it. It presents members with many opportunities to engage in a business-to-customer relationship with it. I can’t deny that there is value in ALA’s products through its publishing operations, and that those products benefit not only members but libraries and librarianship. However, I wish that ALA’s self-presentation to the library profession gave more emphasis to its role as a professional organization. Though it is not a professional organization in a technical and legal sense (since it has many non-librarian constituencies who are interested in the library world for various reasons and it is organized as an educational association for tax purposes) it is the closest thing to a professional association that librarians have. Unfortunately, its basic role as a professional association is somewhat invisible to most members.
It is natural to take for granted the basic structure of things. The way we take ALA for granted is similar to the way we take for granted the role of government in society. We take for granted that clean water comes out of the tap and rarely think of the role of government in creating and supporting the regulatory structures that allow that to happen. Though it lacks formal regulatory power, ALA supports the existence of libraries and of the library profession in a similar way. Its most important activities, from my point of view, are in its standards-setting role and in its provision of a central context for librarians to work together on questions that concern the practice of librarianship profession-wide. Librarianship has a degree of professional status, insecure as it may be. Without that professional status we would have less autonomy within the institutions where we play a role, which means that we would have a diminished ability to further the ethical aims that bind us together and give us a shared purpose. Without a professional association there would not be anything solid on which to lay our claim to belonging to a profession, and there would be no central context for deliberating on professional questions with the hope of an authoritative outcome. I think many people like the idea of doing without a centralized voice or an organization that provides a sense of unity, but I think they don’t realize how much depends on having it. It is good that we have the freedom debate such broad questions as “What is a library?” on the web and in independent publications, but it is also good, from my point of view, that an organization exists that is able to provide standards that contain provisional answers to those questions, which the library world is then able to use for guidance in decision-making and justification of budgets. And it is good that libraries are able to experiment with new ideas, but also extremely important that a shared context exists for incorporating the results of those experiments into profession-wide discussions that benefit all libraries. It is easy to take for granted the role of a professional association because it is easy to take for granted the basic structures of things as we know them. To a much greater extent than any of us realize, I think we have ALA to thank for the existence of what we understand as librarianship.
So, my point about ALA membership is that it simply isn’t appropriate to look at it in terms of what we get back from it individually, against the background of a structure that we think is otherwise secure. When you get your renewal notice, rather than looking at ALA from the point of view of a customer, I think it is more appropriate that we think of it by paraphrasing John F. Kennedy from his inaugural address: “Ask not what ALA can do for you – Ask what you can do for ALA.” (I should mention that paraphrasing JFK like that is not my own idea. It’s a saying that has circulated among active ALA members for many years.)