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CLA’s Blog: Being There

As Sarah “Librarian in Black” Houghton has noted, there’s a kerfuffle over on CALIX, the list of the California Library Association, about the new CLA blog. When the blog debuted, some of us noted the links to the RSS feeds were missing. (The feeds work fine, as you’ll see if you drop into your aggregator.) We were subsequently advised that CLA was planning to limit access to these feeds to CLA members, pending a vote by the CLA Assembly at its April meeting. The explanation was that the blog was a member benefit and should be limited to members.

When some of us protested that denying access to this feed was poor strategy, the predictable comments came rolling in. If only we really understood how the world worked, the first responses went, we would understand why CLA would take its first member-produced advocacy tool and hide it behind locked doors, particularly in a year that has seen the closing of a library named for John Steinbeck, the loss of several key library ballot measures, and damaging anti-library editorials by columnists for large papers. Yup, a closed blog preaching to its 2,000-member choir: I wanna get me some of that.

The logic behind the plan to close off the feeds is understandable, but it is no longer timely. First, with no offense intended, I question the theory (and it is not evidence-driven) that today, in 2005, people join CLA for the newsletter. Maybe the newsletter played a role in days of yore, before email and blogs and Internet and cheap long-distance, but with membership fees ranging from $40 to $165 depending on your income, and with so much information available through other channels, I have a hard time believing the newsletter is a key factor in new or renewal memberships. I pay over $100 in annual dues for CLA, and nothing personal, but if the newsletter were the key benefit, I’d rather get the New Yorker.

I predict the real reasons people join CLA are that is expected of them, because they can participate in activities that provide peer networking, because they see it as important for their professional c.v., and because they do plan to attend the annual conference and “might as well” join as long as they are attending. Yes, these are my own reasons, but this list struck a chord with fellow travelers.

My observation that the blog as an advocacy tool would be perceived as a member benefit was also pooh-poohed. Yet in personal traffic to me from other members, I’ve repeatedly heard their perception that a significant chunk of CLA revenues go to support lobbying efforts in Sacramento, and that’s o.k. That was my opinion, too. Most of us don’t begrudge CLA a nickel spent on lobbying, and think this advocacy is extremely important, even though, according to my sources, the perception that this lobbying overwhelmingly benefits public libraries is one reason CLA is by default the “CPLA” (that is, a state assocation overwhelmingly serving public librarians). Someone has to advocate for public libraries; CLA is the logical choice.

CLA itself acknowledges its advocacy role on its website, in the online membership tool, where it says “CLA works to keep the issues of library awareness at the forefront of the public’s attention.” Clearly, it makes sense to keep the blog open, because this would so obviously contribute to CLA’s efforts in library advocacy. One librarian pointed out on CALIX that, unlike a printed and mailed newsletter, the production costs of blogging are minimal (that’s why there are millions of blogs…), which is particularly true in an association “publication,” since most of the labor is donated by the members. With such a high return on investment from maintaining an open blog, it would be counterproductive to hide our light under a bushel.

Even if you could prove that some members would leave CLA because they could get the blog for free, this would not prove that a blog would not improve gross revenues for CLA, and I predict the opposite would be true: more would join due to perceived benefits and a much higher profile for CLA in the library community (versus younger members who right now may well leave in disgust if they are free to choose whether to join). Dues are 32% of CLA’s gross revenue. If better marketing and outreach bumped that up, wouldn’t that be a good thing?

Also, dues are tricky things. As a third-term ALA Councilor, I know quite well that ALA gets most of its net revenue from conferences, then publications. Members often think of dues as a revenue stream, but by the time you factor in member support, that’s not the case; in ALA, dues are more of a loss leader. ALA’s membership has gone up every year since they began offering newsblurbs for free every Friday; I won’t even pretend to infer a relationship there, but both facts are still true. (Like the workings of my toaster oven, as long as it makes toast, I don’t really care.)

What’s CLA’s big money-maker? The conference, at over 50% of our association’s revenue. In which case, the argument to keep the blog open becomes even stronger: it is a natural avenue for advertising our conference. Hello, CLA: the blog is free marketing and outreach.

The quality of the blog may be at stake here, as well. Why would someone contribute to a blog that could not be used as “c.v. material?” I’m not being crass, just practical. “I wrote for this CLA blog, but you’ll never see it” is not something you can put on the resume. At least with print publications you can hope some library kept holdings, but who is going to follow up to ask to look at a password-protected blog?

Finally, I’ve heard some long-time members bemoan the idea that CLA no longer produces a great journal (two people have suggested that the journal stopped shortly after Prop 13, when resources were redirected toward lobbying). As a former youth librarian myself, as well as a writer who has produced over 100 articles and two books (and has three articles in hopper right now), I say “That was Then, This is Now.” There are numerous publishing venues for quality library writing (Public Libraries, The Bottom Line, First Monday, Net Connect, LJ, AL, etc.), and a dearth of people to do the writing. There are also some amazing, well-written, entertaining daily blogs that provide librarians with just-in-time information. CLA’s blog could join that pantheon. Frankly, we could kick ass on the Internet.

Speaking of which, we as CLA members need to continue to find ways to attract new and upcoming librarians to our state association. How many younger librarians come of their own volition? How many choose to go to Internet Librarian instead (held in the same season and also in California)? These people are our new membership, and though sometimes we forget this, CLA is ultimately a member association.

CLA may have produced a great journal in the past; now it can produce a great blog. It will not be a great blog if only its members can access it, because what makes blogs great are their impact on society. CLA, the cluetrain has pulled into the station. Please, I beg of you: get on board.

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