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Would a Dues Increase Help ALA… Or Hurt It?

Dan Walters, current president of the Public Library Association, has tossed his hat into the ongoing discussion about compensating speakers invited to present at ALA and divisional conferences.

Walters’ response is predictable, but it’s not accurate. I call it predictable because the party line for the last several weeks has been that the glory of being allowed to participate is compensation enough for librarians, and his statement doesn’t change anything I’ve heard so far. It’s also predictable in defining “contribution” through the narrow lens of 20th-century participation models: Organize conference–travel to conference–present at conference. It’s assumed that we aren’t already participating and sharing year-round through other means, an assumption that was largely true fifteen years ago, and is not at all true today. Even at that, his statement seems to overlook the amount of time and effort it takes to present, and present well.

I say Walters’ statement is not accurate because I’ve been funded to speak at divisional conferences, including PLA, when I have been invited and when I had not planned to attend the conference or was otherwise unable to fund my own way. I am sure this practice was not invented uniquely for my benefit. In any event, I don’t know how I could be asked to speak and then be asked to pay for the privilege; the very concept is puzzling. (Many years ago, in my very poor undergraduate days, I was invited out for a nice dinner and then at the end of the meal asked to pay half. I did so–I was too startled to do otherwise–and then spent the rest of that weekend with less than a dollar in my pocket. I suppose that could be called an ALA-style date.)

It’s also a not-too-well-kept secret that there are some speakers who only speak when their presentation costs are fully funded, and in some cases when they receive honoraria. I don’t ask, and I don’t care, if the speaker in the next room got a perk I didn’t get. My assumption is that none of us are getting rich on presenting, and that we all know what we need to make it possible for us to share what we know.

It’s also a case of supply and demand. I know it makes some people uncomfortable to bring this up–and I picked this up in posts I otherwise agreed with from Meredith, Sarah, Jenny, Jessamyn, et al.-but it’s really all right to be compensated for your expertise; it doesn’t make you craven–simply valuable. I like Steven Cohen’s post on this issue. If ALA could spend $70,000 on Colin Powell, who was a predictable snore, surely it can wiggle a few comps and bennies for in-demand homegrown native speakers who have to juggle requests from many organizations. Please, no more false modesty!

Walters is also ignoring the fiscal reality of conference attendance, particularly in a world offering many competing opportunities. This year, as with many years, attending ALA would be impossible if it were entirely funded through my personal budget, barely affordable with organizational support, and all around something I weigh and consider very carefully. Am I better off attending Midwinter, or should I take that MySQL class that will help my job? Should I go to New Orleans, or would I be a better librarian if I attended Hackfest? I’m scheduled to present at PLA–but can I, or my organization, really afford the cost of a conference in Boston? That’s the kind of question it comes down to for us’n in the trenches. It gets down to nickel and dime decisions because nickels and dimes–a lot of them–are what it takes for us to attend conferences.

That brings me to my central question, also one of nickels and dimes. Would ALA benefit from a dues increase (scheduled to be on the spring ballot)? Would it make ALA smarter? More in tune with modern librarianship? A better steward of my dues and conference registration fees? More helpful to librarians seeking work or career development? Able to respond faster to crises? Would we see ALA respond within hours of the next tsunami or Hurricane Katrina, or would it be another month of finger-twiddling while ALA tried to put up an online donations form? Would ALA finally learn how to put the lid on “leaders” who insult their peers and dumb down librarianship with their ludicrous comments to the press? Would we see more online conferences and publications, more opportunities to participate year-round? Would the ALA website get better anytime soon?

Or would a dues increase merely encourage ALA to lie fallow in the organizational models of the last century while the rest of the world marches on?

It’s worth asking this of any organization these days. But the question is timely, as ALA prepares to open balloting for its annual election. Looking at the American Library Association–what its leaders say about us and for us, what benefits we get from membership, how much say we have in the organization, how well our needs and interests are represented–what would voting for the dues increase accomplish?

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