On the costs and benefits of conference attendance

This post on ALA’s New Members’ Roundtable Listserv (NMRT-L) bears repeating.  Lorna Peterson, through Linda Crook, reminds us that conference attendance and the work of the ALA in general, i.e., of professional library associations, is largely funded by individual members and not be employers.   She notes that regardless of how new ICTs can bring people together, holding a constant attitude that library conferences can’t be attended due to cost is a disservice to your peers and stakeholders,  Furthermore, professional associations have survived for decades, or in the case of the ALA, for over 130 years, on the fees and dues paid by its members:

“But I do have to make a comment here: Never, ever, in the entire history of ALA, in its 135 year history, has the membership as a whole gotten full support from institutions to attend. Doesn’t matter the type of library– school, public (believe me, public librarians in the past got REAMED in local papers for attending ALA), academic,special– these librarians have not been sent in full to ALA by their institutions.

On the one hand, I think it is good that the younger generation is holding on to its money more (and yes, that is because there is less security now for those who entered the workforce in the 1990s and afterward) but on the other hand, bringing up the cost issue presents a picture that we old timers were sent to ALA fully funded by our institutions. Didn’t happen. My first ALA in 1982 after working as a librarian for 2 years, was in Philadelphia where I stayed in a dorm, took a super cheap flight from Columbus to Philadelphia, and had most of my meals at a 7-11 across the street. But the experience of ALA — the speakers, the programs, exhibits, meeting other colleagues, was worth the money. And so it has been for these almost 30 years of regular ALA attendance. And trust me, a great portion has come out of my pocket and not because I am rich.

The new information and communication technologies make it easier for us to meet virtually. And this is a boon. And it saves individuals and institutions money. What I am criticizing, what I don’t like, is the false picture presented that there was a time of members’ memberships, registrations, travel paid for by institutions or fairy godmothers — some members may have had blip, unique experiences when all was paid for, but in general, for the work of ALA in its 135 history, the financial burden has been on the individual. I am not saying you should martyr yourselves. What I am saying is that I would like to see the narrative change — we have an opportunity to do more because of the new information and communication technologies that allows us to the work in a blended way that will advance the cause of our community– the community of librarianship and what we believe in. Saying that because we don’t have the money to attend diminishes the commitment of those in the past and what we do at ALA. The new information and communication technologies allow for an engagement that broadens participation. In my opinion, the narrative should be broadening participation, enhancing engagement, and furthering the mission of our awesome profession and association. If the argument is only based on saving money and financial hardships, ALA would not have survived for 135 years.


You can read the e-mail on the NMRT-L listserv’s archive here.  And if you’re up for it, join the list and respond.

What’s the takeaway here?  Peterson and Crook’s post should remind us that when it comes to professional associations, you only get what you put in.  Of course, in some years, conference fees will be too expensive for your budget, but don’t be 100% dismissive of the conference or of the association.  It isn’t good for you, your peers, or your profession.


[n.b. In the coming days, I’ll be writing up my own takeaways from #CLA2011.)