Why Do I Have to Join ALA to Be a Member of a Division?

I missed it in real-time, but the May 11th #libchat on Twitter included a question that asked the following: “Very few ALA members vote in ALA elections. What are some reasons for low turnout?” There were a variety of answers, many of which voiced specific complaints about the organization overall, not just the election process.

Personally I’ve heard all of those complaints before, and I was planning to provide some context for each one as we went through ALA Civics Class. However, I’m bogged down in a couple of major projects right now, so rather than wait until we get further into the syllabus, I’m going to try to do a few blog posts during the next week to help explain why some things are the way they are. These posts are informational – I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind or start an argument.

To start out, we’re going to talk about why you have to join ALA to be a member of a division. When I hear this question, there are usually one of two motivations behind it: 1) “it’s too expensive to join ALA so I want to just join the division,” and/or 2) “I don’t like ALA and don’t feel like I should have to support it just to be a member of a division.” A corollary I sometimes see expressed is, “I don’t like how political ALA is” or “I don’t like how ALA handled the [insert your own hot topic] issue.”

To provide context, I want to start by noting that the divisions are relatively small in terms of staff, budget, and resources, even though when you look at their output, it’s a pretty impressive amount of “stuff” (programs, courses, publications, initiatives, coordination, etc.). There are 11 divisions (look in the left-hand column for links) and for the most part, each one has only a handful of staff. From the inside, I can say that most staff are pretty dedicated and do more than could reasonably be expected of them. As a membership organization, ALA and the divisions also rely a lot on member volunteers.

When you look at the staff list for a division, you don’t see people dedicated to things like Accounting & Finance, Building & Maintenance, HR, ITTS, and other support services. The reason division dues are less expensive than ALA dues is because all of those support departments and staff are folded into the larger organization.

To help pay for those costs, divisions (and other ALA units) pay a standard “overhead” cost that gets built into their budgets. If a division had to pay for a physical building, utilities, an HR department, an IT department, etc., its dues would cost a lot more and would be comparable with the cost of joining ALA. So to be clear, the divisions have to make enough money on their own to support their own services, but they also have to meet enough budget to pay that overhead fee.

With that background, it’s easy to see that it would cost well more than $100 to join a single division if it had to pay all of the costs on its own that ALA is covering for it. To join a second division would then cost double that amount, which would quickly put multiple memberships out of reach for most people. If you don’t want to pay more than $65 to join a division, then you probably wouldn’t be happy with the dues you’d have to pay in a setup where that division was off on its own.

The second motive I’ve heard for asking this question is that someone doesn’t like ALA’s stance on a particular issue(s), so they’ve dropped their membership. I know it’s difficult to support an organization you disagree with, especially if you’re a single-issue type of voter.

However, the thing about ALA is that it does so much and covers so much territory that I can pretty much guarantee you’re not going to agree with all 60,000+ members on every topic. In fact, I don’t know that I even want to be part of an organization where that many people do agree about everything. I don’t say that lightly, because there are things I can’t do as a staff member and other things I disagree with as a member that I WANT TO CHANGE RIGHT NOW. Believe me, I know how frustrating it can be.

You know that saying that a good library has something to offend everybody? That’s how I feel about ALA. There’s such a broad range of members that someone is going to be offended about every single thing but that’s okay, and we have to make room for those folks to voice their disagreement.

But to me participating is the same as the political process in my country. I’m not ashamed to say I support government and that I think pooling our resources as a society is a good thing. I disagree with some of the things my government does, but I don’t check out and give up because of it. Instead, I try to direct my money and efforts to the pieces I believe in and work to change the other parts.

That’s the philosophical approach I take to ALA, too. I wish we did certain things differently. I wish we could move faster on other things. I wish we were better at collaborating internally. But if I throw up my hands and walk away, who’s going to be working for the issues I value and the changes I’d like to see happen?

I’m honestly not being a Pollyanna, and I’m not faulting those who have tried and left. I get it, I do. And I’m sorry you don’t like how ALA handled Issue X but I’m willing to bet you support our efforts on Issue Y. That’s how this works. I’m guessing it’s how your organization works.

Which is another reason for us all to be one association – because we’re more powerful together and our voice is louder and stronger.

Addendum: After I wrote this post, I talked to Mary Ghikas, Senior Associate Executive Director at ALA, because she has a lot of the institutional knowledge that I don’t. In this video, she explains how ALA used to be structured back in the day and describes today’s setup.

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