Speaking, ALA, and all that

Just about a week ago, I opted out of the fight discussion brawl that was kicked off by Jenny Levine’s perfectly reasonable misgivings about being invited to speak [invited, not “having her proposal accepted”] at the 2006 PLA National Conference–and told that, if she was an ALA/PLA member at the time, she’d have to pay at least that day’s conference registration in addition to covering all her own expenses.

I had posted a comment on Levine’s post, noting ALA policy regarding speeches at ALA Annual by ALA members. I also said a lot more in the “opting out” post than really makes sense for a non-post, mostly to provide background.

And, of course, I couldn’t stay entirely away from the discussion–partly because it’s no longer just a discussion about how professional associations should treat members as speakers. It’s gotten much broader than that, including a subtheme of “ALA [hunh!] What is it good for?”

So let’s toss a few more opinions into the ongoing melee set of discussions–although, once again, I’m not going to come down on one side or the other of whether ALA’s policy for its Annual Conference is a reasonable one. (As to whether Ms. Levine’s decision, to hold off on joining ALA and PLA until after the conference because it was silly to be penalized for being a member, was reasonable: Absolutely, in my opinion! But that’s really not a big part of the ongoing discussion.)

  • First an admission of error: My comment about policy refers to ALA Annual Conference and speeches within the conference proper. As someone else has pointed out, that policy is not binding on divisions and their events outside ALA Annual, nor is it binding on preconferences. When I was invited to do something I was unwilling to do at a LITA National Forum, it was clear that I would not have to pay registration if I agreed–and I recall fairly strongly receiving expenses and, I believe, an honorarium for keynoting a LITA preconference many years ago. (That may be an erroneous recollection, but I have no doubt that some divisions cover registration at some conferences and that some speakers are at least partially paid or reimbursed for preconferences, just as they are for workshops and other paid events.) So my comment on policy, while correct, was inapplicable: PLA may have chosen to extend that policy but was not, I believe, required to by the parent organization.
  • The many motives and arrangements for speaking: I believe Jenny Levine and Steven Cohen have both told us more than they were really obliged to about how they handle speaking situations, just as Jessamyn West has been unusually open about her arrangements. This is all fascinating stuff (although I’m happy that actual dollar amounts don’t get mentioned), but in some ways none of our business. My other post goes into some of those details for me as well, but then, my personal website has always included pretty specific notes about my expectations–because I got tired of the series of messages back and forth needed to clarify things in the past.

Some library people need speaking engagements for promotion or their vita. These are the ones most likely to submit speaking proposals, or get involved in program arrangements and see to it that they are on panels. In general, I don’t believe such speakers expect reimbursement or freebies; their reward is being able to list the presentation.

Similarly, some library people want speaking engagements to establish themselves as experts in a field, or because they have something to say that they desperately feel needs to be heard, or just for egoboo. Nothing necessarily wrong with any of these motives, but here again, these people have strong motivations to speak. If they’re proposing speeches at professional conferences, I wouldn’t be inclined to believe they deserve payment or reimbursement. Once they’ve achieved guru status and are being invited, they may (or may not) fall into another category. (This one’s really tricky…)

Then there are the cases where a speaker’s invited. In general, I think it’s hard to justify inviting someone and then not at least covering their expenses, and almost impossible to justify inviting someone and charging them for the privilege. But even within this second category, people fall into various groups:

Some have solid travel and paid-leave support from their employers as a matter of professional support. Great for them, and great for conference organizers: They can get speakers on the cheap. I would hope that this status never influences organizers’ decisions as to who gets invited, but I’m not quite naive enough to believe that as a general principle.

Some have travel and time support because their employers want them to be out there; see remarks in previous paragraphs.

As for others… some do get time off to speak but feel (properly, I believe) that they should be paid for their efforts. Some get limited or no time off and no travel support; for them, unless they’re independently wealthy or otherwise unusual, expense reimbursement and speaking fees are likely to make or break the situation.

I don’t believe anybody’s getting rich off library conference speaking–at least not from state, regional, and national association conferences. I continue to be stunned by the frequency with which some people speak, although I assume they don’t actually write a new speech for each occasion–but still, travel is wearing and time for yourself can be precious. I’ve never been in the “speaking circuit” category and am happy with that fact. I don’t envy those who are. And I certainly don’t begrudge them the fame–or the payments.

All of which is more than enough about “should speakers get paid?” There are lots of ways to “give back.” Speaking actually isn’t the most efficient way to reach lots of people, although it may reach them in a different manner than writing–but, you know, one of these blog entries probably reaches as many people as any single one of my speeches, and each issue of C&I reaches at least three to five times as many people. Expecting people to speak on their own dime Because They’re Professionals is, well, self-defeating. And if it comes from one of the librarians who does make a six-figure income (yes, there are some of those), it’s perhaps just a little hypocritical as well.

The other thread here is more troubling–in part because I find myself torn. That thread is, as noted above, “ALA, (hunh!), What is it good for?”

I’m truly in an odd position on this one because, for the first 20-25 years of my pseudoprofessional involvement (after all, if it was the American Librarians Association I wouldn’t be eligible for membership, lacking the MLS and all that), I only joined ALA because it was the only way I could belong to ISAD, which became LITA.

That’s changed–to the extent that I thought long and hard before renewing both ALA and LITA memberships. I’m still pretty perturbed by LITA getting to the highest divisional dues without asking for a membership vote, and I’m still not at all certain that I’m getting anything close to $60 worth of benefits from LITA membership. Frankly, if I wasn’t a “previous president,” I might have dropped out–after all, I don’t have to be a LITA member to attend any of the IGs or programs. (And if ALA does increase its dues, I’ll really think long and hard next December…who knows? Maybe I belong in ACRL instead. Or in no division at all.) I know I’ve done my “giving back”–serving nine years as LITA Newsletter editor and declining the expenses support that came with that editorship for 8 of the 9 years, if nothing else.

But what about ALA itself? For me, the justifications for membership may boil down to these:

  • I like American Libraries quite a lot, even if they did dump my column; I’d probably pay some significant fraction of the ALA membership fee to keep getting it.
  • I regard ALA Washington Office and ALA’s lobbying and legal activities as vitally important and generally productive. ALA is known as an effective lobbyist, and ALA’s efforts in a number of areas have been important–perhaps not personally, but for the things I believe in.
  • ALA Annual and Midwinter are, for me, the best occasions to stay in real-world touch with at least several hundred of the few thousand people I’ve become acquainted with in the library field, several hundred of whom I’d call friends. I’m a shy guy and don’t maintain those relationships very well between conferences, but at least I get a chance to get back in touch twice a year. I also value the exhibits, some of the discussion groups, and–once in a while–a program. I’m not ready to substitute “virtual conferences” for the real thing. At least not yet.

Now, if I was in Texas or New York or Wisconsin or Minnesota or Colorado or Alaska or Washington or… I might find that my state library association served that third purpose, and served it better, albeit on a smaller scale. I haven’t gotten along very well with my state association, and I don’t know whose fault that is. But I do think that the national mix has its values.

I think this is more than enough to say. I still don’t hold a firm position on whether ALA’s policy still makes sense. If ALA is becoming irrelevant to GenWhatever, that’s a problem, and it’s not one I can solve. (After all, I’m not willing to serve on ALA Council, although I suspect I could get elected pretty easily…and that’s pure selfishness on my part.)

I think ALA’s good for a number of things. Do those things justify its overall structure and budget? I’m not sure. Is Annual really too big to work very well? Probably…but I’m not sure I much care for the alternatives.

I do know I’m looking forward to Midwinter–not just because it’s in the ideal Midwinter city, but because it’s Midwinter.

10 Responses to “Speaking, ALA, and all that”

  1. Walt, you have a typo up there… you wrote “selfishness” and I think you meant “self-preservation.” 😉 You don’t say anything I don’t echo in terms of ALA’s worth and whatnot. I tend to think that state associations have outlived their usefulness but lumber on, while the national association needs to restructure itself a bit but justifies its existence for the reasons you state.

  2. walt says:

    Well, no, I meant “selfishness.” I could preserve myself just fine on Council, but I’m too selfish to spend that much time to that little effect.

    I disagree about state associations. Most of the state conferences I’ve spoken at–and I’ve always attended the whole conference–have been vital, active, informative, great events. That specifically includes the states I mentioned, but also some others (Tennessee, North Carolina, Florida, Michigan, British Columbia–well, not a state, but–Georgia, Arizona…) I didn’t list in the post. I’ve enjoyed almost all my speaking engagements, but state conferences have been among the most enjoyable, because of the spirit, shared “on the ground” information, and just general excellence of those conferences. (I hate to single any of them out, but maybe it’s OK to note the largest and what I suspect is the smallest, that is, Texas and Alaska: Both truly wonderful conferences.)

  3. Fiona says:

    Why shouldn’t we talk about dollar amounts? There is an enormous difference as a conference organiser between someone who asks for reimbursements, someone who wants a $500 honorarium, and someone who wants $10000. If people say that they ‘get paid to speak’ that really doesn’t mean anything.

    I’m kind of surprised that there isn’t a librarians’ speakers bureau.

  4. walt says:

    Fiona, That’s a good question. Maybe I’d rather not know whether I’m being “underpaid” or not (well, actually, I did change my speaking terms after a discussion with a colleague).

    In the past, whenever someone’s asked what my fee was, I never had an answer. I still don’t, but I do have a range….but I’m not a professional speaker or a Really Big Name, and that last amount you mention strikes me as way beyond the realm of possibility. For me, that is. I can’t speak for anyone else’s expectations.

    Maybe there’s no librarians’ speakers bureau (if there isn’t one) because we’re cheap? Because conference organizers really don’t want us comparing fees? I dunno. An interesting tangent. Or maybe not a tangent.

  5. Fiona, this whole profession is antsy about talking about dollar amounts, and not just for a one-hour dog-n-pony show, either. It’s part of our feminized legacy that we’re programmed to be uncomfortable with this topic and to feel squeamish about sharing what we earn.

  6. rochelle says:

    39K/year. Librarian I. 10 years at same library. There. I said it.

  7. Well, I’m still hesitant, for two reasons. One is that I am a contractor so my pay looks pretty good until you factor in that I pay for all my own benefits, SS, taxes, retirement, etc. The other is that I live and work in one of the most expensive places in the U.S. Factoring all that, and comparing myself locally, and even factoring in a few perks, I’m making less than I am worth on the market. Part of that is from being in the odd position of recommending my own salary… remarkably difficult to do… another part is that I manage a project that if it paid me more could not afford me. Ipassed up a COL increase for myself this year so that we would stay within budget and still give the team their COL, and their rate isn’t that good either.

  8. jessamyn says:

    I make $600/month for part-time work. Public speaking, web design work and other pick-up jobs probably added 50% to that overall in 2005. I also got to travel a lot which at that income level I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to do. The pay at my job is lousy but I love it, just flat out love it. I’ve got savings left over from my last well-paying library job [well-paying, but very un-fun and unsatisfying] and my work life sort of cycles like that: well-paying jobs that are less fun followed by great jobs that pay lousy. I also live very cheaply and have made a lot of choices that I’m sure other people would not want to make, so I’m not a good ruler to measure against except in a proof-of-concept way. It just does get my dander up when people talk about a $165 day-rate for a conference as if it were a non-substantial amount of money, since whether it is or isn’t depends a lot on personal circumstances, ones that most people don’t advertise.

  9. Amen on that, Jessamyn. As someone whose fortunes go up and down with family moves, when I wrote for American Libraries, sometimes my monthly check was a nice perk to add to my IRA and sometimes it put food on the table. Even now, $165 is not trivial for most organizational travel budgets.

  10. Eli says:

    Just throwing in a hear-hear and amen on what ALA is still good for, at least from my perspective. Thank you.