Thursday, December 22, 2005

My last on the membership thing, or librarians as martyrs?

Unless I get a comment, and I reply, this will likely be the last I will say on this rolling snowball about organizations, memberships, and their speakers. My guess is that sparks will fly, that the old guard will keep the party line, that the new vanguard will say a few more platitudes hoping for change, and that things will go back to business as usual once the snow melts. The one post that made me think about this was K.G. Schneider's one on "How Do We Serve?" To be honest, this seems to be shaping into one of those organizational politics fight that I tend to simply tune out. My basic question is why should librarians, or other social professions for that matter such as teachers and social workers, be martyrs just to practice their craft? How long do we let others inflict that guilt-trip on us, which is nothing more than excuse to continue exploiting those of a generous nature?

Since I have been looking at a good share of posts, let me put the links up front, then do my writing below since even now I am just writing as I look things over. Firefox's multiple tabs are such a wonderful idea. So, here is the reading list, so far:

K.G. Schneider's "How Do We Serve?" "Would a Dues Increase Help ALA. . .or Hurt It?"
Meredith Farkas' "ALA, Relevance, and the Almighty Dollar"
Jenny Levine, where it all started with "Why I am not joining ALA right now after all" and her follow up "Continuing Conference Conversations."

By the way, these authors provide various other links, and the comments that readers have placed on their posts add to the conversation as well.

Let me start by saying that the whole comping speakers issue does not really affect me personally. I am nowhere near that height, so what those in the heights do is up to them. I do believe that people should be compensated fairly for providing a service, and yes, they are providing a service for more than the goodness of their hearts. The fact that many employers require such service means they are often not doing it for some of the noble ideals that the old guard espouses. K.G. Schneider's link in her post about dues where Mr. Dan Walters of the PLA gives the official view provides a pretty good summary of the administrative attitude. Her response is probably better than anything I could ever say, so here it is:

"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."

What concerns me is the assumption that people are not participating and sharing in the profession in a variety of ways. Apparently blogging does not count if Mr. Rosenzweig's reply to Mr. Walters is any indication. Heck, he does not even know who these "self-proclaimed aristocracy" are. I don't recall the Queen or the King naming me a duke or even a knight of anything, so I definitely have no idea what aristocracy he is referring to. Now, if we are a sub-culture, again his label, I would keep in mind that very often sub-cultures have a penchant of undermining mainstreams and often helping to bring down larger systems down the road. It's just history. But ok, let's leave blogging out. There are many other ways that people get involved in the profession such as online conferences, to listservs, and wikis. These are just examples of Web 2.0 tools people use to connect, share ideas, and learn from each other. Then there are other organizations. A cursory reading of the bloggers I listed above will reveal mentions of various other smaller conferences and organizations they belong to and are involved with. Examples include Computers in Libraries, Gaming Symposia, Code4Lib, Internet Librarian, and so on. Librarians basically have a broad range of choices to get their professional involvement requirements other than ALA and its subsidiaries. Then there are the state library associations. Add to this the various forms of community service, be it public or academic, that many librarians do, and they really do serve in a variety of ways. The reality is that librarians can be connected to each other in a wide variety of ways, and a lot of those ways are more affordable with better treatment. I don't see a reason to become a martyr for one large organization when I can meet my requirements for professional development in so many other ways.

My readers know that I will pull out the "so what?" I had an American Literature professor who would tell us that in writing an academic essay, we should be able to answer the "so what?" question. So, this passage in Melville exemplifies man's quest for blah blah blah. So what? Why is it significant? So every time I get to thinking about issues like this, I ask "so what?" I am just a librarian in the trenches, so to be perfectly honest, keeping my mouth shut and letting the politicos battle it out would be a lot easier. But here is the "so what" moment. I am a fairly new librarian. I just completed my first year of professional service. I am at a point in my career where I am starting to look out from my trench to find ways to get involved with others in the profession. Now, some politicos may say someone like me is not a big deal. What can you bring to us? Well, I don't know. I am not even sure I have something to contribute. I may not discover it until I wander across the no-man's land and see what's out there in that place where brilliant people have blazed the path and beckoned for others to follow. So while I am very small potatoes, I am going to go with numbers. I am not the only one. I am sure a lot of my classmates who got hired around the time I did are probably thinking some of the things I am now. Multiply that across the nation, and add to it some library school students about to graduate, and I think the "it's not a big deal" some politicos envision suddenly gains a little bit in size. And I am thinking here about the impression some of those attitudes may have on some of us who are wondering if it is worth it to wander out there or not. If we add the fact of costs and money, it can become a larger problem. Again, K.G. Schneider points this out very well:

"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."

If it boils down to cost in terms of time and money, I don't think the large organization fares very well in terms of value. I am thinking here added value for the librarians. I am concerned the powers that be ignore, or seem perfectly oblivious, to the fiscal realities most librarians face when it comes to getting their professional development. I will give some simple answers, from my perspective. Do I pick the local class or Midwinter? Easy, the local class that will help my job. Should I go to New Orleans or some smaller more focused conference? I am going for the more focused conference. Part of it is what can I afford, and part of it is what is more practical for me.

Meredith writes, "yes, librarianship is a helping profession, but librarians do not need to be martyrs. We shouldn’t have to live on ramen noodles so that we can speak at conferences. I listened to this dogma enough as a social worker and it’s just as silly coming out ot the mouth of a librarian." It also sounds silly in the mouths of teachers. I know; I used to be one before I became a librarian, and the dogma exists in public education as well. Do we know that we won't be rich doing this? Sure, there are many things I could possibly be doing that may earn more, but academic librarianship is a calling for me. It's my best destiny. It does not mean I want to live on ramen noodles, and for the higher ups to have the gall to expect me to irks me to say the least. It's disrespectful. I recently read the book Teachers Have It Easy, and I made a note about it. The book contains the stories of many excellent teachers who left the profession not because they stopped loving it but because they could not afford to stay in it. A lot of the issues in that book are similar to the issues we face in librarianship, especially the parts about having to pay for your own professional development out of pocket even though it is a requirement.

In the end, Meredith says it very well: "we librarians stand up for our patrons so often, but sometimes we need to stand up for ourselves." In the end, I am not sure what I am aiming at other than trying to make some meaning out of this. I could care less what the powers that be decide, not because I am insensitive, but rather because what they decide up there will not likely trickle down here. I see it as an issue of fairness and respect for fellow colleagues. Many will likely disagree, but I am making my stand that I refuse to be someone's martyr. What I do know is that there are choices from working through my blogs to local opportunities. How Do I Serve? First and foremost, I serve my patrons and academic community. Then I will serve the profession. At the moment, I am just looking for a good place where I can be of service to the profession.

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