Why I, A Boston Librarian, Am Not Attending ALA Midwinter
Librarians’ largest, all-encompassing, professional organization–the ALA–is holding their midwinter conference in Boston this weekend. You’re probably thinking “Awesome opportunity, Amanda. You’re a young librarian with limited funds, and the conference is in your city. Score!” The fact is though, I’m not going to any part of the conference. Zippo. Zilch. My reasoning is two-fold: I have a problem with the ALA and I have a problem with how a lot of people in my profession behave.
The ALA was originally a good idea. However, currently the organization has a lot of issues. It charges exhorbitantly high fees to people who mostly just want to be members so they can put “member of ALA” on their resume. Multiple people who have been members in the past and dropped their memberships told me that they dropped them because the ALA did nothing for them. This is an organization of librarians, yet it can’t get organized enough to actually make a difference in librarians’ careers? There’s a problem with this picture.
Similarly, the ALA claims to be all-encompassing of all types of libraries, yet it consistently ignores and ostracizes special libraries and often academic libraries as well. It really should be called American Public Library Association, because that is how they behave. An example of this is the “I Love My Librarian” award that they offered last year for which any librarian except special librarians were eligible. (For my lengthier discussion on this, see my August 25, 2009 post). It’s not just the awards, though. Discussion, articles, and products take no thought regarding non-public libraries into account. It’s not just that it’s exclusionary. It’s that the ALA isn’t doing what it claims to do. The ALA’s exclusion of special libraries is so bad that both my boss and my professors have told me that special libraries look far more favorably on an MLA (Medical Library Association) membership than an ALA one. In fact, my professor said, “Don’t join the ALA. It’s a waste of money and won’t do your resume any good. If you really want to join some sort of organization, join the MLA.”
I also dislike the entire image that the ALA presents every year with Banned Books Week. I’ve discussed this at length before, but suffice to say that the ALA is using the wrong terminology. The problem for American libraries isn’t banned books; it’s challenged books. It’s getting their communities to support everyone’s right to choose what they want to read. The book not being available in a public library is not the same as it being banned though. True censorship requires that the government is banning a book. The entire week is making a mountain out of a molehill, when it would be so simple to have a challenged books week that looks at controversial books and discusses them and what it means for society. Similarly, a censored books week could look at books that actually have been banned by governments worldwide. Does the ALA even think of this? No. That’s the problem. Their ideas are bad yet they run around acting like their the best thing in the world.
Further, the ALA claims to be working to help librarians improve libraries’ image in the general public’s eye, but they’re doing it through cringe-worthy ad campaigns such as “@yourlibrary.” This is corny and last-century. It seems that the ALA’s idea of improving libraries’ image is to act like the awkward kid in class nobody likes who annoyingly announces to class that they have the awesome handheld videogame that was popular 3 years ago. The ALA is making us look like we’re becoming outdated and we know it when they constantly, desperately pitch how relevant we still are in the digital age. Why not simply talk about why libraries are vital in a democracy with the technology a side-note? That’s the kind of campaign that could work.
Finally, there is the fact that conferences like this bring out the worst in librarians that I see in my graduate classes as well–people posturing and desperately trying to seem relevant, intelligent, and important by stating the obvious or making a mountain out of a molehill. By no means do I mean all librarians do this. However, the ones who do are a vocal group and are pretty much impossible to drone out. Even on twitter. These are the people who think they’re progressive by arguing in favor of having graphic novels in libraries. Oh. You’re providing materials your public library patrons want? Which is your job as a librarian? And I’m supposed to think this is innovative? It’s also the people who talk about the library as place until they’re blue in the face instead of working to improve the library’s website, which is one of the most common complaints among patrons. I cannot stand these people who think they’re so intelligent and awesome for just doing the job they’re supposed to do in the first place and often neglect actually improving their own library because they’re spending so much time postulating. Yes, I’m looking at you, Library101 video from hell. I reiterate that I am not talking about all librarians. It’s just that the ones who behave like this are rampant at conferences.
So, why would I go to a conference full of people who behave in a way that is akin to fingernails on chalkboard to me run by an organization that consistently excludes special libraries, offers programs that are misleading, and presents a desperate library image to the general public? Any time I would put in at the conference would be much better spent learning more about the sciences utilized in my hospital.