Blatant Berry Bottom Line

In leafing through the issue of Library Journal from earlier this month, the latest John Berry article made me sit up in my seat. Entitled “Half Way to ALA”, he discusses the true cost of conference attendance in terms of dollars and (more importantly, in my estimation) professional advancement.

As to the first part, the financial estimates that Mr. Berry tosses out ring true to me. Even in taking transportation out of the equation (Boston and Washington DC, the locations of the past Midwinter and Annual, are within driving distance for me), the sum total of hotels, meals, and other expenses puts it easily well over $1,500 for an attendee. While some of my friends have worked out ways to save money by sharing rooms or seeking alternative housing venues, the other costs still remain the same and leave it hovering around $1,000 to attend. Not exactly small change by any stretch of the imagination.

The more important and salient point that Mr. Berry references in his piece is that of the cost of professional development to younger librarians. The statement made by Mr. Berry is that the conference is attended by those who get the least use out of it: directors, top management, and others who are well established and well compensated through their position. It creates a ‘generation gap’ in which the new librarians are generally shut out of the professional development opportunities that would benefit them the most in their nascent career. I can’t illustrate it in terms other than horticultural: when you plant something new, you take care to make it grow. You give it water, ensure that it gets the right amount of sun, fertilize the soil to provide essential nutrients, and protect it from predation and temperature extremes. This is no different than the ideal treatment for our up and coming librarians in providing them with the professional development and networking opportunities in order to create a stronger and smarter profession.

This is not meant as a vilification of the older generation of librarians. I’m certain that there are some that would consider the benefits of compensated attendance as a perk of their position and their work to reach such a place. Nor is there an easy answer for providing the financial support that would be necessary to allow young librarians. You’d have to be living under a rock for the last year to not know about the current state of library budgets. This puts some library vendors in the same boat with us as their revenues are partially married to our own expenditures.

The question that this post leaves in my head is this: what are the options that remain for younger librarians to attend conferences? In attending ALA annual this year, I heard a raffle over the convention loudspeaker giving away trips to the conference next year. That sounds nice, but it doesn’t specifically address young or new librarians. I know ALA has a list of travel grants and scholarships, but that helps a handful of librarians (and I see one of the travel grants is not available due to lack of donors). Not exactly overwhelming, but I have not given the subject a rigorous inquiry.

The thought did cross my mind: what would it take to someone to sponsor someone like myself to attend a conference? Could I wear one of those NASCAR jumpsuits and sell advertising space on it? Could I sell sidebar space on my blog? Endorsement deals? Booth appearances? Appear in advertisements? What would it take for someone to put up the money that would pay the way to attend?

I’d wonder what people thought about ‘selling out’ (either for me or themselves) and what would be an offer they couldn’t refuse. I’m not sure what would be the line for librarians. I have a feeling there is a strict adherence to objectivity even when none is called for. I’d like to hear from people on this, so please leave a comment with your thoughts.

(And if anyone is looking to sponsor a librarian, I’m all ears for your offer. I think I’d look decent in one of those NASCAR jumpsuits.)

42 thoughts on “Blatant Berry Bottom Line

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  2. I can give you an international perspective. I don’t think we in the library industry quite ‘do’ conferences on the epic scale you guys do, so the experiences aren’t directly comparable. But something like ‘Umbrella’ is arguably the equivalent of ALA Annual – it actually happens once every two years, it is run by the library body (CILIP), and is there flag-ship event, running over more than one day. It has previously been two expensive for me to go to – fees, travel, hotel etc – but I’m presenting at it next year so that takes away those obstacles.

    However, the idea of the New Professional in the UK is, as you and I have discussed before, a more dedicated movement than it seems to be in the US. So we have events specifcally aimed at us (a New Professional being someone who has entered the profession through work or study in the past five years or so) which are generally afforadble – not least because they only happen over one day, so no hotels are required. The question is, does having this affordable option for younger librarians out-weight any feelings of segregation, or of not being able to network with the big boys (and girls)? In my opinion, yes it does. But it’s a tricky issue.

    Re selling out – I wrote a blog post about Evernote recently, and someone from Evernote’s parent company got in touch about sponorship. My immediate response was, oh God no, I can’t sell out like that. But on the other hand, if it’s good enough for so many super-blogging librarians…

    The trouble with the Nascar suit idea is that sponsors would want you to display their logos because of your credibility in the library world, and of course that very credibility would be undermined by the logos.

    That said, if you’re having a whip-round, I’d happily contribute some pounds-sterling to the ‘Get Andy to dress as a race-car driver for ALA Annual’ fund. :)

    • How big are these new professional events? They sound like a lovely way to reach out, but my first thought is “that might make sense in the UK, but the US is huge”. Most one-day events in the US *would* require a hotel stay for me. And plane tickets. Expensive tickets.

      I can imagine new professional events working very well in some major cities, especially ones with library schools, but I think even if there were a half-dozen of them in a year, all in different places, most of the country would fall outside their catchment area.

      • Yeah I think you are right – the scale of the US would make it much harder. The events we have are max of 100 people – quite a lot of people actually want them to be over two days, as it happens! The grass is always greener on the other side…

        But it really fosters a sense of community and builds confidence, having events of that type, so if it is at all logistically possible it’d be worth considering.

  3. Before the economy bottomed out, our library paid for travel and hotels. Now they maybe pay for mileage if it’s in state, but at least they give admin days. I cringe when I hear young (and not so young) librarians say that they have to use VACATION days to get continuing ed at conferences.

    Thank you for writing about this important topic. So many of the ideas I’ve gotten for what kind of a librarian I want to be are ideas I’ve gotten because I’ve spent the library’s money (or more recently, my own) to go to conferences and festivals.

    And don’t get me started on ALA dues.

    YES, I would totally wear a NASCAR jumpsuit if it paid for me to go to the next ALA or PLA conference.

    • When I went to SLA in 2009, we received a food budget, which I thought was utterly ridiculous because if you DID play your cards right, you did not have to pay for a single meal at conference.

    • Oh, I know John Berry’s estimation is doing everything the expensive way: flagship hotel, meals, flight, conference fees, etc. Perhaps Washington and Boston are bad examples since both places are expensive to live there (nevermind visiting for a couple of days). But I do take his point that libraries are very hit or miss in supporting these activities.

  4. It’s also prohibitive for students to attend. At Pratt, we’ve offered scholarships through an essay contest for students to attend the ALA Annual Meeting…and we were told this year that Pratt Student Activities will not reimburse for airfare. With the far flung (but rather awesome) locations for Midwinter and Annual this year, that’s more money out of pocket for our scholarship winners.

    • Airfare is a bit tricky, but you can easily shop around. I prefer using Kayak to get a good lay of the land, and then checking with airline sites to see if they’ll offer a better deal if I use them.

  5. ALA Annual is the Super Bowl (or World Series, or even Wrestlemania) of librarianship. he fact that at the “biggest” conference only “directors, top management, and others who are well established” can really participate is not unique to librarianship; they’ve paid their dues, worked their way to the top, and are now participating/contributing to the biggest conference. I doubt you can find a profession where this ISN’T the case.

    The difference, though, is that “anyone” can participate in the library one: through many scholarships and a _yearly_ Emerging Leaders program which is in place to specifically engagement those who truly have a future in the field. The EL program enables librarians to break through alot of that “upper tier” which seems to be reserved only for upper management.

    Plus, this organization is what its members make it. I’ve only been a member for a year and I am already running for council; If I win, it will be a testament to the fact that all it takes to succeed in librarianship’s biggest organization is good ideas+hard work.

    JP from http://ala.8bitlibrary.com

    • I take care to say that I don’t think that the idea that people have earned the right to attend is not a bad one. It wouldn’t be the first profession where people have to ‘make their bones’ in order to move onwards to some of the perks of the trade. I can understand that position.

      However, I would say that it is also dangerous as it subscribes to a ‘trickle down’ model of professional thought and development. If only the senior members of the trade are going to a conference, then there is a reliance on them to take back ideas for implementation. So, you have thoughts and idea coming down the line rather than allowing people to examine them at the source.

      When you say that “this organization is what its members make it”, I’d counter with saying “the organization is what the people who can afford to attend make it”. I realize that virtual attendance is a rising aspect and I have faith that Jenny Levine is working her tush off to make it so. But right now, there is an expense barrier.

      Of course, you could argue that it is the price you pay for participation. Ambition and devotion are factors not in this calculation at the moment.

  6. One idea would be for sponsors to pay for upcoming librarians by having their services advertised on blogs, such as yours. The only problem with this is that 1 of 2 things would happen; 1) many librarians that are already established (and usually actually presenting at the conferences) are the ones with the highest trafficked blogs, 2) there would be an overflow of library blogs.

    They could try doing a scholarship type system with librarians submitting ideas on how their products could be better used/advertised, with the best ideas awarded with their conference fees paid for.

    I don’t think there’s a perfect answer because there are too many young/new librarians out there right now. Not everyone can go. It’s up to the directors and managers to realize that maybe it would be better for their younger librarians to go and come back with a difference perspective than what has been marinating for so long over the years.

    • How would the economics work for sponsorship? I mean, I think I have a reasonably successful blog for a very early-career librarian. And I have been working hard at it for the better part of a year now. And here are some numbers:

      62: That’s how many Google Reader subscribers I had this morning.
      100-150: That’s how many hits per day I can expect to get after I write a post. (Mostly from Facebook and Twitter, not subscription.)
      330: The most hits I have ever had in a single day.

      If you’re an advertiser, why do you sponsor that? (Not that I’d necessarily say no, depending on who was asking! I just don’t see the business plan there. Certainly not one that would make me enough money to get to ALA.)

      Also, frankly, the people who already have the successful blogs are the ones least in need of the networking boost of ALA. (Again, not that I’d say no! Will be spending money I don’t have to go to Midwinter and Annual. But I’m better positioned career-wise than many other unemployed recent grads, and I’d like to see the wealth shared, were there any wealth.)

      • I would guess that the economics would be based on the target audience that people are trying to reach. I don’t know if there are any hard and fast numbers for what meets a threshold, but in looking at other people’s subscription numbers (you can look at a blog’s Google Reader subscription numbers in the ‘show details’ part of Google Reader), I would guess that there has to be a return on the investment that would make it worthwhile to the sponsor.

        • I didn’t know you could do that with Google Reader, that’s a real eye-opener. Obviously it’s only part of the story – less than half my subscribers use Google Reader it appears. But seeing your (Andy) stratospheric subscription numbers has half solved a mystery for me – I’ve always wondered at the feedburner stats displayed on the right of your blog. As in, a: how the hell do so few people subscribe to such a well known blog and b: how come it seems like literally every single one of us comments each time you write a post!

          So clearly you *don’t* only have 91 subscribers – now can you solve the second half of the mystery for me? What is that stat doing there and where does it come from..?

  7. I can’t speak to big ALA or other divisions. YALSA has many, many opportunities for participation — including participation that doesn’t involve going to conference. It offers many venues for personal, professional development.

    YALSA also encourages all members to participate in committee work. Personally speaking, I find that just as valuable as attending programs or the exhibit hall. Working in committees contributes back to the organization while also giving opportunities for career growth and deepening one’s own skillset.

    I’d say at least half the people I meet who are at conference as YALSA committee members pay their own way, or part of their own way. Sometimes I’ve had employers who reimburse, sometimes not, sometimes a set amount, sometimes the whole thing.

    As JP points out, attending conference is a benefit for certain directors (I’m assuming, right now, those who aren’t involved in committee work.) Why should they give up what they’ve worked towards? It’s harsh, yes, but talk about the short end of the stick both ways: as beginning librarians, they couldn’t get support to go, now that they get it, they’re told to give it to beginning librarians?

    Cynically speaking, why some libraries may not want their staff or younger staff attending: networking means making connections…and finding out how other libraries work and what they pay and when they have job openings. And possibly losing staff who see better opportunities elsewhere.

    Oh, and at least with YALSA and I believe ALSC — there are indeed grants available to attend conference.

    • As I said to JP above, I can understand the position of senior librarian staff and having conference attendance as a ‘perk’ of advancement. I’m not advocating to take that away from them. I guess it is a matter of taking that experience and determining who benefits the most from any conference money they might be privy to.

      You are the first person to note the cynical side of it, even though it could easily be a director looking for another job as well.

      I think you have a good argument in the idea that the money spend on the conference is peanuts compared to the benefit obtained through in terms of professional development, networking, the friendships that come out of it, and the ability to mold and shape an organization as it moves forward. That is certainly something that money cannot buy.

  8. OK, clearly I am cranky today and I apologize for the negative tone of my comments so far. In reality, Andy, I would love to see you at ALA in a NASCAR suit. In fact, I would *pay* to see you at ALA in a NASCAR suit. Perhaps you should make like a modern politician and solicit microdonations to cover that :). (Hm. Perhaps *I* should employ a plan like this. Except I shudder to ask what people would pay to see me wear at Midwinter.)

    • Ha! Thanks Andromeda. Maybe if I make up a price list, I can figure out how much each spot will cost and get the ball rolling on that idea. =P

      Believe me, I think money brings out the crankiness in a lot of people.

  9. Oh, and a few more random points –

    1) Hopefully the rise of the virtual conference will address some of this. That can at least get new librarians in on the professional development aspects cheaply. They’re going to miss out on a lot of the networking, but thoughtfully designed use of Connect, social media, etc. might mitigate that somewhat — particularly if the more senior librarians with whom newbies really need to network participate.

    2) Conference attendance has been utterly invaluable for my own professional advancement. I’m in the weird place of being unemployed, yet having my career starting to take off, and a ton of that is about networking, and the complementarities between the IRL and the online piece. The online part is SUPER HELPFUL and I encourage everyone to get in on the action, but it would be far less effective without the IRL part, and I’m very lucky that Midwinter was in my backyard last year, and I could attend it for under $100 total.

  10. As a soon to graduate library school student I am all too familiar with the inability to afford going to library conferences (getting to Midwinter in San Diego from DC… don’t think so). What I’ve been doing to help make up for that fact is attending smaller events at state and city level organizations. These organizations (for me MLA and DCLA) hold events and conferences fairly regularly. Often these are a lot less expensive to attend and offer many of the same benefits of the larger conferences. They can also be less overwhelming to those new the profession and those who aren’t sure how they go about how to get involved.

    After saying that I am still going save up, share a room and scrounge for cheap flights to get down to New Orleans-Annual is not something new library grads can afford to miss.

    • For certain there is an immediate benefit to attending your local library organizations and conferences. I’m a member of my state’s library association and the contacts I have made there have proven to be invaluable (as well as turning out to be great friends). There is certainly nothing wrong with acting on a local level (since it makes the most amount of sense) and then turning towards a greater stage as time goes on.

  11. Perhaps ALA could think about not just having two giant conferences, but perhaps having one giant conference and a bunch of smaller more localized events. This might be a wacky idea, but what if ALA had events targeted towards different areas of the country. Don’t get me wrong, I value the ALA annual, but cost is very prohibitive. If ALA did more events, on a smaller scale, in different areas of the country perhaps more members could attend.

    I realize this might be impossible, but I still think it is an idea worth thinking about.

    • Are you talking about a regional conference? I think I can hear John Chrastka waking up in a cold sweat, swearing and saying, “What? Another conference?”

      JP is correct; the state chapters are part of the greater national organizational whole. Finding something in your state shouldn’t be a big issue.

  12. Hm, I’ve been a reference librarian for 25 years and have a different take on conferences. Throughout those years I haven’t attended many ALA mega-conferences, but those I did attend always caused me to wish that library managers would have attended more of the same sessions I did. If managers would attend more sessions targeted for front-line staff, more library patrons would reap the real benefits of the conferences.

    Meanwhile, I agree that online conferences are increasingly the way to allow maximum participation in conferences. The social web is perfect for networking; just combine presentations with Skype, Twitter, FaceBook, or any variation of such technology. Then the younger librarians amongst us will be the truly savvy conference attendees.

    RCN, San Francisco Bay Area

    • I agree. I’ve been following ASIST’s meeting in Pittsburgh and Internet Librarian in Monterey this week via the tweets on the Twitter.

  13. I think that conference attendence is a benefit for both new and established librarians. Networking and vendor contact are very important for all professionals. The reality is, this is an industry under significant budget constraints, so everyone does not get to go.

    As other posters have noted–local and state events are excellent alternatives, as are finding ways to cut costs. Again, as already noted–at the very least, libraries need to provide the time to new librarians so they have a chance to attend at least one conference.

    Now, I will get snarky–how much professional development beyond finding out where the jobs are is done at ALA? When I ask people about the conference, I mostly hear about vendor dinners (not products–the food, the booze), parties, and meeting up with friends. These are not exactly skill enhancing. At most people will mention one presentation that they enjoyed–usually on a topic they are already sold on. Is there a chance for more–of course and I am sure some people actually do get more education and development. However, many go to conferences for the party. If you do that and your library has paid–shame on you (by all means, pay for your own party…I am in no way saying these are not conference perks!).

    When staff is being cut everywhere, those of us lucky enough to get these kinds of perks, should use them wisely. And share when you return==something that happens often in corporate environments, the person who attends formally shares what they have learned.

    As for the NASCAR suit–not on this body type! However, I am sure you would look fetching! Selling out is hard to define, but I am pretty sure it is when you song is still on the charts and also in a car ad on TV…..

    • Great comment, Cynthia.

      I would say the details about the happy hours, dinners, meetups, bar hopping, and other after hours shenanigans are certainly more interesting than, say, a checklist list of social media involvement. But the point regarding the purpose for attending is completely on the money (no pun intended).

      Although, I think there is value to leaving a session if it stops you from tackling the presenter to prevent him from saying another stupid word about social media. I guess I could say that was a learning experience in patience, tolerance, anger management, and the ability to identify a situation where you wanted to close the windpipe of another human being with your hands and avoiding it.

      I take it that you would consider a state or local conference as a ‘stepping stone’ to larger more national ones?

  14. As Andromeda pointed out, what about virtual conferences? Libraries at the Tipping Point seemed to do relatively well, and while face-to-face interaction/networking is always the best option, social networking seems to be doing at least a decent job of networking. It’s possible that newbies (and I say that as a term of endearment since I am one) will have more exposure to conferences through these means.

    • While I was not an attendee, I think Libraries at the Tipping Point worked because there was a good extensive network for other discussions. Twitter and chat were ways for people to share things and discuss. The dialogue is the important aspect of the conference and there was the right tools in place to make it work.

  15. It’s too much $ to attend these conferences for sure. I’m always glad when I go, except the one in Anaheim (poorly done from my perspective) because it motivates and gives me a few ideas but for the most part, it does not usually equal the expense. Great to see other cities and other library sytems but the cost prevents many from attending.

  16. Andy, as one of the few librarian NASCAR fans I cannot stop myself from pointing out that it’s called a fire suit :)

    In terms of sponsorship, I say go for it. I don’t have a problem with people making money off of their work, as long as its obvious who’s paying them. In fact, that’s one of the things I love about NASCAR. They don’t try and obscure who is paying the bills. Besides, there seems to be so few library vendors that people love – why not highlight those that are doing a great work?

    I don’t know exactly how ALA conferences are funded, but my experience at local/regional conferences is that they are funded largely by the vendors. I think that working on this relationship could have an impact on offerings and price.

    The choice of who should attend should be based at least in some part on community need – evidence based conference attendance. What are the library’s goals this year and how is attendance at this conference going to help?

    • First, I know it’s a fire suit. But if I call it a fire suit, only you and I will know what we are talking about. So I was a bit more descriptive so people would get the idea.

      As to the rest, that sounds about right to me.

  17. How about this one? I am a recent graduate with my MLIS and have been working part-time at my public library during school and since I have gotten my degree. Still waiting for that full-time position! I approached my supervisor about attending our state-level conference and offered to pay my own way. I wanted to go for several reasons: 1) I need continuing eduction credits to keep up my state certification; 2) I really enjoy networking with other librarians, and it will benefit me when I do find jobs to apply for; and 3) I learn from the sessions I attend, and hopefully would be able to take those ideas back home.

    However, I was told that I could not attend, even if I paid my own way, even if I only went for one day of the conference. I was told that I had to stay at work to staff the desk, even though only the director, assistant director, and youth services librarian were attending the conference.

    This is not even an issue of taking vacation days or spending your own money. This is an issue of providing opportunities for all staff members to pursue professional development.

  18. Hey Andy. I starting writing a post about Berry’s column right after I came across it. I’ll link to this post as it’s a good perspective. My perspective will be a bit different coming from one of those senior librarians.

    But I think you misinterpret something Berry states in his editorial. You wrote:

    The statement made by Mr. Berry is that the conference is attended by those who get the least use out of it: directors, top management, and others who are well established and well compensated through their position.

    Your statement suggest that senior librarians and administrators “get the least use out of” the conferences. I wouldn’t agree if he made that point. I get a hell of a lot of use out of the conferences. Hearing new ideas, talking to the exhibitors (really critical if you are making allocation and purchase decisions) – and complaining to the vendors – best time to do it. And I get a lot of value out of meeting newer folks.

    But what he actually says is:

    The top managers, directors of libraries, and others who get the least use out of them get full subsidy and time off to attend conferences.

    By that he means, I believe, that the senior library don’t actually need the subsidies in that they could probably afford to pay their own way – unlike the newer folks who are earning less. I don’t think he’s saying folks like me get the least use out of the conference (which is how you replay it), but rather we get the least use of the subsidy to attend the conference.

    Maybe I’m the one reading it wrong – or the way it’s written it’s ambiguous and open to interpretation. But if he intended it the way you read it – I’d argue he’s wrong. But based on my interpretation, I don’t think he meant it as a put down to us senior admin types.

    • In looking at what I wrote and what Mr. Berry wrote, I think it is a bit ambiguous. And while I did not make it any better in my wording, I was making the case for younger librarians going. If I came off as saying that “older” librarians and administration would not gain the same benefit from the conference (meaning, their attendance has less professional benefit), that’s not entirely what I meant. While I’m sure there are those who attend because they are expected to (or some such nonsense), I believe that the conferences are a great opportunity for the different generations to mix and interact.

      I do take cues and get inspired by seniors librarians (both specifically you, Steven, and in general). I really dislike the whole “get out of our way” attitude that tends to creep up every now and again when it comes to this fake “older vs younger” librarians meme. I wouldn’t want to be treated that way in twenty years from now and I don’t believe that it is very helpful in retaining institutional knowledge. However, I do believe that there is merit and value to getting different ‘generations’ of librarians at a conference. If it takes a different distribution of conference money wealth, then I think it’s a good thing in the long run.

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