A Manifesto for Professional Associations like SLA

I have threatened, hinted, and joked about writing a manifesto for SLA. This is a very brief and measured version of my thoughts about the association and other professional associations for information and knowledge workers. As such, it’s more general than a pointedly SLA treatise would be, but at the same time it’s important to recognize this is shaped by my experience and the current trajectory of SLA.

Don’t be surprised if there’s a longer version some day, but for now… here it is. I have some physical copies to distribute at the conference. Let me know if you want one.

A Manifesto for Professional Associations like SLA

Intro.

I have been an SLA member since 2006. I first joined as a student in library school. I have remained a member because I believe in the power and value of SLA for me to be the best librarian I can be, but it has been difficult. After the economic collapse of 2008, our industry and association has struggled to figure out the best path forward. The old approach to membership, engagement, and finances was no longer sustainable as a huge portion of the industry vanished. SLA tried in many different ways to react to those changes, but it’s struggled and continues to struggle.

I am writing this manifesto to propose how I think professional associations, like SLA, should radically change their approach. I don’t think I have the answer, but I do think these could help in achieving necessary changes. Much of my language reflects my work in labor organizing, as it has greatly influenced my views on how professional associations should be relevant today.

1. Professional associations are organizations for library and information professionals, not their employers.

It makes sense that we spend a lot of energy communicating the value of associations for our employers, since they traditionally paid for membership and conference travel. While the value of associations for members is present in the marketing material, it usually ties back to how to add value to our employers. This is misplaced effort which should have been focused on helping members continue to grow, build and refine skills. Employers will value information workers’ involvement in professional associations when the value is readily apparent. We have lost that value to the members in the thirsty attempts to woo our employers — many of whom value library and information professionals so little that they eliminated those services in the last decade.

2. Professional associations need to be member driven and member centered organizations.

With any volunteer-run organization, there’s a balance between structured governance and member driven action. When there is tension (and confusion) on how to operate within the bureaucratic structures of the organization, it disempowers members which leads to disengagement. This dynamic breeds the attitude of “what can the association do for me?” because it’s not clear what members can actually do for themselves.

Is SLA here for the members or is it here for SLA?  At times it seems like professional associations continue to exist through inertia and as a result their purpose is muddled by competing interests. Is the purpose of an association to enrich members in their professional growth through education and knowledge sharing? Is the purpose to give vendors an audience with potential clients and customers? Is the purpose to enforce professional norms through credentialism?

The focus needs to be the enrichment of the members first and foremost, and while associations need to strike a balance to achieve that, it must always focus on that goal.

3. Professional associations needs to serve all members, at all stages of their career. Remember where you started from.

Nobody is born a fully fledged professional. Nobody is born an expert. Associations need to be welcoming and supporting of those entering the profession, and continue to support them throughout their career’s ebbs and flows. This means we need to have opportunities for members at all stages, at many different levels in their career. We cannot take advantage of new professionals eager for opportunities to grow, only to cause them to burn out and drift away. We cannot let people in the middle of their career flounder, looking for opportunities that fit with their skills and obligations. And while we do also need to address the needs of seasoned and experienced members, that cannot be at the expense of everybody else. Lots of groups talk about mentorship and learning from one another, but few actually succeed at that goal. The barriers of opportunities for students and new professionals to participate – at conference, locally, etc. – makes mentoring efforts fail. Mentoring cannot save an association, but it is an important component of sustainable membership engagement. Associations and their members who are committed and engaged need to create opportunities for newer members to participate, feel connected, and respected.

If the only people who can regularly attend and contribute are those who are at the higher end of their career, then they need to work on re-establishing arc for others to reach that level. The ladder has been pulled up and we need to rebuild it.

4. Members create value for other members – not just the association.

In our numbers-obsessed world, there is an intense focus on the “value” of everything. Marketing tries to communicate the value of being a member of an association to attract and retain members, but it’s never clear what the value actually is.

Is the value of the association financial through offering education opportunities for those in the profession? Is the value professional through the opportunities created by a network of colleagues? It seems that many associations are leaning towards the former to address financial constraints, all the while the latter suffers. The community suffers as people drop memberships for more affordable and comparably enriching opportunities. It’s hard to argue with people who take that course of action because it makes sense. It also makes it hard to attract and retain new members who don’t have any reason to have an attachment to the association.  

There is tension within many associations because of the different types of expectations members have of what they want out of an association and the levels of engagement. Some join to stay informed of current trends in the profession, but are not inclined to volunteer (for many reasons – lack of time, resources, or interest). Others see it as an opportunity to contribute to the profession, take on the challenge of working with others to discuss foundational topics, and providing opportunities for knowledge and skills sharing. This is a service-oriented mindset. Others engage for primarily personal benefit – connecting with potential clients or raising their profile for career opportunities. Members likely exhibit some combination of all of these behaviors and should be expected to change and grow over time. Problems arise though when service-oriented members, those focused on creating opportunities for others to engage, are disempowered to do so.

5. Conferences and other programming needs to be relevant and accessible for all members. (Accessible to those with disabilities, by cost, and geography.)

If associations are going to be inclusive to as many people as possible, programming cannot be location dependent. Offering opportunities for members to collaborate, share, and learn is the core function of professional associations (outside of credentialism). The focus cannot remain on in person events tied to specific geographies, as these are cost and time prohibitive for many people, which may have been acceptable before but no longer is the case. For in person meetings, costs must be kept to a minimum so that more people can be able to attend. There also needs to be a culture of inclusion in terms of logistics, physical accessibility of the space, and selecting locations that are welcoming to all members. (This is extremely difficult in the USA, which currently is not welcoming to those from many other countries and cultures.)

Technology provides the tools for collaboration, lowering the barrier for participation for members, but those platforms need to be accessible to as many people as possible as well – to screen readers and other assistive technologies, on many different computing platforms, and available in different languages.

6. Professional associations needs to reckon with how capitalism and neoliberalism affect access to information, research, and society.

This is a very heated issue for society and we need to confront it and discuss it within the context of information work. This is one of the key tensions we face, and until we come to a common understanding it will continue to impede how members can interact. Members from the public sector, or non-profits are likely to be more resource constrained than those from the private sector. There is also the mistrust between customers and vendors due to limited budgets and rising costs. In this context professional associations suffer by skirting around these issues in attempts not to alienate people, particularly the companies that associations rely on for financial sponsorship, but as a result the members whose dues and work actually make associations valuable are left feeling less important.

More philosophically, it can be distilled to how one feels about the phrase, “information wants to be free.” Those who believe this is the goal we should achieve, limiting the barriers to access (and cost) as much as possible. Others see it as a problem, that information can be difficult to contain and they must ensure to protect its security. (Most people agree information is difficult to manage.) Capitalism is a root cause of these differences and it can’t be ignored.

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