Demystifying ALA: Reflections and Perspectives as an “Outsider” and “Insider”

Roberta Stevens, ALA 2010-2011 President, offers an 'Insider and Outsider' perspective on the American Library Association. Her insights on getting started as a member and becoming more involved will help newer members better understand this large and sometimes complex organization while providing long-time members with a refresher on ways that ALA membership impacts one's career, community and library.


Today I will provide a look at ALA from the outsider and insider points of view.  My aim is to provide you with key information that encourages you to join the association or, if you are a member, to effectively participate in it and take advantage of the many opportunities it provides for professional growth and development. I’m going to pass on some tips to help you successfully navigate this ALA, the largest, and I might add the premier, library association in the world.

The Newbie

I frequently hear the term “newbie” and have been called a variation of it myself.  However, if being a newbie means you don’t understand ALA and how it’s structured and operated, then I suspect most ALA’s members qualify as “newbies.”

The Org Chart

When I first joined ALA, and for a long time afterward, I found it enormously complex and confusing.  I assumed any organization as large and specialized as ALA would be impenetrable and slow to respond.  I was wrong.  I just didn’t understand the association or what it could do for me.

My Perspective as an Outsider

Early in my career, I was exposed to ALA through library school and attending conferences.  My participation in ALA really began as an exhibitor first working in, and then managing, the Library of Congress exhibit booth.  Being an exhibitor, I felt that I was part of but not really engaged in the association and its operation.  I didn’t really grasp ALA and what it could offer me.  That was until I became an intern on one of the committees of ALA’s Council - the Committee on Legislation - and was elected to ALA’s governing body, the Council itself.

Why Get Involved

My experience is my own, of course, and I know hundreds of other members who got involved and started making a difference for libraries for their own reasons.  There is certainly more than one way to wade into the ALA ocean. 
For many, ALA membership is primarily about staying abreast of best practices and cutting-edge trends through publications, formal and informal learning, and professional development opportunities

For others, membership means participation in ALA, its divisions and round tables, and in its initiatives like advocacy and legislation, literacy, library standards, and diversity in the profession. 

Members at all stages of their careers write, edit, and review for traditional and new media across the association.  Members work on committees that set standards for the profession and for our libraries.  ALA members are experts – both as experienced teachers, presenters and creators, but also as learners, knowing that fellow members have ideas and advice that will help improve my library and impact my career.

Participating in divisions and round tables

Participation in one of ALA’s 11 divisions or 20 round tables is a superb way to match one’s interests with sources of information and professional guidance.  ALA has an extraordinary range of members’ interests expressed in the committee work, publications and journals, programs, and continuing education offered by divisions and round tables.

Next Steps for Getting Involved … Effectively

First, if you are not a member, you need to become one.  If you are a student, the cost is $33 and, in recognition of the fact individuals may be attending classes part-time, there is a 5-year eligibility for student membership status.  If you are a first-year member, the cost is $65.  A second-year member pays $98 and from the third year of membership forward, the cost is $130.  Support staff and librarians earning less than $25,000 per year or currently unemployed pay a flat rate of $46.

You must be an ALA member to be a member of a division or round table.  Division and round table membership fees are separate and determined by them.  However, you will find, depending on your area of interest that it is well worth the cost of joining one of these groups if they’re aligned with your type of library or set of responsibilities.

Find Your Niche

Again, find your niche. Use the ALA website to browse the divisions and round tables and see what they have to offer.  Don’t hesitate to call a division’s executive director to find out more about it and how you can participate in the division’s activities.

All members have access to AL Direct, a wonderful e-newsletter of updates crossing the entire association.  Published on Tuesdays and Fridays, AL Direct keeps you “in the know” with a wide range of news affecting libraries, information on training and award opportunities, and so forth.  As a service to members, AL Direct is a home run out of the park.

There is Power in Staying Informed

I get lots of publications from the divisions I belong to … and I read them.  They are filled with a wealth of information.  Here’s a recent example for me: I happened to finally get to an issue of ACRL’s College and Research Libraries and saw an article on mentoring.  I shared it with staff at the Library of Congress who were tackling how to provide guidance to potential mentors and evaluate how well the mentoring worked.  They were thrilled.

ALA Connect is the Association’s online professional network.  It is easy to use and provides members with quick ways to find people and projects.  Every division and round table has a space on ALA Connect that is filled with current information – but most importantly it puts you in touch with other members.  In ALA, it is people make the difference. One of Connect’s best features is that you can create your own communities of interest and working groups.  Put your question out on Connect and be prepared for lots of advice and help.