2003 AASL Annual Conference FG

Market Research

Summary of Findings and Detailed Reports

ALA Focus Groups conducted

during the 2003 AASL Annual Conference


Prepared for the

American Library Association

Presented by:

MarketingGeneral Inc.

December 3, 2003

Marketing General Incorporated (MGI) was contracted to conduct market research during the 2003 AASL Annual Conference in Kansas City, MO (10/24-25). MGI conducted a total of three focus groups:

  • New ALA or AASL members
  • ALA or AASL members who were not active or had limited involvement with the organization beyond membership.
  • Identified leaders in their profession and who were highly active and involved with ALA.

The objective:

  1. To understand the most pressing challenges in their day to day profession;
  2. To understand what tools or resources would help them do their jobs better;
  3. To understand their perceived value of their membership with ALA and what products and services are most useful;
  4. Gain insight about how ALA can remain relevant to its members now and in the future.

To meet the objectives core questions were developed that would be asked to all three of the above mentioned groups. The appropriate variable questions were added for each sample audience. MGI obtained a list of pre-registered conference attendees from ALA and sent out an invitation to participate via fax. For optimal conversation and exchange we chose no more than 15 participants per group.

Moderator's Guides and attendance lists were created for each segment.

Focus groups seek to develop insight into attitudes, beliefs and perceptions rather than quantitatively precise measures. Because of the limited number of participants and the restrictions imposed on recruiting, this research must be considered in a qualitative frame of reference. The reader is reminded that this report is intended to clarify ambiguous issues and indicate possible directions for future research. The data presented here cannot be projected to a universe of similar respondents.

The value of focus groups is in their ability to provide observers with unfiltered comments from a segment of the target population and for decision-makers to gain insight into the attitudes and beliefs of their member base.


This report of findings is just the first benchmark in a series of research that ALA is conducting over the next 8 months. This report outlines the findings of the three focus groups conducted at the AASL Annual Conference and provides any suggested action items for ALA to consider moving forward

It is important to note that this report is a result of answers that have come from school librarians and media specialists who are employed in public or private education at some level. The comments and perspectives are from a singular education based librarian group.

Although we tried to keep most of the questions the same for each group, tangential conversations took our line of questioning in several different directions. The good news is that ALA members are vocal and have very strong opinions on matters concerning their profession and their membership with ALA. The challenge for ALA will be to structure benefits and services in a way that satisfies as many librarians as possible. Trying to be everything to every librarian is not a new challenge for the leaders and staff of ALA. And it is the reason that ALA's special interest divisions are so strong and really have taken a deeply significant life of their own. As a profession, like librarianship, takes on multiple meanings and responsibilities, national organization are forced to address the needs of its specifics audiences. ALA's special interest divisions allow ALA to do just that. As ALA looks to broaden its membership within the masses, providing niche membership will be essential.

Across the board school librarians value the diversity of tasks and the flexibility of their schedules. They are all concerned about budgets and funding shortfalls, and the inability to acquire vital resources that include technology improvements that are badly needed to deliver the best services to user groups.

The lack of credibility in their profession and the perceived "dumbing down" of the library profession with loosening requirements is of real concern for all three groups. Much discussion focused on the lack of understanding by supervisors (principals) and the community (parents) about the level of education and expertise a librarian brings to the education process. They feel under-appreciated and under- utilized. Many expressed outrage when budgets were being cut at the district level and qualified full-time librarians were being replaced with part-time support or paraprofessional staff.

Participants really wanted to see ALA/AASL creating more material and more resources that help to promote the vital role the school librarian plays in teaching and educating our schoolchildren. Each group talked about increasing PR for their peers and the community. As their profession has evolved into one of a highly specialized media professional, the perception of what a librarian is has not evolved since the 40's and 50's. They are looking to ALA to help them make that transition.

Although there were differing opinions about wanting to belong to ALA and AASL or just AASL, most were appreciative for the national advocacy that ALA provided and the level of effort that ALA exerted in protecting the freedom of information and other basic rights. Many participants were concerned with ALA's "very liberal" approach, but, for the most part, were thankful that such a powerful group was protecting their interests.

The leaders felt that there was more collaboration with teachers, school boards and faculty than did the other groups. The new and not so active members felt more like babysitters and release time for teachers and that the acknowledgement of how the school librarian could be more of a education solution--especially in terms of No Child Left Behind requirement--was lacking in most cases.

Participants valued the networking, information and conferences that ALA and AASL provided. They valued an organization like AASL that really understood their needs and the difficult position of being everything to everyone.

Most participants were appreciative to have the opportunity to participate in the focus groups and were inquisitive as to what ALA planned to do with the information. They were happy that ALA wanted to hear from the members.


Twelve members participated in the New Members focus group on Friday, October 24, at the Marriott Hotel in Salon 7 meeting room, in Kansas City, MO. All twelve participants worked in public schools: five from middle schools, three from elementary schools, three from high schools, and 1 undefined.

What was interesting about the new members group was that although they were new members, they were not necessarily new to education or the librarian profession. Most had been in education for well over twenty years and as a librarian for nearly a decade. Most of the new members joined ALA/AASL at the encouragement of a peer or supervisor or because the conference was someplace geographically convenient for them. One participant noted that they slid in and out of membership based on the AASL conference location. Most indicated that ALA membership was not as important but included in membership. They understood that they were unable to join AASL only so they just take ALA membership.

Most are involved at the state level and struggle with their professional development budget between annual memberships and conferences. About half of the participants indicated that their school district paid for some of their ALA participation, whether it was for annual membership and the conference or just membership. One participant told us that she was able to join ALA/AASL and attend the conference through a mini-grant she received. The cost of annual dues was an issue for almost all participants. (MGI does not see the dues as out of line in comparison to other education related organizations).

For the most part, the new members voiced frustration with their lack of credibility in relationship to their peers and the community. Most felt they were under- appreciated and under- utilized. They were adamant about the level of education they had in regard to the principal or superintendent of the school/school district. They felt that the teachers did not see them as a collaborative partner in the teaching process for the schoolchildren and that the resources at the library in terms of reading, researching and learning were not integrated into the overall lesson plan for students.

The new members really stressed the need for assistance in the area of public relations. While the @ your library campaign was a great step in that direction, but they also needed a more grassroots approach to educating their peers, supervisors, and parents on their important role as an educator and resource. They want to be seen as resources not babysitters or relief time for teachers. Participants wanted ALA to design a pass-along brochure that describes what a librarian does all day long.

Many voiced appreciation for the AASL Toolkit (insert title?) as a great piece to help with the education process.

The roles and major responsibilities of these librarians varied from student assistance to technology troubleshooting. Most participants were concerned with funding for new services like a DVD player, and for new books, technology tools, etc

The Internet is a challenge for these participants. --educating students to use the internet as a resource but to also understand that much of the information on the web isn't always accurate or as comprehensive as it should be. Finding a balance between promoting library usage and the Internet is a challenge.

Librarians are also concerned with pay in relationship to education. Many did not feel they were compensated fairly for the level of education. The emergence of paraprofessionals was also a topic for discussion. They are not librarians and yet they seem to be substituting for positions once held by full-time qualified librarians.

They also felt that they were being ignored in terms of helping raise reading and test scores with regard to No Child Left Behind benchmarking. They fear that if their schoolchildren are labeled as failing, the blame will be sent around the faculty.

Participants valued the journals and the information (mail and e-mail) they receive from ALA and AASL. Networking was important as well. Some voiced an interest in AASL forming an electronic discussion list (of focus group participants?) so they could continue networking at some level throughout the year. They were also impressed and appreciative that ALA was taking the time to conduct focus groups and to learn more from the members about what they needed.

Most participants felt as though the ALA web site was not very easy to navigate and the information difficult to find. And they felt that the publications and graphics that are listed in the ALA product magazines are far too expensive for members, but then they did mention that they appreciated the member discount.

Suggestions for ALA to improve benefits and services included more public relations for parents and the education community, an AASLdiscussion list, assistance in finding federal grant money (needed for technology upgrades, etc.), and a high-level practice department (a human person) where members could e-mail or call ALA for professional advice about a serious problem facing a member. This could include anything from technology to legal questions or clarifications. Participants also voiced interest in getting more information about grant writing and finding of grant monies. A final suggestion was for ALA to develop a white paper (not a web page) on the importance to test scores of the library media program so they can make a case for their role with regard to test scores.

There was some confusion among the group about what is available for reuse and what is not...like the @ your library logo. They were given mixed message from customer service folks and found many of the logo or graphics extremely difficult to download from the web site. A few participants indicated that they were not treated very well when they called into customer service.

Lastly, there was a great deal of discussion about moving the conference to a summer date. Many participants struggle to get away during the school year and most felt attendance at the conference would increase if it was over the summer break period.


There were a variety of school library and media specialists participating in this focus group. Their job functions ranged from library services at an elementary school to technology specialist for a state department of education. Six of the 14 participants have been in the profession for 5-10 years; two for 10-15 years; and four for more than 15 years.

When asked what occupies the majority of their day answers varied. Some participants stated that the majority of their day was spent instructing and teaching while others said they were responsible for maintaining the technological structure of their system. Other answers included the evaluation, teaching and observation of media specialists, and a lot of multi-tasking with one participant describing him/herself as an "interruptible power source". Another participant described the role of librarian as a teacher of problem solving:.teaching children to solve problems and make decisions.

Participants felt the best things about their job were the people, the variety of tasks, the enthusiasm of the kids. But variety did not always seem like a good thing as one participant felt that the multitude of tasks and the broad subject matter they needed to know made them more generalists rather than specialists. Others agreed.

Participants see themselves as contributing to a child's student achievement and see reading as the cornerstone of education. This group displayed much more passion about their profession in comparison to the new members focus group participants.

For the most part, participants are worried about funding of library programs and related products and services. And they are concerned with the potential consequences of No Child Left Behind, especially in regards to Special Education programs and funding. Some library budgets are being shifted to satisfy other perceived urgent needs in the school district.

Again, the concern over the perception of the Internet as a reliable information resource that could replace books was a concern to these participants. They feel like they are having to fight even harder to justify their role and their importance in the education arena for children. Couple this with budget shortages and some of the participants are worried about their future place in education and library services.

There was a concern about a possible shortage of educated and qualified library and media specialists. There was also concernthat many states, to compensate for the shortage, are accepting any person who can pass the exam, rather than a person who has been educated in library services.

Internally, scheduling was mentioned as a challenge and more specifically block scheduling which seems to work in some situations and not well in others. Flexibility in scheduling was described as both a blessing and a burden.

As in the new members group, the discussion turned to the lack of understanding from the principal, teachers and other faculty about the exact role and resource that the librarian can be in the education process. They are frustrated that they produce reports that are never read, crunch numbers that are never looked at. They are frustrated about how to go about showing that librarians today are not the same librarians of the 40's. How can they make themselves seen as indispensable?

Looking ahead, most agreed that more collaboration with teachers and faculty was essential to being part of the education solution. They are also concerned with funding for technology to help keep their programs relevant.

Most participants agreed that they would not join ALA if they did not have to. They felt ALA was really geared towards public librarians and that they did not understand the needs of the school librarian. The AASL conference was also a much better education opportunity than the ALA Conference.

An opposing comment came from a participant who was thankful that ALA advocated for the library profession as a whole and that they stood as a vanguard of intellectual freedom. After some discussion, most agreed they would only join AASL but they understood that by pulling away from ALA, it might cause ALA to lose some of its presence and awareness when it came to legislative influence and effectiveness.

Ten out of fourteen participants pay their own dues to ALA/AASL. Participants renew every year for the information, conference discounts. They value ALA's position statements, the information about intellectual freedom.

Participants were concerned, like the other group, with the lack of user-friendly guidance on the ALA web site. They found it difficult to search and find specific information or papers. Also, some of the links did not work. They feel that, done correctly, the ALA web site could be a very powerful benefit.

AASL was valued for its conference, information and publication. New professional development workshops for next year were also mentioned along with the School Library Media research which is now available online. Networking was also a valuable benefit.

Participants spent some time talking about the need for ALA to help the profession come together and reach a consensus about a common vocabulary and a common number of steps for teaching and problem solving and to really define what a librarian really is these days. They would really like ALA to help define who they are so they can educate others. Some participants voiced an interest in changing the names of libraries to media centers altogether.

Most participants admitted that they were not real active but that ALA hadn't always done a great job providing clear paths for involvement. They were appreciative of the information in their registration packets that talked about committee involvement. They expressed interest in having ALA teach people about how virtual committees worked.

Basically, participants agreed that they felt their time was stretched too thin between their day-to day jobs, local involvement, state involvement and national participation with ALA.

Lastly when asked what one tool they could use to make their jobs easier, the answers were: a clone, 48 hours in a day, sufficient staff, full-time aid, a companion library in the same district.

Like the other group, the participants were thankful to ALA and AASL for providing a focus group forum to discuss issues. They felt valued and were thankful for the opportunity to be involved.


It was obvious that each participant in this group held significant positions in their profession and were involved in organizations on both the local and national levels. Although this group would have been perceived to be more insightful when answering the core questions, their answers actually closely mirrored the answers given by the new and not so active members. The biggest difference really was between the perceived level of collaboration among faculty and staff. The leaders had a much higher sense of teamwork and collaboration. This group also talked about big picture scenarios rather than the tactical day-to-day issues.

When asked what occupies most of their days, answers included interacting with students, interacting with teachers and administrators, returning phone calls, dealing with technology issues, research and preparing materials for professional development, personnel issues and overall multi-tasking. For the most part the participants felt that their position demanded that they remain available beyond the 9-5 day, especially in the case where there are librarian shortages.

The leaders in this group valued the flexibility, the people, a team concept, the diversity and joy of working and learning in their positions. The greatest challenges included morale issues tied to budget cutbacks, political issues like No Child Left Behind, the controversy surrounding testing and measurements, the limitations of resources with the expectation of excellence in learning and student achievement. Another comment and follow up discussion centered around the inability to maximize technology tools and to find the right staff that understand education and technology together to make relevant and useful applications.

Critical thinking around information literacy and assessment became a topic for discussion with this group as well. It is a challenge teaching children and generating enthusiasm for learning to do conduct critical thinking.

Leaders were most concerned with budget cuts and maintaining a high standard of excellence for students in terms of critical thinking, project-based learning rather than focusing on test scores or mandated measurement standards. They voiced concern that the process of testing stifles the creativity that can be used for learning. And lastly, leaders worried about diminishing support from the community, from states, from parents, etc.

Leaders joined ALA by a suggestion from a colleague and enjoy the personal contact and networking opportunities afforded to them through ALA and AASL. However, the group agreed that their real interest was with AASL and that given the opportunity they would probably not join ALA. Further discussion brought the balance back to ALA and AASL citing that from an advocacy stand point and national representation, AASL would not be successful without ALA. When the moderator asked how many, if given a choice, would only choose AASL membership only and not ALA membership only one participant responded that he wanted AASL only. The rest came to the conclusion that ALA was an important national presence.

The leaders also wanted to see ALA doing a better job outlining what its does for school librarians--things like protecting intellectual freedom. Participants discussed the value of being affiliated with education- based groups -- like ISTE, ASCD -- that focused on education, rather than belonging to ALA which focuses on librarianship. ALA's position in the marketplace may be challenging for school librarians as much of their day centers around education issues rather than library issues.

There was disagreement as to whether or not American Libraries magazine was content-rich for school librarians. Leaders did not have anything negative to say about the web site and appreciated the 24-7 access to the information found on the ALA site. The AASL conferences and regional meetings were highly valued. One participant also appreciated the awards and recognition ALA provided to members and leaders in the profession.

For AASL, participants valued networking, conferences, information power on the cutting edge, camaraderie, and the Affiliate Assembly. They also hoped that the AASL marketing campaign would help to strengthen the role of the school librarian.

Every participant raised their hand in a "yes" gesture when asked if they pay their own dues. But the state or employer paid their way to the conference in some cases.

What would leaders like from ALA that they currently do not receive? A national listing segmented state by state of job listings, or a nation recruitment campaign. AASL should provide a list of courses available nationwide to become a library media specialist. Some participants would like to see ALA beef up its political lobbying. They also want to see more of a liaison tie between the national lobbying efforts and local involvement. They want to see consistent messaging. They appreciate the alliances that ALA has with other groups but they don't see that collaboration resulting in tangible change or movement for the librarian/education arena.

Librarians from this group, although they valued ALA for their own professional development, they also saw the need to be involved and have a presence in other organizations like ASCD, ISTE, NCTM, as they see themselves as an integral part of the education process at virtually every level.

For the most part, leaders indicated that they needed more money in their budget and more time in their day to accomplish their objectives. Other comments included respect, collaboration, staffing.