Who We Are

Posted Tuesday, August 27, 2013 - 17:04
Membership myths, membership realities
Keith Michael Fiels

Each year, I spend a good deal of time speaking to various groups about libraries and the Association. Often, I talk about library myths.

One of the most widespread and persistent myths is that younger people are not joining the Association. Data, however, shows that this is just not true.

In a 2009 study conducted for ALA, researchers compared the ages of US-based ALA members to US Census data on librarians with a master’s degree or higher education level. They found that the ALA membership has a younger age structure than librarians as a whole. This is due in part—but only in part—to the number of younger student members.

Today our nearly 9,000 student members represent 17% of our total personal membership. With an estimated 19,000 students currently enrolled in library and information science programs, this means that roughly half of all LIS students are ALA members nationwide.

ALA’s Office for Research and Statistics estimated that there were about 122,000 professionals with master’s degrees working in libraries across the nation in 2012. If we just look at the ALA personal members who have master’s degrees—about 42,500—this represents about 35% of all professional librarians. That means that about a third of all librarians are ALA members, but half of all library school students are members.

In talking about younger members, the distinction between “new” and “young” is a topic of much discussion. Traditionally, the median age of new librarians has been significantly older than that for many other professions. This is due to the fact that so many librarians come to the profession after having worked in libraries for a period of time, or are entering librarianship as a second career. The median age of a library school student currently stands at about 35.

About 8,000 new members joined ALA this past year, which is typical. Many of these new members join in conjunction with registration for ALA and divisional conferences. At the most recent AASL conference, 50% of all attendees were first-time attendees; for PLA, the figure was 40%. For ACRL, the figure was one third of all attendees, and for ALA the figure was one quarter (5,000) of all attendee registrants at this year’s Annual Conference in Chicago. This means that conferences play a key role in bringing in new and younger members.

The challenge here is that while many new (and mostly younger) members join each year, many do not renew. Our biggest single membership challenge as an association is figuring out how to convince new librarians to retain their membership once they have gotten their first job, and to convince first-time conference attendees to retain their membership once the conference has ended.

Recognizing the importance of student members, ALA’s 2015 Strategic Plan specifically calls for “increased leadership and career development opportunities for Library and Information Science students.” This means we are now working much more closely with the 56 student chapters, and a new student e-newsletter now highlights issues of importance to students, including landing that first job, advancing one’s career, and how to get involved in ALA. Programs such as Spectrum and the Emerging Leaders are involving more and more students and younger members in Association work and leadership positions.

We also understand that the many members who cannot attend an ALA, AASL, ACRL, PLA, or other division conference can now be engaged virtually—through online webinars and virtual conferences, and through online communities that support networking, career development, and the exchange of innovative and practical ideas.

The younger members are there. Our challenge is to use new technologies and innovative approaches to make every student and conference attendee into a lifelong member.

KEITH MICHAEL FIELS is executive director of the American Library Association, headquartered in Chicago.