Breaking Into ALA

An Outsider’s Insider Guide

These days, you might say ALA and I have a history. But not so long ago, I stared into the vastness of our national association with consternation and anxiety. Oh, wait that was yesterday. I’m not kidding. But I’ve spent nearly a decade finding my way through and up the American Library Association. I’d like to make it easier for those of you just getting started, so I’m going to do my damnedest with this blog post, acknowledging my biases and experiences.

What the hell, I’m going to center my biases and experiences, because this is my blog, and I’m reviewer #1, #2, and #3.

We’re all overwhelmed, Melody, but that’s not going to stop us.

Inspired by this tweet, I am writing this post to help you break into ALA and get what you need. Consider me your wheelman for this heist. I’ll tell you what I know, and I’ll also give you what I hope are some clear and actionable directions on getting started.

Let’s ride.

I’m also including a little ask, if you’re up to it. That you join me in pushing for the association to change. ALA could be simpler, better, and more member-focused, but it won’t unless we make it.

Let’s start with what you’re looking for– forgive me in advance for arriving at some assumptions based on my own experience. If you’re getting involved with ALA, you’re looking for a network to help you make your career path and for options of where to grow your expertise.

You are looking for a professional network.

Of course you want a network to help you get that job, that all-important first job, and the subsequent ones. You’d like to find mentors and peers and peer mentors. ALA can definitely help with that.

Getting started, you should absolutely spend some time with the New Member’s Round Table. They have annual mentoring programs for both general professional development and conference mentoring. That’s good because attending ALA Annual can feel like swimming in open water, utterly overwhelming and perplexing in its scale. They’re finished for this year, but they will undoubtedly be starting again soon. They have a mailing list, and you should absolutely just pepper it with questions. Dues for NMRT are (I believe) only $15. It’s worth every penny.

When you’re actually job hunting ALA has some really great resources too. Beyond that, I encourage you to check out Hack Library School and I Need a Library Job (INALJ).

Another smaller (and perhaps easier) step to take to develop your professional network can be to get involved in your state or local library association. Your LIS program (if you’re in one) may already be paying for your membership, or your student membership to ALA may already include your state membership. Many libraries also pay for staff memberships to their state orgs. It’s worth looking into!

For those with geographic constraints in job hunting, local and regional involvement may prove more important than national participation.

My very first committee appointment was to the Georgia Library Association‘s Atlanta Emerging Librarians Planning Committee, and from there it became increasingly easy to get appointments in national ALA. I wanted that, because (and I think this is important to share for context) I have always wanted a national platform. If you do too, this can make it a little easier.

You are looking for a learning community.

There are so many ways to be a library worker, and LIS programs give some very helpful exploratory opportunities to learn about those areas, for many you will want and need to dig deeper. That’s where I think picking a starter Division is particularly helpful. I say “a starter” because adding Division memberships becomes an expensive proposition really fast. This may be a decision you save for your second year of membership, so you don’t get overwhelmed.

Choose your own adventure, whether you you want to:

Beyond ALA, a niche whether you want to:

Allow me to add something here too. You know what the single toughest part of landing my first library job was? Getting library references. Finding my network through involvement with LITA (now Core) got me the experiences and references I needed. I got into my division, volunteered for a committee, and the rest is history/my whole career.

When you want more.

I will level with you– as I grew more involved with ALA, I grew more frustrated with ALA. This is not because I don’t love the association. Quite the contrary. I love it, and I want to it do more.

Sunk cost is a bitch!

As you take your own path within or outside the association, you may find that you get everything you need from ALA (I hope you do). But if you don’t, you won’t be alone, and you shouldn’t keep giving to ALA if it’s not helping you. If you get to that point, please remember my heist analogy. Don’t hesitate to grab the goods and hop into the getaway car. There is so much amazing work being done outside of ALA. I am particularly enthusiastic about and impressed by #ProtectLibraryWorkers, The Library Freedom Project, and We Here among other non-ALA initiatives.

If you want to keep at it, you know I’m with you in that longer-term work. Yes– I’m asking you to help #FixALA. We all have to decide where we spend our money and our time, and I want to fix our national professional association. It’s my passion project, and I do see encouraging signs that point to a future for the association that is more activist and member-focused.

For all my involvement in ALA, I still feel like an outsider. Some data to consider: I’ve never been on an association-level committee. I’ve never had a proposal accepted to the ACRL Conference. I take issue with our national lobbying strategy, which I think is fundamentally gutless. I think that we’re failing our members because we’re not demanding student loan forgiveness, a living wage, and physical safety for all library workers. And that’s what I’m trying to change as President-Elect of Core.

So that’s why this is an Outsider’s Insider Guide, with the note that I would love to work with you to make ALA into the association we need it to be. I like our odds.

And I’ll be your wheelman any time.

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