What happens when you join ALA? I am not sure about other professional organizations. But at least in ALA, nothing happens unless you are awarded with some scholarships, fellowships, internships, etc. I called up and paid my membership fee. A few weeks later, I got the card with my ALA member number printed in the mail. That was it. I could have researched about ALA and gone through documents in the ALA website. But I didn’t. I thought that maybe I would get some kind of quick guidebook. But nope. Somehow I thought something would happen since I joined. But nope. I didn’t just join ALA. I joined LITA. I joined ACRL. I joined NMRT. That’s a lot of groups, that’s quite a bit of investment. Again, nothing happened. (Yes, later on I signed up for a mentoring program at NMRT and met a wonderful mentor. But it took a while for me to figure that out.)
The organizational structure of ALA seems to be quite complicated. During the 2010 midwinter I went to the NMRT membership meeting. NMRT is a Round Table for new members. A place for me to go and learn about ALA, I thought. But it turned out that I wasn’t even aware of the complexity of NMRT’s organizational structure itself. I forgot the exact details, but there were at least 3-4 levels of ranks/tiers. I was also told that ALA has a even more complicated structure. (I still don’t get what ALA council does, for example. Should I?) It bothers my mind that an organization has to have that many levels to function, to the degree that new members have to attend a membership meeting to just get an idea of how the organization is structured and operates. (Since I didn’t attend, I have no idea. Am I a bad member?)
Anyhow, I took the risk of heading out to my very first ALA conference in Chicago last summer without knowing so much about ALA nor any people in particular. Well, the experience was, shall I say…, mixed. I loved the chance to meet one of my ex-bosses. I hung out with one of my colleagues briefly a couple of times outside the conference. It was nice. But overall it was overwhelming, and there wasn’t as much fun as I would have liked. (Granted I didn’t go to any orientation and membership meetings simply because I didn’t know that they would be helpful. Are they?) I went to a lot of programs and meetings (including many interest groups and discussion groups) that seemed relevant to my work. The experience was informative. I got new ideas and learned quite a bit. But when the conference ended, I sorely realized that I didn’t meet that many people, and I didn’t feel any closer to ALA. I still felt like an outsider. (And this was after I was an ALA member for two years – one year as a student – and I attended an annual.)
Some may object. But I suspect that my experience may pretty much sum up what new ALA members feel, may complain about, and possibly make them leave . There is no welcoming gesture. There is no personal contact. ALA is aloof. It won’t say hi just because you are nearby. It expects you to make a move. ALA is no treasure chest that you get to open when you join. It is more like a playground where you get to go in when you become a member. But you still have to find people to play with and participate in some games to have fun.
(Image from Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/10707024@N04/3040961248/)
For some other interesting observations about ALA, see Agnostic, Maybe (1), Agnostic, Maybe (2), and Opinions of a Wolf.
I think I am near the entrance of this playground peeking in curiously. But ALA feels slightly closer to me now that I have some faces that I can associate ALA with. At the Midwinter, I actually met people I didn’t know because I marked social events in my schedule. NMRT social was fun. The tweet-up I organized was great because I met lots of librarians with whom I had a chat on Twitter. (Thank you everyone who came!!!) After Hours social was awesome because we were all sort of drunk, and it was quite late. On the other hand, LITA happy hour was kind of awkward. (Networking dinner was nice though.) The reception for young librarians was interesting, but I wasn’t sure about who was invited on what basis. (Was it for all new members or for all new and young members…?)
I discovered that small groups such as interest groups and discussion groups at ALA are great for new members because they are small in size. There are also so many of these that there is a good chance there is something you may find interesting. If you show enough interests, it may not be terribly difficult to get involved in these groups. I was – to my surprise – drawn into organizing a program for 2010 D.C. annual, which came out of the discussion that took place at the LITA Emerging Technologies Interest Group meeting I attended at the 2009 annual. I am a new member and organizing a program (hard to believe in my mind). Well, this is definitely something exciting. But then, I may not get a chance to work on a committee I volunteered for in the next 10 years (I actually saw someone tweeted about this) and/or I may not succeed in getting involved at the level of divisions and sections. (Well, that would be kind of disappointing. Or not, I am not sure…)
For new members’ information, I was also given a great advice at the midwinter that it is a good idea to be active in listservs and online because it gives one something to talk about and connect with others when you actually attend a conference. (But of course, one needs to find out what listservs would be a good fit and how to get on to them first.)
I am not yet sure if I will continue to play in this playground. But I think I will give it a shot. I had more fun in Boston than in Chicago.