LIS is an industry absolutely rife with professional associations, and as Kate Tkacik pointed out, there’s a very large service component in our industry. We believe in service, so much so that, to bring it full circle back to all of our professional associations, the ALA has named service one of the core values of librarianship. This is unsurprising as LIS has been called a helping profession in the past and service to the profession is often a very big part of the helping professions. So, what does service to the profession mean and why does it matter? I can hear you asking that dear reader, so let me tell you. Service is doing work to improve yourself as a professional within the profession and to do work that helps advance and grow the profession. Professional associations, especially in LIS, are all about service when you think about it that way. Many jobs, especially academic librarian jobs, actually do have an expectation that the incumbent will engage in professional service, and involvement in one or more professional associations is the easiest and best way to do that. It’s not too soon to be thinking about that in library school – in hindsight, you actively should be!
When I was in the library and information technician program back in 2012, I was really active as a student member in multiple professional associations, specifically the ALA, Canadian Library Association, and Ontario Library Association. I was taking a class on research and reporting and we had to conduct a research study in order to report on the findings. For my project, I surveyed all of the students in the program about student memberships in professional associations and the findings really surprised me. Most of the students in my program either didn’t know that professional associations offered discounts and perks specifically for students, or they did but they didn’t understand how it could benefit them. So, to that end, because I know those misconceptions and information gaps still exist, I give you this introduction to what professional association membership as a student can do for you and what you can do for the industry by participating.
Now, there was a guest post on this topic back in 2014, but the point bares repeating and I’ll try and keep what I have to say as different from that piece as is humanly possible.
“All about the Benjamins”
Cheaper prices (that you won’t see again once you’re employed)
Professional associations are very much a pay-to-play environment. If you want to take advantages of the services or perks, you either have to be a member or pay a lot more money. Money is how they get their work done and how they can provide those services. But, even with that, the fee to join is often a barrier to access. It doesn’t have to be, though, as most, if not all, of the big professional associations have much cheaper membership rates for student members. These rates are good while you’re registered in school and some associations will let you keep the student membership for a certain period of time after you graduate. That’s a much smaller barrier than trying to join up later as a regular member when the costs will be higher. If you take a test drive with student memberships, you’ll have a sense of which associations you want to be a part of later as a regular member.
Another bonus, you can probably claim professional association memberships on your taxes. I know I can in Canada, but I’m nowhere near sure how US taxes work at all.
Awards and Scholarships
Many of the larger professional associations offer financial awards or scholarship opportunities to student members. ALA, for example, has a huge scholarship program that gives away over $300,000 a year, including multiple scholarships available to library support staff who are working towards their MLIS (which I wish I’d known about sooner) and the Spectrum scholarships for perspective librarians from underserved racial groups.
Money aside, what’s in it for me?
The main thing that professional library associations offer to student members is networking. Across all of the activities mentioned in this section, the main thread running through them all is the chance to connect and form relationships with other librarians and library professionals. This is invaluable experience, especially if you have a hard time getting a student position in a library while you’re studying or you don’t already work in a library as staff. Even in those situations, the networking opportunities are something to take advantage of; and you never know where or what area of librarianship you might find yourself. So, you might as well make connections and learn as much as you can from as many people as possible. So, what kind of activities and services are there?
A variety of associations both small and large give their student members the chance to create student chapters for their programs. This gives you the chance to get some leadership experience and make friends with the people in your program. These present an especially welcome opportunity for online MLIS students if the chapters are run in such a way to be inclusive for them. ALA, for example, has over 60 existing student chapters according to their site. Smaller specialized associations like the Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians also have student chapters.
Career and mentoring services
These perks aren’t specific to students, but they’re especially relevant to students. Finding an association that has a mentorship program to pair you with a working professional with similar interests is gold. I did an OLA mentorship when I was in the library technician program and, honestly, it was one of my best decisions, as that mentor helped me figure out that copyright was a niche area I should be focusing on for myself. Other services in this realm include job boards only members can see, resume and CV review services, and even mock interview experiences. Those were two other services I took advantage of through OLA and they were very helpful in getting me my first full-time position after the library technician program.
Just like with the membership cost for the association, you can take advantage of student pricing to attend conferences. This is a doubly appealing perk right now as most conferences still being online because of COVID-19; which can afford you the opportunity to attend conferences that you may otherwise never be able to attend because of travel and hotel costs! For example, the biggest library conference in Canada is always held in downtown Toronto at the end of January/beginning of February. In a regular year that means paying to get to Toronto and then paying to stay in Toronto; which is not a cheap prospect for anyone let along a student on a tight budget. But, with the conference being online, why not take advantage of the student conference rate to finally experience it?
Most professional association conferences also offer volunteer options, some specifically geared for students; and these opportunities sometimes come with the perk of covering one day of your conference registration fee.
Once you’re a member, you can start volunteering to be on committees and join communities of practice and help with events. Leadership experience is crucial to expanding the perspective of librarians and it’s not something we can easily get on the job. Professional associations make it easy to take an active leadership role and will provide guidance to help you as you go along. The bigger associations like ALA offer committee and leadership options for a wide variety of interests, but smaller specialized organizations still have lots of opportunities as well. You might even get the chance to help plan a conference or develop policy.
Ask not what your professional association can do for you, but what you as a student can do for it.
Whether the association and its members know it or not, student voices provide a vital point of view to the work of the association. We’re newcomers to the field, we’re still learning, and we bring new, innovative ideas; but, more importantly, we come ready to listen and ask questions. The biggest changes are are usually driven by people who just happened to ask the right question at the right time. If we want to see things change in the industry, then getting involved with professional associations is a way to help make those changes. Professional associations have a lot of explicit and implicit power in this industry; so working from the inside makes change easier than if you try and force changes on these associations from the outside. You may be a student, but you have thoughts and opinions that are valuable and important. So, never forget that your ideas matter and you deserve to have a voice in the industry.
In addition to being a Contributing Writer here at Hack Library School, Lauren (she/her) is currently working towards her MLIS part-time, online, through the University of Alberta, she expects to graduate in Spring 2022. She holds an honours BA in English/Religion & Culture and a BEd, both from Wilfrid Laurier University. Her interests are copyright, open education; accessibility; and diversity, equity, and inclusion in LIS. Lauren is the Copyright and Reserves Supervisor at Wilfrid Laurier University, serving on the Library’s Accessibility Committee, and the Student Advisory Council. She also co-hosts a bi-weekly Twitter chat on library issues and trends (#lisprochat) and is a research assistant on the Opening Up Copyright project. Find her: @rendages, @lisprochat | about.me/laurenbourdages