What’s in it for me – and us?

Case study


Module 1: Library associations in society


Topic 1: Professional associations, the role of libraries, and librarians


Library associations are organisations where library and information workers come together to share knowledge and experiences and move the profession forward. They lay down standards for performance, provide a range of services to their users and are responsible for looking after their interests.  An individual’s decision to join (or renew) a professional membership focuses on a balancing act between the questions “what’s in it for me (the individual)?” and “what’s in it for us (the association)?”  This case study looks at why individuals become a member of a library association, presenting the perspectives of members of the Medical Library Association (MLA) in the United States and new graduates who have joined the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA).

Key Ideas

As you read the case study, think about the following issues:

  1. The role of library associations
  2. The challenges faced by library associations
  3. The expectations of members – and non-members – of associations
  4. The value of being a member of a professional association


The Association of Medical Librarians was founded in the United States (US) in 1898 by four librarians and four physicians. The name was changed to the Medical Library Association (MLA) in 1907. The Medical Library Association describes itself as is a non-profit, educational organisation with more than 1,200 institutional and 3,800 individual members in the health sciences information field (MLA, 2010). There are 23 special interest Sections in the association, as well as 13 chapters reflecting the geographic distribution of members. The association is committed to educating health information professionals, supporting health information research, promoting access to the world’s health sciences information, and working to ensure that the best health information is available to all. MLA is directly involved in the development and promulgation of meaningful professional standards to ensure that health services are supported by good quality medical library services, resources, and facilities.

The Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) was established in 1937 as the Library Association of Australia (LAA). While different library associations represent the interests of the diverse aspects of the library sector in Australia, ALIA is regarded as the peak body for the industry. It seeks “to empower the profession in the development, promotion and delivery of quality library and information services to the nation, through leadership, advocacy and mutual support” (ALIA, 2010). The association is governed by an elected Board of Directors, comprising President, Vice President and five Directors. A series of regional meetings are held each year to enable members to have input into issues of importance to the profession. The national office in Canberra is managed by the Executive Director and staff.


Rolfes (2009) argues that people join associations for personal and/or professional payoffs: the benefits they receive when they join. However, the picture becomes more complex as the younger generation tends to blend the personal and professional dimensions of their lives. The American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) commissioned a study in 2007 to investigate ‘the decision to join’ (Dalton & Dignam, 2007). It was found that an individual’s decision to join (or renew) a professional membership focuses on a balancing act between the questions “what’s in it for me (the individual)?” and “what’s in it for us (the association)?” They found that the benefits for the common good (ie for the profession, for the industry or for mankind) only marginally outweigh the value of personal benefits for the individual. The challenge for associations is to work out how to ensure that the “us” is more important than the “me”. Associations specifically represent a collective viewpoint about worthwhile purposes, or value propositions, that have little to do with personal gain. Rolfes (2009) highlights some of the acknowledged advantages of associations:

  • The ability to make the world a better place
  • This wisdom of crowds
  • User generated content (eg volunteer contributions to research, education, communications, event planning, standards development, professionalism etc)
  • Passion: a commitment to the group’s value proposition
  • Camaraderie
  • The cross-pollination of ideas in an open, trusted forum
  • The invaluable network of peers

The Web 2.0 environment represents a huge challenge to professional associations, as the benefits of networking and professional development have moved into the borderless domain of social networking, online courses and web forums.


Medical Library Association

Annual meetings and conferences remain important as events that encourage face-to-face networking. Many library associations use these events as opportunities to welcome new members, for example through a new member, first time attendee breakfast. At the Medical Library Association (MLA) Annual Meeting, Lucretia W McClure (n.d.) addressed the new members about what it meant to her to be a member. She highlighted five main factors:

  • The opportunity to talk to people about matters of common interest. An association allows you ‘to talk to strangers’ – to sit next to someone and learn about what they do and how their ideas and experiences might help you in your own career.
  • The recognition of excellence and achievement: the association’s awards are often named after people who are or were leaders in the association. Their work, and the work of those who receive the awards, may inspire you to strive for excellence in your own area of work.
  • Despite the amount of things that will happen to you during the course of your career, there will be the one constant of friendship and support from colleagues in the association: people who want the same things that you do and will share their ideas and dreams with you.
  • When a problem arises, your colleagues in the association will be ready to offer you advice and guidance: the tradition is that we are here for each other.
  • You may not be able to change the world all on your own, but you can have real power as a member of an association. The library association fights battles that will help all of us: in the profession, in the legislative arena, in the field of education. You too can add your voice and support to the causes of our profession.

McClure argued that an association ensures that people count. People can make the difference, so that it’s not about the individual, but about working with and for others: it’s about ‘us’.
As part of its membership surveys, the MLA asked respondents to write a brief paragraph about why they joined the MLA or how the MLA had helped them in their career (2007). Some of the comments submitted included:

MLA membership helped me attain my dream job. Being a MLA member was one of the factors that separated me from the other candidates. The association’s resources, including my mentor, have helped me formulate my career path and I have developed quicker in my field than others – thus gaining me a better salary than most.
When I volunteered for my first MLA committee, I had no idea about how valuable the experience would be. I now have nation-wide colleagues. Employers have respected and valued my committee involvement.
Being a member of MLA has opened doors for mentoring and networking opportunities, not otherwise found easily. Being a member of MLA ensures me that I’m not just one librarian, rather, I’m one of many health information professionals
MLA has allowed me to interact with professionals at all levels of career status through the annual meetings. This exposure to leaders in the field has been inspirational and encouraging in my own career.
My involvement in the association gave me the opportunity to gain skills that I couldn’t gain in my work environment at that time… skills in group dynamics, organizational planning, consensus building, an opportunity to hear how other institutions were solving problems.”

The 2007 MLA survey found that the top reasons for joining the association were advocating the value/role of the librarian, professional standards, keeping up-to-date on professional issues and networking with other information professionals.

Australian Library and Information Association

The ALIA e-list by and for new graduate library and information professionals often focuses on a specific topic for a month, to stimulate discussion on issues relevant to the profession. In May 2010, the question posed was (ALIA, 2010):

Why do you choose to become (or to not be) members of your professional association? What are the benefits? What’s in it for you? Or if you think that it’s “all features, no benefits”, then what are the things that you look out for when it comes to joining a professional association?

Most responses chose to focus specifically on ALIA, and used examples of how they were either attracted to join ALIA, or had reasons not to join ALIA. The main reasons these new professionals became members were wide ranging:

Several mentioned feeling isolated in their roles, and joining ALIA to find support from outside their employer. Similarly, when working in a specialised or non-library field, the association provided opportunities to maintain that connection with the wider industry, and maintain an awareness of the “bigger picture” outside the individual workplace. Many also mentioned the networking opportunities, to meet like-minded professionals. The monthly magazine, InCite, was important to get news about the sector. Others mentioned the opportunities to contribute to the association and voice their concerns, as well as the opportunities to work on interesting projects that they wouldn’t have had access to with their employer. They liked the discounts to professional development events, and especially conferences, where membership costs less than the difference in cost for attendance.

On the other hand, reasons not to become a member were mainly that the people felt already have all of the benefits that association membership has to offer, through other channels, such as the employer, publicly available services and programs, and personal resourcefulness. A few people mentioned that it was too expensive, or that they didn’t think it was worth paying money for. Time commitments were also mentioned: “I don’t want to do library things outside of work time”, “I can’t be bothered” or “I don’t want to be hassled about ‘getting involved’”.

The moderator of the list, Andrew, reported that he was interested that some people said it was ‘cliquey’… “I thought this comment was interesting,” Andrew said. “I think part of being a good networker is the ability to ‘infiltrate’ cliques, and make the most of what are clearly already strong social and professional networks. I also think that, whilst [the profession] is a strong social group, we’re pretty welcoming of newcomers, especially in the New Graduates Group.”

Andrew identified three determining factors in the individual motivations to become association members:

1. Where you are in your career:

The most successful New Grad events seem to be those that focus on ‘getting a job’, and at the time of graduation, it seems that you need to do everything in your power to get that elusive first professional job. And there is certainly a feeling that association membership can help you on the way there.

2. Who your employer is, and the nature of your work:

If you’re professionally or geographically isolated, you might get involved in your association in order to maintain connections with the wider industry, and to keep perspective on the bigger picture. And your employer might not necessarily provide opportunities for you to stay on top of emerging library trends, so your association might be a great way to do this. However, you might work for a fantastic employer, who provides all of your professional development needs, and keeps you ‘professionally satisfied’.

3. Professional qualifications:

Personally, I feel that one of the biggest benefits of our membership is the thing that many of us have worked pretty hard for – our qualification. ALIA accredits all of the courses, and sets the standards by which a graduate can be “Eligible for professional membership of ALIA” - something that you often see on job descriptions, and thus something that many employers consider to be an essential attribute for recruitment. It also acknowledges our standing as a professional, in line with library and information professionals around the world. And this work that ALIA does in maintaining the professional standard by which we are ourselves valued, as professionals, is paid for primarily through association membership. It keeps the profession strong, and in doing so, keeps us strong as professionals.

Andrew indicates that ‘we’ are the profession, and the profession is ‘us’.


For many library associations, membership is the core business. Both MLA and ALIA realise the importance of keeping ‘their finger on the pulse’ of membership issues. The perspectives presented in the case study highlight the value that individuals gain from being a member of a library association, firstly in the specialised field of medical librarianship, and secondly as a new graduate entering the profession. The immediate relevance and value can change over time, depending on employment and career stage.

I would encourage a new member to join the library association for the camaradie, networking, professional education, publications, committees, chapters and sections, and most important for providing a forum for growth, development, confidence and encouragement to be the best information professional one can be!

Very often, older members feel that it is important for them to ‘give something back’ to the profession that has served them well over the years. These members have certainly worked out how that the “us” is more important than the “me”.


  1. Can you identify with some of the comments provided in this case study?
  2. Has your library association asked its members to comment about the value of membership to them? If so, how did you do this and what did you learn from the comments? If not, what strategies do you think might work in the context of your own association?
  3. Do you believe that professional associations put too much emphasis on the personal benefits of membership? Does your association market the value of the collective good – that it’s about “us”?
  4. Do you believe that employers in your country value professional association membership? What might be done to ensure that this continues, or what might be done to improve the present situation?
  5. What are some of the major challenges your association faces in attracting and retaining members?
  6. Have you found that there are generational differences in terms of members’ expectations?

Case Notes

Resource: Case study
Country: United States, Australia
Region: North America, Asia-Oceania
Agency: Medical Library Association (MLA), Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA)
Topic: Stakeholder analysis
Keywords: membership, members, stakeholders, value, benefits


Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA). (2010). New grads news online. Available online: http://alianewgrad.blogspot.com/2010/05/may-topic-of-month-professional.html
Dalton, J. & Dignam, M. (2007). The decision to join: How individuals determine value and why they choose to belong. Washington, DC: ASAE and the Center for Association Management.
McClure, L.M. (n.d.). Pearls of wisdom. Available online: http://www.mlanet.org/students/student_pearls.html
Medical Library Association (MLA) (2007). Member testimonials. Available online: http://www.mlanet.org/joinmla/bentest.html
Rolfes, R. (2009). The competition within: How members will reinvent associations. Bloomington, IN: Imagination Publishing.


Associations, Australia, United States of America, Building Strong Library Associations

Last update: 21 October 2012