what I think is my last word on speaking and presenters and money and power

Karen has a nice long post about the current ALA discussions including presenters getting paid/paying to speak, and ALA’s proposed dues increase. I share her feeling about giving presentations

It’s also a not-too-well-kept secret that there are some speakers who only speak when their presentation costs are fully funded, and in some cases when they receive honoraria. I don’t ask, and I don’t care, if the speaker in the next room got a perk I didn’t get. My assumption is that none of us are getting rich on presenting, and that we all know what we need to make it possible for us to share what we know.

I talk to my colleagues in general terms about reimbursement, honoraria and comped registrations, but I must admit to having a sort of “Aw shucks” response when people offer to put me in a hotel room. The first time I got reimbursed for hotel room expenses, I got all ootchy because the room cost over $150 a night and I was amazed anyone would pay that! I am a bit of a yokel in terms of money and so I try not to speak as if my opinions reflect those of a larger segment of travelling and speaking librarians, but I think I represent the low-budget traveller pretty well. Clearly I live in some alternate universe where staying in someone’s home is preferred over a hotel — one of my favorite speaker overnights was at the home of a library student with beer, wifi and company all night — and where money for speaking doesn’t have to be the deciding factor in whether I give a talk or not (library schools take note, I LOVE speaking to library students).

Since I talk about poverty issues often — financially poor, information poor, technology poor — watching this whole tennis match has been informative since a lot of it is about money and how much you should be grateful for having it as well as ethics regarding sharing it. Of course money can be code for other sorts of priorities as well — your value to the association versus the association’s value to others, tithing to your professional institutions, paying your dues — and I feel that this is where things get trickier. Some people see public speaking as a similar type of encoded message — you must have a big ego, you must think you’re better than other people, you must be some sort of shill for corporate America or evangelical zealot, you must be broke and desperate for attention, you must need tenure — and it’s harder to untangle this one. While we all have experience with money, for good or for bad, we don’t all have “get up in front of a room and say something” experience and even less of us have “get an invitation to get up in front of a room and share your expertise” experience.

I’d love to hear some of the people who have been saying “it’s an honor just to be invited” share their public speaking experiences and impressions, or maybe just tell us a little more about how they assess whether a public speaking engagement is “worth it” for them to attend. I’m sure we all have a line demarcating just how much sacrifice in the public good is too much sacrifice, and I have to admit that I bristle when people say or imply that they can make that judgement for others. Of course, discussing these money and power sorts of questions is thought by some to be tacky, and the cultural taboo against discussing status openly or specifically means that I’m sure this isn’t the last time this issue will come up. I know that the ALA Executive Board was talking about it last week and I think that can only be seen as a good start.

7 thoughts on “what I think is my last word on speaking and presenters and money and power

  1. I have spoken at a few conferences, like three. All were regional and my institution paid my travel and lodging. I was not paid for the talk but I was comped the conference fee.

    Had this not been the case I don’t think I would have been able to attend. Moreover, after watching this debate evolve, I’d be inclined to refuse a future invitation that would cost me money on general principles.

    To me it’s an indication of the invitating organization’s attitude toward me. Consider the example ALA is setting. Colin Powell is worth money. Highly accomplished people in our field are not.

    What does that tell you about their priorities.

  2. Very nice, particularly the wholly satisfactory two-word link. (You’re right: Some of us, like me, aren’t much for staying in people’s homes–and aren’t much for putting up other people. Others love it.)

  3. First, congrats on putting open comments on your blog posts.

    Second, speaking at local, regional, and national conferences have always been a privilege for me and I am still humble when I’m asked to do so. The same thing goes for my blog readership (I’ve had so many people come up to me that I don’t know telling me that they read Library Stuff).

    Those who think that it’s an ego thing are way off the mark. While I can’t speak for others who travel around the country, it’s a privilege for me to be asked and share with others the knowledge that I’ve accrued and written about over the past 5 years and I’m honored to do so.

    But I still think I should be paid for it…

  4. I’ve hesitated to dive into this discussion since I’m not a librarian, but….

    I’ve spoken at several ALA conferences, and as a lawyer & non-member, I’ve always had my expenses covered. It was a great honor, especially the time I was invited to be on the AASL President’s Panel with Katherine Paterson, among others. (I honestly have no recollection of whether or not there was an honorarium.) But, my employer would not have allowed me to go if my expenses hadn’t been covered.

    I think part of the context of this discussion, which hasn’t been raised explicitly on the blogs I’ve read, is that this is occuring in an environment that generally devalues libraries and librarianship.

    Local and state governments underfund libraries, making it more and more difficult for those entities to pay for dues, travel, expenses, conference fees, etc for their staff. School librarians and media specialists face similar pressures as schools increasingly teach towards the NCLB tests, not towards development of intellectual curiousity.

    Furthermore, the mythology that the Internet has replaced the librarian continues in middle and upper class thinking, even while lower-income people become increasingly dependant on their local library for media education and access to Internet resources.

    I suspect that context is a large part of why this issue is coming to a head now, rather than a generation ago. If someone makes it at least revenue neutral for a speaker to come and speak at a conference, worrying about who does that is a minor issue. But if it actively costs someone to be a speaker, the decision about whether or not to speak at a conference is much more difficult.

    I don’t think there’s an obvious right answer to this dilemma.

    The ALA is hardly a wealthy organization, staff salaries in the Washington Office are notoriously low, even in the DC non-profit sector, and much has been said about the state of their technology here and elsewhere. I’m sure that conference fees are the largest source of ALA’s operating budget. And whether Colin Powell’s speaking fee was a good use of that budget or not, it’s a fact that a major speaker like Powell will draw more attendees to a conference, and nearly all speakers at that level require a substantial fee.

    Fortunately, librarians are a smart and practical bunch. I believe that you all will forge some kind of workable solution, if not by Midwinter, at least by the end of the next Annual meeting.

  5. Because I’m fairly well supported by my library (Thanks, Barnard!), I don’t mind paying for conferences I would have attended anyway, but I’m definitely bugged when I’m expected to pony up for a meeting I wouldn’t have gone to, and in fact I have refused to do so. Once (ACRL-RBMS) they waived the fee for the day of my presentation, so I went, but my library still had to pay my travel expenses, and the other time (ACRL History Section) they wouldn’t waive the conference fee, and my library wouldn’t pay, so I didn’t go, which is something that still saddens me.

    One thing I want to point out is that it’s not just well-funded (non-ALA) groups that are more likely to comp their speakers, it’s the small ones that REALLY have money troubles. I have been comped registration and/or housing and/or had grant money applied to my travel at the Allied Media Conference, the Grassroots Media Conference, the Madison Zine Fest, and the National Conference on Organized Resistance. This is because these organizations, while actually impoverished, unlike ALA, value their presenters and their contributions, whereas librarianship takes them for granted.

    Maybe we’ll stop being undervalued and underpaid by the outside world when we learn to honor and respect ourselves and each other.

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