Thursday, October 29, 2009

Membership: it's all about engagement

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak at the BCLA's Library Technician & Assistants Interest Group (LTAIG) regarding membership. Realizing that I was going to be presenting to the "converted", I thought long and hard about what membership really means.

In an era when memberships across the board are down and associations struggle to sell themselves, it is no surprise that they are thrown into the process of self-examination. Professionals are savvy consumers, too. Members no longer need to rely on a mail out newsletter and annual conferences to stay connected. Which brought me to some research on social networks. Social networks are nothing new. Abrams and Hogg in "Collective Identity" state:

"Since our private self is where we contain the knowledge of our attitudes, traits, feelings and behaviour, we must look at our collective self that contains our connections to associations, our affiliations and other groups. Our identity as individuals are bound to our perceptions of groups." (2006, 143)

This got me thinking... Essentially, seeing value in professional memberships means that we must have a personal connection to those associations in order for us to truly identify with that broader community. Yet, many of us struggle with this. In fact, paying an annual membership, getting the odd newsletter and knowing that work is being done on our behalf is just not enough for us to feel personally connected. As social networking "tools" like Facebook demonstrate, people see value in belonging to groups that relate to them on some emotional level. We identify ourselves with like-minded people - those who share our values, opinions and views - our families and friends.

How can this all tie into healthy associations?
Those organizations need to recognize the need for emotional involvement and build on it. This means that representation at a very local and personal level is likely to inspire more action and interest. It is not good enough for the Canadian Library Association to say it represents Canadian library staff. This is particularly true when there is no infrastructure to be inclusive of all regions and communities. In a country that is so geographically large and diverse, the challenge is immense. Although people may band together for specific causes that have impact (e.g. the Facebook group Fair Copyright for Canada), this level of activity is very situational.

Information work is about serving communities. Although, as information professionals, we may serve our clients virtually, the work we engage in is about people. These people exist in very real, very tangible communities that range from cities to farms to specialized organizations like hospitals and law firms. The diversity of who information professionals serve (a reflection of our national diversity) runs so deep, that the needs of one "neighbourhood" may not be that of another. It is at this microscopic level that membership begins. Being engaged with our immediate community is at the centre of information work.

It seems apparent, then, that for associations like BCLA to thrive, they must support and inspire members to become locally active. Diverse interest groups, chapters, and committees can be the framework on which members can cultivate their interests. If library staff feel that they have a real emotional connection with their colleagues, they are more likely to participate. If they are more likely to participate, the onerous task of managing groups becomes more readily shared among the membership. Why? Because they have a deeper sense of commitment and responsibility to those closest to them.

This sense of commitment and subsequent engagement, like that of civic responsibility, is something that must be anticipated as a student or fledgling in the profession. In other words, engagement begins as a student. Students are most likely to become involved if they anticipate participation. (Campbell, 2006, 161) Thus, it is part of the educational experience to cultivate this engagement. However, in order for this commitment to be lasting and effective, the associations that represent professionals must assist. Extensive activities that link educational organizations with associations becomes a critical factor in generating a committed membership.

Is this being done? Although some efforts are made, much more can be done. This is particularly true for library technicians and assistants. The constant struggle to keep LTAIG afloat with a strong membership suggests that there are problems with engagement. It seems, free membership as a student is simply not enough to create a highly active membership. Activities of associations must reach out to capture the interest and excitement of students who, generally, have an intense willingness to become engaged.

All of this comes back to the concept of social networks. Students need to be encouraged to build upon their social networks, within their own geographical contexts, to inspire a sense of belonging to their prospective professional associations. They need a connection like the ones shared with friends and family. They need to feel trust in committing their ideas to action. Having an arms length relationship with an association does not build in the level of kinship and trust needed to go beyond the passive roles of simply being identified as a "member" to a more assertive role of being an "active member".

If we build it, they will come - only if we enhance personal engagement. Thus, if the conferences, the newsletters, the websites, the committees and the interest groups do not connect emotionally with members, they will not, quite simply, stay members. To have a strong, healthy membership, our professional associations need to reach out out and "touch" their prospective members. Tap into the existing social networks.

Go to them.

Hogg, M. and D. Abrams. (2006). Collective identity: group membership and self-conception. in Self and social identity. Worchel and Coutant, eds. Malden: Blackwell, 143-181.

Campell, David. (2006). Why we vote: how schools and communities shape our civic life. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


melissa said...

Interesting post Christina. While I'm in a different industry, my professional association (NAPP) has excelled in fostering community. They are active on Twitter and Facebook and blog regularly and have one of the most impressive continuing education programs I've ever come across - available on-line - utilizing video training and podcasts. Regular 'tweetups' sprout up organically throughout N.America so you can connect with other members.
I think it is important for professional groups to seriously evaluate the wealth of technology available to them to assist them with connecting at a grass roots level and providing a sense of community and value. A newsletter and annual AGM doesn't cut it anymore when there are so many other places and ways available to connect with peers now.

Christina Neigel said...

I COMPLETELY agree with you! So, have you paid your dues?

melissa said...

just last month ;-)

Stephen K said...

Great post, Christina, and more great food for thought (I am an organizer with the LTAIG group that Christina talked to).

We probably haven't mentioned it, but we do have a Facebook group in addition to our blog. It's at Twitter is a good idea as well.

That said, what you say about personal engagement and making emotional connections makes sense to me. After our meeting last Monday we were talking about following your advice and setting up regional chapters. I'm just thinking at the moment of other ways that we could increase personal engagement, such as developing communities for people with similar interests, such as based on duties (e.g. cataloguing) or library type (e.g. academic), or based on issues of concern such as copyright.

Ronda said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ronda said...

An appropriate quote on the subject...

"The first task of the association must therefore be to form the young members."
~ Adam Weishaupt