Making conferences financially accessible

As a new library professional I spend a certain amount of time thinking about and planning for conferences. I had certainly gotten my conference toes wet during grad school by attending, interning for, and presenting at state, national, and international conferences. But I was able to take advantage of those sweet, sweet student registration rates. I have to say: I fully appreciated those experiences and most of them would not have been possible without student registration rates, scholarships, and intern programs. Our field is getting better and better at supporting student professional development and networking and I am very grateful for the opportunities I had.

That being said I’ve noticed there is a bit of a gap once you graduate from school. There are many, many wonderful conferences whose pricing tiers look like this:

  • Member registration: X amount of money
  • Non-member registration: 1.25X
  •  Early bird registration: 0.75X
  • Student registration: anywhere from free to 0.5X

And that’s it! Now let me start by saying I’m not ignorant or naive to the financial considerations that go along with conferences. First off, throwing a quality conference costs money. Second, when people pay a registration fee they are more likely to show up. I learned both of these things firsthand when I helped organize a conference. Third, many of the people who attend conferences are sponsored by their institution and/or make a high enough salary that spending a few hundred dollars on registration alone isn’t a very big deal.

How much does a seat at the table cost? Are we making sure our events are financial equitable?
How much does a seat at the table cost? Are we making sure our events are financially equitable? (Image source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons)

But so many of us are not in a place where we can afford full conference registrations. And this is something I very much wish more of our professional organizations were cognizant of and responsive to. We are in a field where new professionals are constantly told we need to pay our dues, take multiple part-time jobs, and be willing to accept an early-career position with no benefits or no set salary or no professional development funds. But so many of our professional development opportunities and events do not reflect this reality. This is especially important in the light of the increasing paraprofessionalization of our field – institutions trying to save money can and will downgrade and reclassify faculty/salaried/supported positions to paraprofessional, civil service, and even hourly positions. I’m not trying to knock those positions – my current position is not salaried, does not have benefits, and does not include professional development support, and I am incredibly lucky and happy to have it. But the leaders and organizations within our field need to be cognizant of the fact that many of us are in such positions and could use a bit of a break on conference costs.

So, what can be done? First off: kudos to those conferences that DO take these issues into account. For instance, the last ALA annual conference included a registration tier that was over 50% cheaper than the member registration that benefited retirees, students, non-salaried people, support staff, and general staff. I applaud and appreciate this immensely. Other conferences would do well to take note. Also there are many smaller (often independent) conferences that do not charge for registration at all, which is amazing and very much appreciated. Second, when in doubt consider emailing the conference organizers and explaining your situation. They may offer to let you register at the student rate. Or they may tell you there’s nothing that can be done. Either way at least you tried. Third, be the change you want to see in the world! When you’re organizing a conference try to make sure there is a rate for students and a rate for nonsalaried/unsupported people. And finally, since I just found out about it this week: take the ALA Task Force on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion’s survey on the economic implications of participating at ALA functions. It’s pretty awesome that ALA is trying to collect this data and the results will be more robust if more people respond. So do it!

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