Professional Associations and Why They Matter

Do you belong to a Professional Association? Have you become involved in it in any way? This column is written in praise of such bodies, and the work they do. It’s not very techie, there isn’t anything new or even greatly educational in it, but it is more a reflection on an unsung entity that is not often recognised beyond its own membership.

In December I participated in the annual meeting of the International Association of Law Libraries, which was held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It was the 30th meeting, with the first one being held in 1966; they became annual meetings from 1996. The list of past courses shows the great diversity and richness of this Association, and its efforts to provide its members and others in the profession with the opportunity to broaden their knowledge and understanding of legal systems and issues in various parts of the world.

It may not be widely known that all the work undertaken in this association is voluntary. The officers take on responsibilities which eat into their personal time, as membership secretaries, treasurers, presidents, and secretaries. The boards or councils or committees that oversee the running of this and other associations do so because they believe in the intrinsic worth of their profession, and of working with and for their colleagues.

I have been involved with professional associations throughout my career, and I recently stopped to ask myself why, because there are chunks of time one devotes to them, which can seem an unnecessary imposition when the rest of your working life is a bit out of control.

So once I got on the plane to KL, I jotted down all the reasons why I continue to value IALL, and BIALL, and AALL, and ALLA, and CALL, and the many other national and regional groups which bring together groups of librarians to educate, help, and socialise with each other across the myriad libraries we work in. So here are some of the things I value:

  1. We learn from each other, we share ideas, and we are generous in providing assistance when it is requested.
  2. We run useful list-servs as a way to share and disseminate information.
  3. We often work in small libraries, and the only professional contacts we develop are through the associations. This applies in academic libraries, small law firms, barristers’ chambers, smaller court systems, etc.
  4. We organise local professional education for our members and colleagues.
  5. We produce, edit, and author the journals of our associations.
  6. We often provide bursaries to colleagues to attend our annual conferences.
  7. We have subcommittees working on projects such as legal information literacy standards to help colleagues determine how best to train lawyers in a complex world.
  8. We negotiate with legal publishers on behalf of our members, and thus benefit their employers, the lawyers.

We know the world would not stop if our associations ceased to operate tomorrow. But enough people are happy to pay annual dues to these bodies to enable the provision of the activities they undertake, so the value is there for many professionals. It is comforting to have colleagues to consult whenever in doubt, or when you want to quickly beef up on new resources, software, etc.

Each profession has its professional body. Some have a lot of clout, such as the ABA in the US (which even sets out requirements for law libraries in universities to be independent of the university library and report direct to the law school Dean). They all perform similar functions to our library associations, holding annual conferences, and supporting members with publications, etc, and sometimes they are responsible for accreditation and professional conduct.

Has the internet made these associations redundant? I would argue not. The immediacy of information sharing has made our lives easier via list-servs, and a side benefit is that a query posed by one person often receives a shared response that enlightens many more. Compare that to the person to person phone call of 20 years ago. Library guides for users, our blogs and tweets, our websites, are there for all to access and learn from, so we can no longer be isolated silos. The associations often work to facilitate the management of the unorganised information world and help give shape and pointers for members. They run training sessions in person, webinars for those too far away to get to events, and produce wonderfully useful journals in paper and online with all manner of research, surveys, hints and clues.

Our associations are not restricted to library management and collection and budgeting issues; we also discuss and teach and inform each other on the law, legal systems, legal research and sometimes even legal gossip.

Lawyers will never know the true worth of these associations to law librarians, because they are only interested in the outcomes – the quick turnaround of locating an obscure case, correct interpretation of a scribbled citation, location of an old Explanatory Memorandum, the production of the legislative history of a section of an act, etc. Yet behind this expertise that so many law librarians demonstrate is the helping hand of a colleague or a course, or a list, which originated in a voluntary association of like minded colleagues.


  1. Hi Ruth,

    An excellent post as usual. One thing I would add is that if anything rather then kill of professional associations the internet has or should make them more important.

    The internet as we all know has no geographical boundaries so the sharing of content should now be easier. As should the means by which members of professional associations can contact their association. This does mean that all associations need to constantly monitor what they are doing and how responsive they can be and take on board new technologies such as Twitter, LinkedIn and online meetings to see whether these new tools add anything to their existing offerings.


  2. Excellent post, thanks Ruth! I also agree with James’ comment, above, that the internet should enable professional associations to communicate across geographic boundaries. As a member of the Special Libraries Association (and – full disclosure – a board member of SLA Europe) I really value being able to communicate with and learn from fellow SLA members worldwide.

  3. Interesting to read this informative piece because, by chance, my next Slaw submission will be on professional publishers working with professional bodies. I’m bringing in the views of others who are experienced in this, as well as expressing some views of my own.

    For me, it’s hard to overstate the importance of professional associations

  4. Great post Ruth ! Having being an OSALL (Organisation of South African Law Libraries) member for 13 years and having served on the Commitee twice, I know the value of belonging to such an organisation, and how important international ties can be created between international organisations. The digital world in which we work enhances our effectiveness and our interactiosn with collegaues both locally and internationally. Long live professional organisations !