In The Truth, Sir Terry Pratchett wrote eloquently about canary (and other caged bird) breeding and how it allows people who may not have control in other ways in their lives to be in charge of something, to ensure something small and important. Through the voice of Sacharissa, he points out what is supposed to be slightly ridiculous, the need to not lump cockatoos in with parrots, to mirror back to his readers the minor details over which we obsess.

Pratchett always brought such richness to his books and his messages continue to be ones I need to hear. I re-read his books and find all the different threads amongst the dragons, the trolls, the wholly obvious double entendre, and the inappropriate snickering. His words ring out and show me a bit more of humanity in a truly precious way.

Over the years, I have been struck by the comparison of canary breeding to our professional organizations — the infighting, the demanded labor, the endless bureaucracy. Even as I find documentation and policy amongst my own professional delights and as I will line up for the endless calls for transparency — preferably through documentation, the sheer futility of it cannot be wholly ignored.

I also recognize this canary breeding weakens our communities in other ways, focusing us solely on that professional issue and taking us away from caring about the dragon sitting on the hoard who– by the way– is rather hungry for a noble virgin to eat or from finding out who it truly was that poisoned the Patrician.

For the past year I stepped back from my professional organizations in a way that five years ago I could not imagine. My role continues to evolve with each of the groups I’m in but for a year I was on no committes, I didn’t show up for any of the traditional “service.” I’m not quitting; though I understand why people do; but the utter infighting of some groups, the dismissive nature of others had driven me to a point where I needed to reassess what little value there continued to be for me if I was going to commit my time and energy.

For there are so many lines that I’ve heard over and over in my 15 years of serving in professional organizations and they are laughably familiar in nearly any other service group I’ve visited.

  • You should be grateful for the opportunity to serve.
    • The condescension and utter contempt shown by some professional organizations towards new members or those pointing out inequities has turned many people off. When I started in my role at UIC, something experienced individuals said to me at several conferences was how I should be desperately grateful for any crumb of chance to participate in service. It’s something I’ve tried to help my mentees see beyond (they will be able to tell you better whether I’ve succeeded). But in reality, there are plenty of opportunities to serve. There are many organizations with whom we can engage and participate, and this is something we must doubly consider and evaluate when time and effort is often an add-on to the regular workday.
  • It’s your personal, individual fault if the organization doesn’t succeed.
    • If I never have another paid staff member at a professional organization trot out that line to me, it will be too soon. I can think of at least four instances where I have been told it was specifically my responsibility to keep the organization financially afloat. The most amusing of those was when it was coming from an organization where I was not a paying member. I had been briefly in the past, but not anymore, mostly because of hearing the previous bullet point over and over. If there’s anyone to whom I do not owe free labor so they can charge an obscene amount for it, it’s that group.
  • How dare you call for XYZQR.
    • Ah, here’s the true canary-breeding-ness of it. How dare I want to make change? Whether that was sitting in a board meeting doing my Madame DeFarge routine while Andromeda calmly read a spreadsheet aloud (terrifying and one of the joys of my life); or the very public meeting where I dropped not even into the polite voice, but the professional voice of pointing out how a staff member assigned to work directly with me was entirely failing to do his job and the sheer and utter lack of accountability I had encountered when trying to rectify this situation; or the “had to clear this conversation with my [now retired] Dean” before I laid out in excruciating detail how a staff member overstepped and mishandled their responsibilities to the point of ruining a multi-year program. How dare I demand that people get paid for the labor that brings in the money to keep the organization afloat? How dare I ask why the budget is opaque? And somehow these issues I point out always end up back as my fault, somehow, as the volunteer.
  • But you’re supposed to want to make the organization better!
    • I can hear the voices calling in refrain and it always surprises me that there is somehow this belief that this is not what I am doing. By pointing out the inequitable treatment, by demanding that people whose salaries we are paying are held accountable to do their jobs, by asking for the complete and full spreadsheets. By wanting something other than to feel truly like the organization is just waiting me out — I’ll go away soon and there will always be More New Shiny Members, won’t there?

And of course beyond our professional organizations, the service goes on, acculturated as we are to donating labor. For example, there’s the editorial work. Peer reviews stack up endlessly — I turned down two last week because I was already on deadline for two more. On one listserv, I saw a demand that, if I were a good and helpful canary breeder, I would reach out to a handful of journals and be sure to offer my free expertise to do systematic review search peer reviews. Never mind that these same journals would likely scoff and tell me to go back to my reference desk; that they haven’t recognized despite extensive research and PRISMA requirements that there are information experts to address search and evaluation that hasn’t been properly done. They make no policy changes to stop the utter nonsense of “we used two keywords and that was a robust search” as a methods section. No, we want the librarians making half of those last author salaries to do the extensive unpaid labor of pointing out that the search was rubbish and oh, well, but that author is important so I’m sure we’ll just wave it on through.

Ultimately at times I question what does it mean, that I was on these committees, that I have my Madame Chairwoman hat, that I ran for office or didn’t, that I supported those who became group leader, or section president, or caucus chair, or or or… It meant meeting people who are truly lifelong friends, giving people their first or biggest speaking opportunities, slowly dragging associations into the second and third decades of the twenty-first century. And it meant a lot of extra work and stress that goes mostly unnoticed or unrecognized outside of some very small rooms, usually in obnoxiously unfunctional conference centers. The canaries continue to be bred, the organization churns through another few thousand members, and the talking heads bemoan how “people aren’t joining these days.”

In the end, it also takes us away from our families and friends and opportunities within our local, regional, or state communities. At one point I recall trying to figure out how friends had all this time to participate in local volunteer groups, community outings, etc, and I realized I was spending as much or more time desperately trying to prop up an organization that was perfectly content to provide little to nothing back to me other than a line on my CV. An organization who had told me repeatedly to my face to show up and be grateful, to not want to make too many waves, and how dare I not have the appropriate amount of vocational awe in the presence of the Executive Board.

Will I continue to breed canaries? Sort of. I called one of my Presidents and asked to be shoved into a committee hole –there’s always a few to be filled and as a member, yes, I do still care. And I’m still working on those peer reviews. But I’ve started looking for other ways to do volunteer work that isn’t only an extension of my profession.*** I think it’ll be a healthier balance for me and if a professional organization can’t still be there and improving if I come back, well, that’s a message then too.

***Note, I’m also avoiding service work that is related to my craft — I went to a local guild meeting to try out the group and their opening was “so we need volunteers for these 6 things” and I just couldn’t.