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A one-armed dove hunter? A llama owner? There's a group just for you

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The Encyclopedia of Associations lists details of more than 120,000 national, state and regional organizations in the United States (Howard Swains/CNS)

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Most libraries stock The Encyclopedia of Associations, which is updated annually, and is also available to subscribers online (Howard Swains/CNS)

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A terminally-ill llama-lover in Arkansas wanted there to be an organization for the state's llama owners. The result of his wish was the Llama Association of Arkansas (LLArk) (Howard Swains/CNS)

Llama lovers of Arkansas have done it. So have ferret rescuers in Pennsylvania. Space entrepreneurs, curly sporthorse breeders and America's metal detector manufacturers have done it, too.

All of these people, like-minded in their own ways, have formed an association.

No matter how specialized an interest, or how few people share a passion, the chances are that in the United States an organization exists to promote it. And if it doesn't, it's easy to start one. Hundreds of people do so each year.

Americans love associations. Since its first publication in 1956, the Encyclopedia of Associations has added 500 to 1,000 national, state and regional groups each year. Its database of active associations, also available to subscribers online, contains more than 120,000 organizations, from the American Automobile Association, with 40 million members, to the New Jetsons Fan Club, which claims to have two.

Do you like misprinted stamps? Join the Errors, Freaks and Oddities Collectors Club. Looking for a smoke? Call the National Association of Tobacco Outlets, also known as NATO.

And how about the One Arm Dove Hunt Association, from Olney, Texas? The name reveals all: It's a group for dove hunters who have only one arm.

"In no country in the world has the principle of association been more successfully used or applied to a greater multitude of objects than in America," wrote the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville in his epic travelogue "Democracy in America." De Tocqueville was writing more than 165 years ago, but his observation rings as true now as it did then.

Take the Llama Association of Arkansas. Sue Cornell, of Fayetteville, Ark., vividly recalls the first discussion in January 2001 that would eventually result in the creation of the group known as LAArk.

"I've got a real big favor to ask of you," said Cornell's acquaintance, a nurse who was caring for a terminally ill man with a passion for llamas. The dying man had long wished that Arkansas llama owners could come together to compare notes, share a community and maybe even challenge the law against hiking with llamas on the Ozark Highlands trail.

Cornell and her husband, also llama lovers, made the wish come true. They organized a committee, elected officers and enlisted the help of a local attorney to incorporate the group as a nonprofit. The llama enthusiast saw his dream come to fruition before he died. Now LAArk has around 35 members, runs an annual show where owners can parade their llamas and has even been featured on local television. An animated llama bounds across the association's Web site proclaiming: "Llamas Are For Everyone."

"I find the camaraderie between llama people crosses all kinds of boundaries," said Cornell, who served as president for two years.

Like LAArk, many small associations begin with the vision of one person and depend on a good deal of dedication and industry to get going.

Elaine Elmer, of Greenville, S.C., has maintained Curly Sporthorse International, or CSI, alone since its creation in 2003. In those early days, Elmer, in addition to working as a systems analyst at an insurance company, worked about 40 hours a week building CSI.

"I guess it's a little bit altruistic that I'd do this," said Elmer, who doesn't make any money from the association.

But it has been worth it. As a breeder of curlies--a rare type of horse that has a hypoallergenic coat--Elmer was frustrated that little advice was available on how to raise the horses, register them and prepare them for sporting competition. CSI now provides its members all the help they need. Expert judges are available to inspect horses, educational DVDs can be borrowed, and CSI awards annual prizes to breeders.

And it has been more popular than Elmer expected.

"I knew there wasn't the potential for hundreds and hundreds of members," she said. "But one of the things that surprised me was how many people popped out of the woodwork and joined CSI who I had never heard of before."

Small associations can be surprisingly influential. The Caffeine Awareness Alliance, for instance, has fewer than 10 workers, most of them volunteers. But on its creation in 2003, the group joined forces with the American Medical Association to campaign for manufacturers to display the amount of caffeine in their drinks. And in February, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo announced that they would begin to display caffeine content on their labels.

"Now we hope Starbucks and other coffee and tea companies will step up to the plate, or cup, so that the public can benefit from it," said Marina Kushner, the founder of the alliance, in a news release.

Anyone can start an organization and apply for registration in the Encyclopedia of Associations. The publishers review Web sites and brochures before deciding whether an organization is appropriate for being listed. There are no other criteria that need to be met.

And although they might start small, associations can become big business, according to Timothy Schneider, the publisher of Association News, a magazine directed at the country's largest regional, state and local associations.

"It's like amateur sports or the minor leagues," Schneider said. "That's where the major players come from. It's like that in associations."

Association names also go through fads. A recent favorite is "Without Borders," used by 42 currently listed organizations. These groups represent a neat microcosm of all associations, ranging from the obviously serious--sociologists, teachers, mental health workers--to the more unexpected--welders, clowns and an elite information technology outfit from Oregon: Geeks Without Borders.

Even the Geeks, however, have serious intentions: They take unused computer components and send them to people in need overseas.

De Tocqueville, therefore, was both astute and prophetic.

"In the United States, associations are established to promote the public safety, commerce, morality and religion," he wrote. “There is no end which the human will despairs of attaining through the combined power of individuals united into a society."

Just ask the Advanced Authoring Format Association, the American Association for Critical Scientific Investigation into Claimed Hauntings, Nice Ninjas or Bach Babes.

E-mail: has2114@columbia.edu