Are You the Librarian? the Face of Quality Library Service Depends on Drawing a Wider Circle in Our Profession

Article excerpt

So just what do support staff say when asked, "Are you the librarian"? "I do answer 'yes' to that question because the general public does not know the difference between a librarian and an information services assistant," related Padma Polepeddi of Westerville (Ohio) Public Library. Linda Hearn, a 26-year library veteran without an MLS degree, holds the title of "assistant branch librarian" and always answers, "Yes." But Joan Neslund of Ellensburg (Wash.) Public Library countered: "If a patron asks, I say 'Yes.' If I am asked by another professional, I say 'No.'"

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Binary thinking, at the root of Western philosophy, leads most of us into either/or mode. A person is a librarian or isn't, is a professional or isn't. But the real world is more fluid and complex, with each person challenging or accepting boundaries all the time. "We are all performing jobs that only those with the MLS would have done just five years ago," states Mary T. Kalnin, a 33-year employee at the University of Washington in Seattle. "I also try to stop myself from saying 'I just work here.' It seems to belittle the job that nonlibrarians do," says Linda Patterson, circulation supervisor at Multnomah County (Oreg.) Library's Central Library.

How staff COPE

"I can remember it like it happened yesterday," recalls Dorothy Morgan, business manager of Liverpool (N.Y.) Public Library. As president of the American Library Association's fledgling Library Support Staff Interests Round Table (LSSIRT), she approached the ALA Executive Board in January 2001 to petition for a third Congress on Professional Education (COPE 3). "I felt so passionate about the issue.... I let them know I was speaking on behalf of LSSIRT; that I was only one voice out of thousands for support staff."

In May 2003, over 150 delegates representing Association leaders, administrators, educators, and support staff gathered at the third Congress on Professional Education to brainstorm future directions for the professional development of library workers (AL, Aug. 2003, p. 36-37). Their first task was to identify what support staff do well. Each small group generated extensive statement lists that included such attributes as "fill vital roles," "understand collections and materials," "understand users," "are the faces of the library," "use teamwork concepts," and "have a service attitude."

The stories of library workers are as diverse as the libraries represented within ALA. With terms of service ranging from three months to over 30 years, some feel the library calling early in life. "In 6th grade, I ran the Van Buren Elementary circulation desk during recess while the librarian took her afternoon break," reported James Farmer, head of access services at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. "As a teenager, I volunteered in the library at the Cheyenne Veterans Affairs Medical Center," recalled Trish Palluck, resource-sharing specialist for the Wyoming State Library in Cheyenne. Many bring rich experiences to library service from previous posts as health care personnel, teachers, bus drivers, mail carriers, editors, bartenders, jewelers, herbalists, and full-time parents.

Many library support staff have earned advanced degrees up to the doctoral level. However, some MLS-holding delegates to COPE 3 were surprised to learn that not everyone working in a library aspires to obtain an advanced library degree. When the issue of upward mobility was discussed, support staff delegates made a strong case for a career lattice that offers parallel promotional opportunities. "I don't see any advantage in today's working environment in libraries to pursue a costly MLS degree," said one staffer who preferred to remain anonymous. "I like what I do as a principal library assistant," stated Ellen Brewer of Ocean County (N.J.) Library.

The perception that degreed librarians spend too many hours in meetings or compiling endless reports deterred Betsy Miller, senior library technician at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, from pursuing her MLS. …