Chapter Report: Library Assistants and Professional Development

By Watkins, Christine | American Libraries, August 1998 | Go to article overview

Chapter Report: Library Assistants and Professional Development


Watkins, Christine, American Libraries


To say that library assistants present an untapped market for chapters isn't meant to ignore the enormous amount of activity that already exists. But despite an array of programs and membership growth among support staff, the appetite and demand for even more activity remains strong.

Like most revolutions, it's difficult to pinpoint where and when all of this began, but some credit is surely due to the New Jersey Association of Library Assistants (NJALA), which has just celebrated its 12th anniversary. NJALA has long sponsored a two-day conference at Seton Hall University in South Orange that attracts over 400 attendees each year; it also cosponsors an annual program with the New Jersey Library Association (NJLA). Perhaps as importantly, the Seton Hall conference has become a model for other events and organizations across the country.

Miriam Pollack, assistant director of the North Suburban Library System in Wheeling, Illinois, first heard about the Seton Hall program at an ALA conference in 1988. She thought it sounded like a great idea and came back home determined to start a similar program in Illinois. The first Reaching Forward conference in 1990 drew an audience of 250 people. The event, now managed by the Illinois Library, Association (ILA), has grown to be the largest of its kind in the country, attracting more than 1,200 attendees, each year.

An excellent case in point

Reaching For-ward is a real success story for ILA, for the conference planners, and for its participants. From the beginning, library assistants were instrumental in planning the program and hosting the event -- their professional development comes not only from attending programs, but from managing and presenting a first-rate conference.

Reaching Forward began outside the association, which probably lent an important sense of independence. When it partnered with ILA, it already had its own identity. It now has become profitable enough not only to support itself but also to spawn a second conference -- reaching Forward South -- that attracts 250 attendees outside the metropolitan Chicago area.

By Reaching's third year in existence, the conference cochairs were both support staff -- Tobi Oberman of the Skokie Public Library and Tom Rich of the Warren-Newport Public Library. Oberman and Rich have become living legends; Rich was chosen as last year's keynote speaker and has appeared at chapter conferences in other states. They've agreed to return as chairs for the conference in April 2000 -- with an attendance goal of 2,000, of course.

Unlike committees that go begging for members, the Reaching Forward planning committee has a waiting list. Michael Delury, Vernon Area Public Library District, is a first-year member and one of the rare volunteers who happens to have an MLS. "They had to vote to see if they would let me on," Delury says, only half joking. "I had gotten such positive feedback from my library staff about the event, I wanted to get more involved."

The cochairs of the April 24, 1998, conference -- Fran Miller, Fountaindale Public Library District, and Janet Widdel, Hinsdale Public Library -- feel the same way. …

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