The VLA Paraprofessional Forum's Conference: True Professionalism and Great Leadership
by Andrea Kross
One of the first things I always want to know when I go to a conference is what's in the goodie bag. It's like Christmas or a really good birthday party, where there are presents for everyone. The Virginia Library Association Paraprofessional Forum's Conference goodie bag was delightful. The most impressive thing about the goodie bag was the bag itself: it was large, made of heavy canvas, and tastefully decorated. Inside the bag: two pads of paper, a pen, a combination letter opener and staple remover, a map of Virginia, an All Virginia Reads bookmark, and a keychain advertising VLA's other conference in October. There were several information booklets, a conference program, and a conference directory which listed attendees.
The Paraprofessional Forum knows how to have a good time. Over eighty door prizes were given out at the western themed BBQ on Sunday night. Todd Eastridge of Washington County Public Library called out the ticket numbers in a humorous, pseudo-bored tone, a smile never far from his face ("5271. We have a winner. Applause.") and displayed each prize: bandanas in purple, pink, or blue; harmonicas; toy handcuffs; western style straw hats; star badges; cookbooks; and the cactus candles that had decorated each table during the meal. At the Monday evening social, about eighty more door prizes were awarded: mouse pads, books, books on tape, videos, gift certificates, and the prize du jour, hula hoops. The hula hoop winners were called up to do a special dance with their new toys while the DJ played "Let's Twist Again." Mary Fran Nash from Longwood College led several line dances, while the rest of us fell over our feet, bumped into each other, and turned in the wrong direction. Each conference attendee was fed breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with plenty of food at the Monday night social to fill any midnight snack needs. These events occur every year at this conference, yet the conference planners always manage to take in more money than they spend.
As usual, the conference was held at the University of Richmond. These beautiful grounds provided plenty of exercise for conference attendees. On a campus tour guided by Marybeth Bridges, I learned that the University of Richmond was founded in 1830 by the Baptists of Virginia, and the campus was moved to its present site in 1914. Recently, the university severed its ties to the Baptists, though the Baptist Historical Society still has a building on campus. The campus's new site was once an amusement park; the man-made lake once had boat rides. The romantic covered gazebo in the middle of the bridge that crosses the lake was the setting for several scenes in the TV movie The Love Letter. Campus lore has it that if a coed is kissed by her boyfriend in the gazebo, they'll get married. Meanwhile, danger lurks in the waters. The ducks floating so placidly on the lake are prey to giant, tire-sized turtles that live in the lake.
On Monday morning, Meralyn Meadows delivered an inspiring keynote address on the topic of leadership. This may seem an odd topic for a group of people who traditionally are expected to support the decisions and goals of others, but she pointed out that paraprofessionals are not powerless: goals can be accomplished while supporting the work of others, including taking an active part in defining one's own role. "The world around us is not necessarily the way we see it, but the way we've been conditioned to see it," she said. Ms. Meadows challenged everyone to understand other people's viewpoints and to see opportunities for learning instead of hiding from difficulties or sinking into cynicism. Leaders are those who embrace these opportunities, becoming the first to learn new technologies.
Ms. Meadows suggested nine ways to develop leadership skills:
- Determine what you want to be known for: are you the supportive, friendly, enthusiastic person, or the negative gossip?
- Be willing to take on more than anyone else; this will prevent boredom and force you to become more organized.
- Do a little extra, go above and beyond to provide extra service. It can be as simple as putting the heaviest book on the bottom when handing a pile of checked out books back to the patron.
- Suggest and then implement change. When getting the approval of your supervisor, be prepared to present a cost-benefit analysis. For changes that do not involve money, consider just doing it, like creating a frequently asked questions list to hand out to patrons at the reference desk.
- Solve the problems no one else wants to solve. In a library where getting people to do their assigned shelfreading was a challenge, one employee devised a chart and displayed it in a prominent area, asking staff to chart their own progress. Shelfreading soon became a competition.
- Volunteer to research a problem, finding background information or interviewing others, and recommend a course of action.
- Cultivate a positive, good news grapevine; refuse to be a part of negative gossip and complaining.
- Develop your communication skills: practice talking in front of a group, and learn how to tell positive stories about the library; the best stories build on people's experiences.
- Master the art of the small gesture: call patrons by their name as you hand them their books, get to know important officials by sight and call them by name when they come into the library.
Above all, she said, toot your own horn: supervisors miss about 83 percent of their employee's good behavior. When you accomplish something good, write a small paragraph about it. At your performance appraisal meeting, pick out the five or six most significant things and submit them in a short report. Ms. Meadows' speech concluded with a skit about two follower wannabes starring Gene Kinnaly and Mary Fran Nash, and a quote from Helen Keller: "I am only one person, I can't do everything but I can do something, and I will not refuse to do the one thing I can do."
Stella Pool was the keynote speaker on Tuesday morning. Ms. Pool was awarded a VLA Scholarship in 1993, and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro's distance education program in library science in 1995. She urged the audience to learn as much as possible, be open to new experiences, and be willing to learn from past mistakes. Great teachers are those who do not do things perfectly the first time. Attending conferences, particularly the roundtables, is a great way to learn how things are done in other libraries, and to discover to our surprise that things aren't so bad at our library. We should also strive to do all that we can, especially those things that others don't want to do. We should pay attention, ask questions, and volunteer to help. We only regret what we fail to do, not what we've done. Finally, we need to share all that we can: create a network of supportive colleagues; teach someone your skills; bring a colleague with you to a conference; compliment colleagues for a job well done; and be willing to fill in for others so they can accomplish these things too.
On Tuesday afternoon, the conference concluded with traditional Appalachian Highlander stories told and sung by Gwynn Ramsey. The stories ranged from far-fetched but hilarious tall tales to a soliloquy on how the daisy got its name from its resemblance to the sun, the day's eye. Then he pulled out his Mississippi pocket saxophone, known to the rest of the country as a harmonica, and entertained us with classics including Oh Susanna and She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain. Dr. Ramsey paused briefly to speak seriously about the positive effects of story telling. He urged us to encourage children to be as creative as they can, to write poems and tell stories.
Raffle and Exhibitor's Hall
The first VLAPF Conference raffle was held in 1996. The raffle grows more successful with each passing year. For the past two years, the raffle has included baskets donated by various organizations and board members. This year, tickets were one dollar each or six for five dollars, and hopeful ticket buyers put their tickets into jars next to the prizes they would most like to win. This was not an easy choice. As in past years, the VLAPF was very pleased to receive a Moss print donated by the P. Buckley Moss Society; this year's raffle offering was "Sister's Story." Some of the baskets were based on themes and were filled with goodies for the garden, bath, kitchen, or beach. Other baskets contained stuffed animals, beanie babies, a gift certificate for Solinet training, note cards, novels, reference books, and author-autographed copies of books written by Virginia authors, including William Styron's Sophie's Choice, Donald McCaig's Jacob's Ladder, and Philip Morgan's Slave Counterpoint. The money earned from the raffle supports the VLAPF Scholarship fund. This scholarship is given by the Paraprofessional Forum to a paraprofessional who wants to do a Master of Library and Information Science degree. This year, the VLAPF awarded its first scholarship to Claudia Covert from the funds earned in the 1996-1999 raffles. Each scholarship is $2000, to match the ones given by VLA. Ona Turner, spokesperson for the raffle, said that the Paraprofessional Forum's goal is to make enough money with the raffle to award the VLAPF Scholarship every year. This year's raffle earned $1243.
For the first time, the VLAPF Conference included an Exhibitor's Hall. When Lydia Williams of Longwood College contacted vendors for the Donations Committee, she learned that many of the vendors were interested in exhibiting at the conference. Participants included The Library Shop from the Library of Virginia, USBorne Books, 3M Security, Bookperson Inc., and the Children's Lit Comprehensive Database Company. "We were delighted that the project went so well because exhibitors were not part of our original planning and, therefore, we had not set aside a special time for visiting the exhibit hall," explained Barbara Rittinger from the Arlington County Department of Libraries. "We particularly wanted to have vendors who had gift items for sale so attendees would have a broader range to choose from when buying for friends and family... . We also wanted to provide the exhibit hall opportunity to our attendees. VLAPF is the only professional conference many library staff will attend, so we strive to make the experience as professionally complete and personally rewarding as possible." Plans are already underway for next year's Exhibitor's Hall.
The conference was a success: more people were registered than ever before (486). Sessions were informative and the social events were entertaining. It was one of the best conferences I've ever attended. Congratulations to the conference co-chairs, Clara Stanley and Wanda Brown, for a job well done.
The electronic version of Virginia Libraries contains the latest revision of Jonathan Lord's article "Shoveling Sand with a Teaspoon: Managing Electronic Journals," which appeared in the April/May/June issue of Virginia Libraries. This revision includes bibliographical references. It can be accessed at http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/VALib or as a link from the VLA web site at http://www.vla.org.