They Thought They Could
by Elna Ann Mayo
The young women who met in a hotel room at the Homestead one November night in 1979 thought they could convince the Virginia Library Association to add a forum for paraprofessionals to the state library organization. They had the results of a random survey of paraprofessionals conducted in April by Lee Adams and Margaret Beattie of Central Rappahannock Library to support them. The survey indicated that paraprofessionals needed to be recognized by the library profession, and that they were concerned about job training and career development. Further, the survey pointed out that paraprofessionals wanted to be more involved in the staff decisions that affected them.
The group presented their petition to the VLA Council, and the VLA Paraprofessional Forum (VLAPF)became a reality on 13 December 1979. The purpose of the forum remains the same after twenty-one years: to provide a formal network for paraprofessionals throughout the state. The objectives of the forum have also withstood the test of time: to increase formal and informal opportunities for in-service training and staff development for library paraprofessionals in order to enhance career mobility; to increase awareness in the library community of the role of paraprofessionals in providing library services;to explore the implications of certification for library paraprofessionals; and to create a formal structure whereby Virginia paraprofessionals may make meaningful contributions to the Virginia Library association and may benefit from the association's support and guidance. From these small beginnings the forum has become a vital part of the Virginia Library Association.
A year later at the 1980 VLA Annual Conference in Richmond, the forum thought they could get conferees to attend an early morning program, so they hosted a 7:30A. M. breakfast meeting. It was standing room only as almost 100 people heard a prominent motivational speaker from the Richmond business community speak on how the role of paraprofessionals had changed because of the automation of many library procedures.
Over the years the paraprofessional Forum has sponsored or has joined with other VLA forums and interest groups to cosponsor many successful programs at VLA ANNUAL conferences. The forum has also sponsored spring programs that have addressed issues that library staff face every day, including personnel issues such as career development and pay equity, as well as personal issues such as conflict management and coping with change.
In the early days of the forum, board members thought they could enhance their hospitality by doing some of the catering themselves, and with the help of friends and family, they did. Many of them remember bringing pickles to augment a lunch or wrestling with coolers full of ice, cartons of juice, and canned drinks.
Most of the programs had excellent speakers or panels, were held in comfortable rooms, and were well attended. Not all were successful, however. Stella Pool remembers being responsible for a program that she would like to forget. The room was too small and overheated, and the speaker was late and read from a report he had written. He ended his presentation quickly and told the audience to go next door and check out another program! Another year a fire alarm, which turned out to be a false alarm, made for an exciting and premature end to a one-day meeting at the Henrico Government Center.
Carolyn Tate from the Boatwright Library at the University of Richmond was elected chair of the VLAPF for 1993. As chair-elect, she thought the forum could put on a two-day conference and began pushing the board to plan such an event, but many VLA Paraprofessional Board members thought that she was way ahead of her time and that they should proceed more slowly. Carolyn had a good sense of what had to be done and how to do it, and she had the perfect site, the beautiful University of Richmond campus. Carolyn's enthusiasm convinced the board that it could be done; they worked very hard, and they did it. That first year over 275 paraprofessionals from ten states and the District of Columbia attended workshops, panel discussions, and round tables. The two-day conference has grown every year, and in May of 2000 there were over 450 attendees, including many librarians.
Ruth Turner, treasurer of the forum in those early two-day conference years, recalls taking the first batch of registration checks for the first two-day conference to Deborah Trocchi, the executive director of VLA. Ruth still remembers the look of astonishment on Debbie's face when she saw the amount of money to be deposited.
The Paraprofessional Conference Committee thought the two-day format of workshops, speakers, hands-on computer sessions, wonderful T-shirt socials, banquets, and awards was not enough. Beginning in 1998 a Sunday evening picnic, held prior to the conference's opening on Monday, was added to the pre-conference activities. Lots of fun and networking takes place at this event which has a different theme every year.
The VLAPF Board always seems to have ideas and connections for speakers. The forum has been fortunate to be able to attract such well-known personages in the library field as Kathleen Wiebel, John Tyson, John Berry, Larry Oberg, Barbara Ford, and Will Manley. Nationally known paraprofessionals such as Meralyn Meadows, Ed Gillen, and Gene Kinnaly have also given key note addresses at the May conferences.
In 1995 the forum held its first regional meeting. The goal was to hold a program in every region in Virginia, one region per year, to encourage paraprofessionals to become more actively involved in the forum and to become members of VLA. These regional meetings continue to reach many paraprofessionals who are not able to attend state wide meetings.
From the very beginning, the leadership of VLA has been supportive of the forum. On 15 May 1981, the VLACouncil placed a high priority on the recruitment of library paraprofessionals into the association. Library administrators were encouraged to provide their support staff with opportunities to attend VLA meetings and workshops and to become active in association projects.
The forum has always thought they could do more for VLA than just swell the membership rolls. In 1983 VLA President Dean Burgess added a paraprofessional to the VLA Annual Conference Planning Committee. Other VLA committees recruited paraprofessionals to join their ranks, and many paraprofessionals have made meaningful contributions through their membership on various VLA standing committees as well as ad hoccommittees.
The forum thought that a paraprofessional could be elected to a VLA office, and in 1995 two paraprofessionals ran for treasurer of the state organization. In a close race Linda Hahne of Norfolk Public Library won the election for treasurer of the association and became the first paraprofessional to hold an elected office in VLA. Linda worked hard with other members of the VLA Finance Committee to put the finances of the organization on a firm foundation. A few years later Linda became the executive director of VLA.
In the summer of 1995 VLA PRESIDENT Lynda Farynk suggested in her column in the Virginia Librarian that the organization should consider changing the name of its journal to something that would be more inclusive of those who made up the association. The editors of the Virginia Librarian were against such a change for many reasons, but the one that caught the ire of the paraprofessionals was that VLA was a professional organization and whereas others were welcome to attend meetings, the journal was for the professionals. The editors invited letters pro and con on the subject to be published in the next issue. There were many letters, and the majority were in favor of a name change and supported the paraprofessionals. Later the VLA Council did change the name of the journal to Virginia Librarian Virginia Libraries. Once again many MLS professionals came to the support of the paraprofessionals.
The controversy over the journal's name change gained nationwide attention when John Berry, editor of Virginia Librarian Library Journal, took up the cause. The 1 November 1995 issue of that national journal featured the co-chairs of the forum, On a Turner from Lynchburg College and Elna Ann Mayo from Hampden-Sydney College, on the cover. There was also an informative, supportive article on the controversy in Virginia.
For several years Carolyn Tate thought the forum could spearhead a drive to have Library Journal recognize a "Paraprofessional of the Year"just as that journal recognizes a "Librarian of the Year. "She and others circulated hundreds of petitions to paraprofessionals all over the country to get 2, 343 signatures from librarians, library directors, and paraprofessionals in forty-six states to capture the attention of Library Journal's editor, John Berry. The"Paraprofessional of the Year" award became a reality in 2000 when Beth Perkins of Mary Washington College was honored as the first recipient of this award and was featured on the cover of the journal. Beth has been an outstanding member of the board for many years and served as treasurer and registrar of the two-day conference for three years, but more than that she has a record of outstanding performance and solid managing in her own library and has served as a mentor for many paraprofessionals. Carolyn has been named a permanent member of the selection committee for her work in getting the award established.
Evelyn Kimball of Radford University thought the forum could raise $2000 for a scholarship for a paraprofessional to attend library school. She convinced the P. Buckley Moss Foundation to donate a print, which she had framed, to be offered as the first prize in a raffle to be held at the forum's May conference each year. Vendors and businesses donated other prizes, but among the most popular prizes were the theme baskets created by board members. After much hard work by many board members, the first Paraprofessional Scholarship was awarded last spring to Claudia Covert, who had been an active board member and is now a student in the Department of Library and Information Science at the University of Pittsburgh. The forum will continue to raise money for the scholarship, which is now under the umbrella of the VLA SCcholarship Committee. This committee currently has three paraprofessional members.
The Virginia Library Association recognized the Paraprofessional Forum several times in the 1990s at their annual conference in the fall. The work of the forum and the success of their conferences were acknowledged one year with the gift of a VLA Paraprofessional Forum banner. On another occasion board members were presented with roses, and most recently certificates of appreciation were given to board members.
In 1999 Ruth J. Turner was the first paraprofessional to be elected to Honorary Life Membership in the Virginia Library Association. She was honored for her work with the forum's board over many years, for her service as treasurer of the forum, and for her work on several VLA committees where she made many contributions.
The forum's strength is in its hard working board which always seems to be able to use the talents and the abilities of those who become part of it. It seems as if few meetings of the board go by without someone new attending at the invitation of a board member. Frequently, the newcomer finds herself or himself with a responsibility before the meeting is over and sometimes with an office before the end of the year. And it is all because someone or lots of someones thought they could.