The Paraprofessional Forum
by Donna Gant
“At first we were afraid no one would show up. Then people began entering the small meeting room, and kept coming—until the room was full to overflowing. Luckily, it was a room that could be enlarged by opening a room divider.” Lee Adams, one of the founders of the Paraprofessional Forum, remembers the organizational meeting held at the 1979 VLA Conference at the Homestead.1
In 1979, a mere quarter of a century ago, the Virginia Library Association was tacitly an organization for people with master’s degrees in library science.2 Today, the VLA Manual explicitly offers membership to “any individual, organization, or library to promote the interests of libraries and library service,” and now mandates that paraprofessionals serve on the Finance and Scholarship committees.3 Paraprofessionals volunteer for many other VLA committees, forums, and regions; they edit our professional journals and serve on the Virginia Libraries editorial board. They have held VLA elected office as second vice president, treasurer, and secretary, and served as executive director. This year a paraprofessional leader is on the VLA ballot for ALA Councilor. Today, the Virginia Library Association Paraprofessional Forum (VLAPF) holds its own consistently successful two-and-a-half-day conference each spring, con-tributing to the fiscal stability of VLA.Paraprofessionals … have held VLA elected office as second vice president, treasurer, and secretary, and served as executive director.How It Began
Lee Adams and her colleague, Margaret Beattie, both paraprofessionals at Central Rappahannock Regional Library, wanted the state association to be more inclusive of all the people who work in libraries. They received about one hundred responses to a questionnaire they sent to paraprofessionals at Virginia academic and public libraries in April 1979, indicating “an overwhelming interest in meeting as a group at the VLA conference.” In their memo of April 23, 1979, “Re: VLA Caucus for Paraprofessionals,” Adams and Beattie shared survey results and invited paraprofessionals to attend a meeting on November 8 at the VLA annual -conference.
Although only twenty-six percent of survey respondents had attended a VLA conference before, eighty-seven percent said they would be interested in attending a meeting for paraprofessionals. Five percent of those responding were VLA members. Respondents “expressed a need for further definition of the paraprofessional and for recognition by the library profession.” In addition, in priority order, they expressed concerns about job training, information about career development, involvement in policy decisions affecting staff, communication between paraprofessionals and professionals, and various areas of work in libraries.4
At the Homestead meeting, which had also been announced in two issues of Virginia Librarian Newsletter,5 the group of about forty people agreed to petition the VLA Council for forum status. The steering committee for the group included Ronald Kaminski (chair), Hope Yelich, Margaret Beattie, Jean Marie Peet, and Catherine Elias.6
The VLA Executive Committee unanimously approved the Paraprofessional Forum at their meeting on December 13, 1979. Objectives in the successful petition included providing support for paraprofessionals, increasing opportunities for training and development, increasing awareness of the role of paraprofessionals, and creating a “formal structure whereby Virginia paraprofessionals may make meaningful contributions to [VLA] and may benefit from the Association’s support and guidance.”7
These fundamental objectives have changed only slightly through the years as the group has grown in influence and support. Additions reflect the successful initiatives of the 1990s—the spring conference and the creation of the Outstanding Paraprofessional of the Year award.8The 1980s
Paraprofessional Forum chairs and executive board members immediately began working to fulfill the forum’s objectives, and continued through the 1980s to lay the strong foundation of energy and creativity that has characterized the forum throughout its history.
In May 1981, the VLA Council passed the forum’s resolution to place high priority on paraprofessional recruitment into VLA and re-quest that library directors support paraprofessional participation in VLA.9 All library directors or supervisors did not embrace this resolution. As recently as the early 1990s, Beth Perkins, head of circulation at Simpson Library, Mary Washington College, was forced to take personal leave to attend a VLAPF meeting after her supervisor denied her request to attend it.10
With VLA Council encouragement, more paraprofessionals began to have an active role in the association. In 1981, Lee Adams was appointed to the VLA Membership Committee.11 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.12
The forum sponsored a survey of the salaries for paraprofessional jobs (defined as any position not requiring an MLS) in 1983; ninety-five systems responded. The report was presented at a program at the VLA Annual Conference, and the ten-page report, “Who Makes What, Where, How: Library Paraprofessional Salaries in Virginia” by Lee Adams, Betty McClellan, Sharmee Seid, and Anne Weigard, was published in 1984.13
An active group needs a striking logo, so the VLAPF held a contest, open to all Virginia library employees. From the thirty designs submitted, judges picked two very similar designs and asked the creators, Mike Cody (VCU) and Myreen Nicholson (Norfolk Public Library), to collaborate on the final product.14
Shortly after its creation, the forum began presenting programs and workshops, beginning with the 1980 VLA Annual Conference and continuing in 1981 with a separate fall workshop on staff development at the University of Richmond. In 1982, the forum began presenting both spring and fall workshops. The forum continues to present a fall “mini-conference” that rotates from VLA region to region each year; in 1993, the spring workshop evolved into the fabulously successful, nationally recognized two-day conference for-mat.
The Virginia Library Association Paraprofessional Forum is one of the oldest support staff associations in the country. According to the Library Support Staff Interests Round Table’s “National Directory of Paraprofessional Organizations” on ALA’s Library Support Staff Resource Center website, there were about thirty-eight such state associations in 2002, most being affiliated with the state library association.15 The VLAPF has national influence through its conference and the work of its activists. Virginia Beach Public Library staff member Debbie Wolcott, VLAPF chair in 1988, co-chaired the ALA Membership Initiative Group that eventually gave birth to the Library Support Staff Interests Roundtable (-LSSIRT).16 Debbie was one of those who shared experiences from visits to other support staff groups with the VLAPF Board.…her supervisor denied her request to attend…
It is possible to argue that two of the most significant things that happened in VLA in the 1990s occurred because Carolyn Tate attended the New Jersey Association of Library Assistants Conference. Tate, who was head of circulation at Boatwright Library, University of Richmond, was chair-elect of VLAPF in 1992. Inspired by the New Jersey conference, she suggested that the time had come for the Paraprofessional Forum’s spring workshop to become a two-day conference. “I knew that we would succeed. The VLAPF had the talent, dedication, creativity, vision, and a willingness to assure success.”17 The conference did succeed and brought not only national recognition to the forum, but also increasing respect and recognition from VLA Executive Council members. Two watershed events ensued: a paraprofessional was elected to VLA Executive Council and the association’s journal changed its title.
Here’s how it happened.
The first conference, “Future Unlimited: YOU Make It Happen,” was held May 24–25, 1993, at the University of Richmond, the conference venue through 2003. The conference was advertised in Library Mosaics and marketed via an article in Virginia Librarian by VLAPF member Elna Ann Mayo.18 The result: 270 people from most of the East Coast states, plus Tennessee, Ohio, Wisconsin, and California, attended.19 They must have liked the winning combination of informative and entertaining programs on a variety of topics, excellent keynote speakers, and—a hallmark of the VLAPF conferences—fun and entertaining socials, because they kept returning. Attendance is now regularly well over 400.
After successful two-day conferences in 1993 and 1994, the VLAPF once again asked for a greater role in VLA for paraprofessionals and more support from VLA leadership. Certainly strides had been made through the 1980s, but the Paraprofessional Forum was still not achieving all of its objectives.
In late 1994, the VLAPF leadership met with John D. Stewart, President of VLA, to discuss concerns of the VLAPF Board. In a letter to Linda Hahne, the 1994 chair of the forum, Stewart summarized the results of that meeting. Several recommendations in this letter proved a watershed for paraprofessionals in VLA. The first recommendation tackled the issue of non-inclusive language in all VLA publications, including the VLA Manual—“our language keeps separating ‘librarians’ from ‘paraprofessionals.’”
Stewart stated that he would recommend “to the Editorial Board of the Virginia Librarian that it make recommendations … about a name change using a word or words that are inclusive of all workers in our libraries.” Another recommendation stated, “It’s the business of the leadership of VLA to assure that a commitment to the paraprofessional goes beyond individual presidencies and becomes imbedded in the structure of the association,” including recruitment for elected office and other leadership positions.20“Perhaps it’s time for a title that reflects what brings us together, rather than what separates us.”
During the presidency of Linda Farynk in 1995, these goals were realized. For the first time in VLA history, two paraprofessionals were nominated for VLA elected office. Carolyn Tate and Linda Hahne ran for treasurer. Both were strong leaders who had served on VLA Council during their years as VLAPF chair; each had successful VLAPF spring conferences to her credit. Linda Hahne, who had financial expertise, won the election; she did such a good job as treasurer that she was made executive director after her term.
Linda Farynk’s “President’s Column” in the April–June 1995 Virginia Librarian made it absolutely clear that she supported the Para-professional Forum’s objectives. She observed, “By a very wide margin, [the VLAPF spring conference] draws more people than any other program sponsored by a single VLA unit.” But fewer than one quarter of the people attending were VLA members. “Clearly … we need to do a better job of letting paraprofessionals know that they are welcome to join the association. We need to make sure they know that VLA is open to every employee of every type of library in Virginia; a master’s degree in library science is not required.” Farynk extolled the accomplishments of VLAPF and stated, “It will be a milestone to elect in 1995 a Treasurer who also is a paraprofessional.” She asks, “How sincerely do we communicate the inclusiveness of the association, I wonder, when we call our journal the Virginia Librarian? Is it only for and about librarians? Perhaps it’s time to consider a title with which our next Treasurer can identify. Perhaps it’s time for a title that reflects what brings us together, rather than what separates us.”
In that same issue of Virginia Librarian, co-editors Lucretia McCulley and Dan Ream adamantly opposed the title change, arguing, “VLA is, and should remain, primarily a professional association for (pardon our language) ‘librarians.’ … Perhaps the key question here is whether VLA is an association of professional librarians, or one of library workers.” They asked readers of Virginia Librarian to send their opinions.21
The editors received twenty-seven letters and emails, some signed by several people, from degreed librarians and paraprofessionals; sixteen favored a name change, eight preferred retaining the current name, and three expressed no opinion.22 VLA Council approved a name change to the inclusive Virginia Libraries, to take effect with a new editor and editorial board, with the January–March 1996 issue. The controversy gained national attention when Library Journal reported the story and put Elna Ann Mayo and Ona Turner, VLAPF 1996 co-chairs, on the cover of the November 1, 1995, issue.23
The Paraprofessional Forum launched two awards in 1996. The first, given annually, honors the Outstanding Paraprofessional of the Year. Beth Perkins received the first award. The second award, given occasionally, recognizes an Outstanding Supporter of Paraprofessionals. Linda Farynk received the first award. This award has been given only three times since 1996. In 1997, the forum honored Bill Whitesides; in 2000, Tom Hehman; and in 2004, Calvin Boyer and Morel Fry—nominated by their staffs.24
1999 saw the first paraprofessional elected as an Honorary Life Member in VLA. Ruth J. Turner “was honored for her work with the forum’s board over many years, for her services as treasurer of the forum, and for her work on several VLA committees.”25The New Century
The forum continues to grow in size and influence. VLA presidents refer frequently to the forum, its spring conference, and the work of paraprofessionals in the President’s Column in Virginia Libraries. Paraprofessionals, often forum leaders, have been elected to VLA offices. Lydia Williams, VLA secretary in 2005, observes, “Over the years, I have witnessed an increase in the number of paraprofessionals being invited to sit on committees and to run for positions on the VLA Executive Committee. I think this is a result of the open communication that exists because of the VLA Paraprofessional Forum.”26 Williams was co-chair of the VLAPF in 1998, has served on several VLA standing committees, and is currently on the board of Virginia Libraries.
VLAPF awarded its first scholarship for a paraprofessional who was pursuing a graduate library science degree in 2000. The forum has been raising money for scholarships with its popular raffles at the spring conference since the mid-90s. The sum raised is combined with other contributed funds that the VLA Scholarship Committee disburses to successful applicants. In 2002, the VLAPF Scholarship was renamed the Clara Stanley VLAPF Scholarship to honor a member who was on the VLAPF board for more than ten years and forum co-chair in 2000.27 VLAPF co-chairs now serve as voting members of the Scholarship Committee.
Don’t Forget the Conferences!
Many paraprofessionals throughout the state and country associate VLAPF with its spring conference. The Paraprofessional Forum Annual Conference is consistently successful in every way, usually realizing a net profit and contributing to VLA’s financial health. It continues to draw attendance from as many as fifteen states and includes a mix of paraprofessionals in academic, public, and special libraries. 28
Jean Tancredi of Virginia Beach Public Library, a VLA member since the early 1990s, has been to several conferences. She returns because the conferences provide “a chance to be out and about, to get out and talk to others; a chance to learn something new, to reaffirm, to see I’m on the right track.”29
What is the formula for success that the Paraprofessional Forum has so successfully followed since 1993?
Engage excellent keynote speakers. Schedule a combination of programs that are informative and entertaining, on a variety of topics, so all attendees can find something of interest. Include programs that are hot topics in the library field; other work-related topics, such as staff morale; and subjects that can apply to both work and home life, such as stress and time management, or dressing for success on a budget. Add a liberal helping of fun and entertaining activities, such as socials, picnics, or receptions, with door prizes. Be sure to advertise your event. Provide plenty of opportunities for meeting old and new friends, and add the chance to win prizes for a good cause.
Excellent keynote speakers. These have included ALA presidents Barbara Ford and Carla Hayden; Library Mosaics editor Ed Martinez; American Libraries columnist Will Manley (“The Professional in All of Us”); and motivational speaker Dale Henry (“Do you sizzle or fizzle?”), among others. Lydia Williams remembers being at Dale Henry’s keynote address: “He was a great motivational speaker, but he was also very funny. I loved hearing all the laughter around me and watching the faces of those in the audience as they reacted to Mr. Henry’s crazy stories.”30
Attending authors. Some of the notable authors invited to the conference include Sharyn McCrumb (2004), Donna Andrews (2001), Ann McMillan (2000 and 2001), and Felicia Mason and Cathy Maxwell (2002).
Interesting programs. Sessions on hot library topics have covered security, difficult patrons, digitization, finding grants, web design, genealogy, AV cataloging, cybercrime, reader’s advisory for every type of customer, and freedom of information.
Other work-related topics have included supervising library staff, presentation skills and other communication-related topics, staff development, and working relationships. Many universal topics have been covered, from time and conflict management to financial plan-ning, identity theft, and leadership. Some “how-to for work or play” sessions have included Ukrainian egg painting, origami, scrapbooking, and conservation of photographic material.
Socials. Themed socials have given people the chance to dress up in Western attire or poodle skirts and bobby socks. Among many great door prizes, one of the most memorable has been Umbrella Hats. There’s always good music and a chance to boogie! Participants are invited to come a day early to enjoy a picnic, reception, or author banquet—you may find you need to make it an official part of the conference.
Raffles and prizes. Each year, themed baskets and raffle tickets help fund VLA scholarships for students studying for a master’s in library science. Great door prizes have included the P. Buckley Moss Print, donated annually by the P. Buckley Moss Society of Staunton and framed by Christopher’s Fine Arts and Framing in Farmville. The 2004 scholarship raffle raised a record $2,261!31
Awards and honors. The Paraprofessional Forum honors deserving people through awards such as the Outstanding Paraprofessional of the Year and the Outstanding Supporter of Paraprofessionals. The forum also recognizes hard workers for the Paraprofessional Forum, such as Clara Stanley, Carolyn Tate, Ona Turner Dowdy, Beth Perkins, and many more. The VLA Paraprofessional Forum Award assists “someone who is unable to acquire local funding to attend the conference.”32
Location. The forum deliberately seeks attractive sites with places to stroll or sit and visit, such as the University of Richmond (1993–2003) and Holiday Inn Select/Koger South Conference Center (2004–2005).
VLA leaders. The forum makes a point to invite VLA officers. Tom Hehman, VLA President in 1998, says, “I experienced an extremely lively, engaging, energetic, and very effective conference, beautifully organized by Virginia’s paraprofessionals, who serve as national role models. If you’re a paraprofessional, you need to attend; if you’re an administrator, you need to support attendance. I give it ‘two thumbs up’ and five stars.”33“ALA is working on inclusive language for all members — VLA accomplished this over ten years ago.”
Sharing expertise with other state paraprofessional groups. After the first conference in 1993, both the New Jersey Association of Library Assistants and the New York State Library Assistants’ Association entered into a continuing reciprocal agreement with the VLAPF to send a representative to their respective conferences for just the cost of transportation. “It is an excellent avenue to learn from one another and provide a wonderful networking opportunity,” says Carolyn Tate.34Accomplishments and Influence
In its first quarter-century, the Virginia Library Association Paraprofessional Forum has accomplished much for all library staff in the state of Virginia. It has influenced the growth of paraprofessional associations throughout the country, and its work has provided encouragement and a foundation for Virginia paraprofessionals who have been honored by national professional publications. Revenue from the Paraprofessional Forum Annual Conference, along with that from the VLA Annual Conference, helps “to balance the VLA budget as well as add to our reserve funds.” According to Linda Hahne, VLA Executive Director, the net revenue from the conferences “helps to keep VLA from raising membership fees [while] still providing the same level of service.”35
State and national activist Carolyn Tate proudly states, “VLA has provided unbounded support for paraprofessionals, which places VLA in the forefront of state associations. ALA is working on inclusive language for all members—VLA accomplished this over ten years ago. ALA recently created marketing strategies to recruit more support staff as members—VLA is also ahead on this issue.”36
Both Library Mosaics and Library Journal recognize outstanding paraprofessionals (also called support staff). Until 2000, Library Journal had recognized only a Librarian of the Year. They changed that policy and added an annual Paraprofessional of the Year Award because of Carolyn Tate’s efforts. Tate not only wrote LJ a persuasive letter explaining why it should honor paraprofessionals, but, with the help of her colleagues around the country, “submitted to LJ a petition containing the signatures of 2,343 librarians, directors, and paraprofessionals from 46 states and Canada.”37 Beth Perkins of Mary Washington College was the first paraprofessional honored by Library Journal.38 Lydia Williams of Longwood College, one of “three more dynamos,” was a runner-up for Library Journal’s 2005 Paraprofessional of the Year.39 In 2004, Library Mosaics honored Carolyn Tate as 2004 Support Staff of the Year; she was a finalist in 2002.40 Library Journal recently began featuring “Movers and Shakers” in an annual supplement that recognizes the achievements of all library staff. Mary Buckley, George Mason University, and Susan Paddock, Virginia Beach Public Library, were among those honored in 2003.41 Each of these women honored by Library Journal and Library Mosaics have served on the VLAPF Board. Williams succeeded Paddock as VLA secretary.
Through work on the VLA Council, workshops, and conferences, this large, active forum has educated and informed all library staff of the issues facing paraprofessionals; provided training; helped paraprofessionals gain leadership positions throughout VLA; and guided the VLA leadership to long-term commitment to an association that includes all library workers. VLAPF has changed the way librarians and paraprofessionals look at each other and their jobs. Lydia Williams says, “I believe that being a member of VLA and the Paraprofessional Forum is essential to the professional development of library support staff. … Being involved in VLA over the years has changed the way I view my job. I don’t just work in a library—I have evolved into an advocate for libraries. Continuing education and networking opportunities are the two key elements for the change, and VLAPF provides both.”42 As Elna Ann Mayo so elegantly put it, “You’ve Come a Long Way, Paraprofessionals!”43Outstanding Paraprofessional Award
Presented annually by the Paraprofessional Forum to an individual who:
- Has been a member of VLA for at least one year
- Demonstrates excellence in performance in his/her field of expertise
- Fosters communication among library employees throughout the Commonwealth
- Advances and strengthens the image of paraprofessionals
1996 Beth Perkins (Mary Washington College)
1997 Ona Turner (Knight-Capron Library, Lynchburg College)
1998 Linda Hahne (Norfolk Public Library)
1999 Patricia White (Annandale Campus, Northern Virginia Community College
2000 Patricia Jones (Virginia Beach Public Library)
2001 Lydia Williams (Longwood College Library)
2002 Mary Fran Nash (Longwood College Library)
2003 Anne Sheldon (Longwood University Library)
2004 Margaret Toscano (Williamsburg Regional Library)
2005 Dreama Croft (York County Public Library)
—Donna Gant serves as Librarian II, Cataloging Services, at Virginia Beach Public Library. She can be reached at (757) 431-3055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
1Lee Adams, telephone conversation with author, 9 June 2005.
2Paraprofessionals were not excluded, but they were not actively recruited. A few paraprofessionals were members in 1979. Lee Adams and Margaret Beattie, memo to paraprofessionals, “Re: VLA Caucus for Paraprofessionals,” 23 April 1979, Virginia Library Association Records, 1905–1999, Accession 34959, Organization Records Collection, Library of Virginia.
4Adams and Beattie.
5“Paraprofessionals Plan -Session,” Virginia Librarian Newsletter 35.3 (1979): 5. “VLA Happenings,” Virginia Librarian Newsletter 35.5 (1979): 8.
6“Paraprofessionals Seek Forum Status in VLA,” Virginia Librarian Newsletter 35.6 (1979): 2.
7“VLA Happenings,” Virginia Librarian Newsletter 36.1 (1980): 1.
8Virginia Library Association.
9Paraprofessional Forum Notes, Minutes, Book 1, 1981, Virginia Library Association Records, 1905–1999, Accession 34962, Organization Records Collection, Library of Virginia.
10John N. Berry III, “Paraprofessional of the Year 2000: Beth Perkins,” Library Journal 125.5 (2000): 41.
11Paraprofessional Forum Notes, 1981.
12Elna Ann Mayo, “They Thought They Could,” Virginia Libraries 46.4 (2000): 7.
13Paraprofessional Forum Notes, Minutes, Book 1, 1984, Virginia Library Association Records, 1905–1999, Accession 34962, Organization Records Collection, Library of Virginia.
15Meralyn Meadows, compiler, “National Directory of Paraprofessional Associations,” in American Library Association Library Support Staff Resource Center [website] 2005 [cited 24 June 2005]; available from http://www.ala.org/ala/hrdr/librarysupportstaff/Library_Support_Staff_Resource_Center.htm.
16AnnaMarie Kehnast, “From MIG to LSSIRT: A Support Staff Odyssey,” Library Mosaics 14.4 (2003): 23.
17Carolyn Tate, email message to author, 13 June 2005.
18Elna Ann Mayo, “You’ve Come a Long Way, Paraprofessionals!,” Virginia Librarian 39.1 (1993): 17–18.
19Paraprofessional Forum Report, Minutes of VLA Council, 11 June 1993; Carolyn M. Tate to Liz Hamilton, President, VLA, 30 July 1993, VLA correspondence, 1992–1993, Virginia Library Association Records, 1905–1999, Accession 40280, Organization Records Collection, Library of Virginia.
20John Stewart to Linda Hahne, 20 October 1994, VLA Council 1994, Virginia Library Association Records, 1905–1999, Accession 40280, Organization Records Collection, Library of Virginia.
21Linda Farynk, “President’s Column,” Virginia Librarian 41.2 (1995): 2. Lucretia McCulley and Dan Ream, “From the Editors,” Virginia Librarian 41.2 (1995): 3.
22“Letters to the Editors,” Virginia Librarian 41.3 (1995): 2.
23Evan St. Lifer, “We ARE the Library! Support Staff Speak Out,” Library Journal 120.18 (1995): 30–35.
24Paraprofessional Conference reports in Virginia Libraries¸ 1997–2004.
25Mayo, “They Could,” 8.
26Lydia Williams, email message to author, 14 June 2005.
27Mary Fran Nash, “Honoring One of Our Own,” Virginia Libraries 49.2 (2003): 6–7.
28Paraprofessional Conference reports.
29Jean Tancredi, telephone conversation with author, 2 June 2005.
30Williams, email message.
31Lydia Williams, “VLA Paraprofessional Forum—2004 Conference,” Virginia Libraries 50.3 (2004): 17.
33Tom Hehman, “President’s Column: From Paraprofessionals to Gigabytes: Thoughts about a Few Things,” Virginia Libraries 44.2 (1998): 2.
35Linda Hahne, email message to author, 9 June 2005.
37“LJ to Honor Support Staffers,” Library Journal 124.20 (1999): 26.
39“Three More Dynamos,” Library Journal 130.4 (2005): 41.
40Ed Martinez, “Carolyn Tate: 2004 Support Staff of the Year,” Library Mosaics 15.3 (2004): 6. “In Recognition of Our Outstanding Finalists,” Library Mosaics 13.3 (2002): 10.
41“LJ Movers and Shakers 2003,” Library Journal 128.5 (2003): 49, 62.
42Williams, email message.
43Mayo, “Paraprofessionals,” 17.