Restructuring Public Libraries
posted January 16, 2013 9:32 AM by Julie Steenson
I like my blogs to be fun but informative, which usually means avoiding politics. Unfortunately, there is a political situation taking place across the nation that just might influence your decision to go to library school.
I live in rural NH, and more often than not, rural libraries are staffed only by paraprofessionals. Librarians with Master’s degree are not the norm, but that is changing, for good and bad.
Why a change is good?
In the year I have been at GSLIS, I have learned there is a lot more to being a librarian than one might think when one checks out a book. Along with a ton of technology skills, there are many things that just make good practice and good library management. In my experience, paraprofessionals are smart people who use a lot of common sense, but their decisions may or may not be informed by library theory or tried and true methods.
Why a change is bad?
Recently, in St. Johnsbury, VT, the board of trustees fired the entire Athenaeum library staff in a restructuring effort. At the recent Hug the Athenaeum rally led by Rural Librarians Unite, the public supported the recently fired library staff of this iconic library, under the banner, “The People Make the Library.” The trustees, in focusing on modern skills, forgot the people part. Paraprofessionals who have been part of the community where they work know more about the population served than someone from the outside with a degree. While their decisions are not informed by the latest in library trends, they come from the heart of the community. Local library paraprofessionals offer something to library service that cannot be learned in school.
So what does this mean to me?
Conway, NH had a similar event last year when the trustees and director decided to restructure, fire the employees, and invite them to re-apply for their jobs, for which they were now considered under qualified. (The public protests led to a generous severance package for the director and the re-hiring of all the staff.) What is happening here is that the trustees, in wanting to bring their libraries into the future, are forgetting their libraries’ past. While valuing the incredible worth of a Master’s degree, they are failing to value the incredible worth of years of experience in a community. When a paraprofessional children’s librarian of 17 years loses her job, she has nowhere to go, because most new positions require Master’s degrees. This hurts everyone.
I propose a union. If you work in a library and think, why should I get a degree when I already have a good job in a library, think again. Times are changing and real library jobs beyond circulation duties at minimum wage will require a degree. The abrupt and harsh treatment by trustees in places like St. Johnsbury, VT and Conway, NH has rallied communities into supporting their library staff and that also sends a clear message to all of us, as future degree holders. A skilled manager, with a degree in library and information science can bring the latest in the field to a community, while respecting, and in fact, cherishing what the present library staff brings to the table. Yes, people get set in their ways and change can be hard, but in my experience, librarians care and if treated with respect for their years of experience, the nation’s paraprofessional librarians will embrace new ideas and new technologies and actually be the bridge that connects the new, modern library and the degreed professionals with the community.