Tips for Making the Transition from Paraprofessional to Professional in Technical Services: Engaging with Tomorrow's Librarians
I'm preparing for a speaking engagement at the annual conference sponsored by the North Carolina Library Paraprofessional Association next month, in which I will offer observations, perspective and advice about making a career change from paraprofessional to professional library worker. My library experience has chiefly been in technical services, so I will focus on the differences between working as a paraprofessional and professional in library technical services, but I can also talk generally about the subtle or not-so-subtle differences between paraprofessional and professional roles in library work.
Most of us who work in libraries are paraprofessionals; paraprofessionals dominate positions in technical services and circulation, they often share responsibilities with professional library staff and may even manage discrete library units. Paraprofessionals are the staff who know how to do the actual work that keeps libraries open and running. Library paraprofessionals also often have less opportunity and support for professional development than professional librarians. Conferences such as the NCLPA's annual conference are a welcome exception.
I expect my audience is going to include a fair number of people who currently work in technical services. I'd like to poll them to find out (a) who already has a library master's degree or is in library school, (b) who's considering getting a master's degree in library science and (c) what other areas of library work people are in: public services, administration and administrative support or “wearing many hats,” for example.
I have written previously here and also several years ago in a book chapter about my personal transition from paraprofessional to professional, from a perspective of what I wish I'd known going into my first job as a librarian and also as a department head, after years of technical services experience. I spent a lot of those early years adjusting both to being a professional and a manager while trying to understand which differences in my work experience fit into each category. I will want to touch on those lessons learned—make lemonade out of lemons, don't burn bridges—but I think I have more to offer now, with a few more years' experience under my belt, than I did in the book chapter. I would also like to dispel the myth that a library degree is a “union card,” discuss the importance of balancing autonomy and responsibility in a job, offer a few interview and job-search tips and describe my most recent transition from working in a library to being a librarian.
When I was in my last paraprofessional job, a colleague encouraged me to go to library school for my “union card.” Having lived my entire adult life in ironically-dubbed “right to work” states, maybe my notion of what a union does is a little skewed. My assumptions were that a library degree would open doors to earn a high salary and enjoy excellent benefits and job security. What I didn't know, which has been at least as true, is that it's a license to work really, really hard, more than just the 40 weekly hours in the office, and be responsible for my own professional development and contributions to the profession, which require investing some of that higher salary back into my job. It means that there is more room to define my job, but I'd better be able to convince colleagues and administrators that I have defined my job correctly. I'd like to refer back to my earlier post, “Centrality as a Framework for Professional Success,” bouncing those ideas off a live audience and see if that notion is useful and stands up to scrutiny.
I'd like to offer some practical advice and encouragement about job-searching in a tough economy, in search of that first professional appointment. Having a library degree—particularly an ALA-accredited library degree—will provide opportunities to interview for jobs, but maximizing those opportunities involves a very targeted job search, tailoring cover letters and resumés to specific jobs rather than just printing several hundred copies and handing them out to prospective employers at a job fair. Some of the most encouraging advice I got about job searching was from my father, a retired professor, former department head and dean, who said, when you don't get a job, you can never know exactly why you weren't chosen: the politics, the discussions behind closed doors, the personalities in the decision will ultimately be opaque and inscrutable to you and do not entirely reflect your qualities as a candidate.
Finally, I'd like to facilitate a discussion about networking: what it is, why you have to do it (it makes your job easier) and how to make it fun, even if you're an introvert like me.
So, that's what I have so far and I have a few weeks to put some visuals together to go with the discussion, organize the topics into a framework that both allows me to convey my special knowledge and to let people at the presentation have a chance to steer the discussion toward their actual needs and questions. How does that sound?