Grow Your Own Librarian

A Mississippi program turns paraprofessionals into degreed librarians

April 6, 2010

In 2004, in response to the difficulties of recruiting professionals to work in public libraries in the state, the Mississippi Library Commission (MLC) embarked on an innovative program to improve public library services and “grow their own” librarians. Their solution was to create an intensive Librarianship Institute that not only immerses participants in the principles and tools of public librarianship but may also motivate them to return to school for professional degrees.

Librarianship 101 Institutes, one of the skills-development programs that MLC partially funds with Library Services and Technology Act funds, are held annually in Jackson. The curriculum and the experience of attending the in-residence, four-day workshop are designed to develop the knowledge base of public library staff and motivate them to acquire skills for personal fulfillment and career enhancement. By every measure, the institutes are a rousing success: More applicants clamor to attend than there are spots available, with attendance limited to 30 paraprofessionals per institute.

The curriculum includes the history and philosophy of librarianship; governance and funding of public libraries; “the library picture” in Mississippi; collection development, including information access and intellectual freedom; cataloging; customer service; resource sharing and reference services; readers’ advisory services; library trends; and library 2.0.

MLC Executive Director Sharman Bridges Smith explains, “We felt it was really important to bring people together for a concentrated time period to focus on the core courses of librarianship.” She sees the institutes as “making an investment in the very talented paraprofessionals across the state doing professional library work.” In Mississippi, as in many other states, there are hundreds of small, rural public library branches, often staffed by one or two paraprofessionals.

Participants are selected through a process of nomination and application, with library directors recommending staff members. The recommendation addresses why the individual is an asset to public library service, what particular skills the individual has, and why the individual is a possible candidate for furthering a career in library science. Applicants write about the challenges and successes of their library employment and how participation will impact their contribution to their library and community.

To develop and manage the institutes, MLC contracted with Lyrasis (formerly Solinet), the regional library membership organization, for administrative and consulting support, including curriculum design, aid in the application and selection process, pre- and post-assessment testing, evaluation, report-writing, and other services.

Nettie Moore, from the M. R. Davis Public Library in Southaven, attended the first Librarianship 101 Institute, where she gained much practical information and emerged with a better sense of how to work within the library system. Moore also received valuable confirmation of what she already knew: “When I heard ‘reference interview’ I thought what are they talking about? And then I found out I had been doing it the whole time; I just didn’t know there was a term for it.”

Beyond the practical knowledge and philosophical grounding that participants gain is a more profound experience of connection to the library community. MLC Development Services Division Director Jennifer Walker explains, “Many of our participants come from very small towns, where they are the only one who does what they do, so it’s a really powerful experience to connect with others in similar libraries across the state.” In 2008, 85.7% of participants rated “the opportunity to meet, interact, and share ideas with peers” as one of the most valuable aspects of the institute, topping 76.2% for “learning specific librarianship skills.”

Smith has attended every day of every institute, and she says that what participants come to realize is that “what they do is part of a much larger set of circumstances that can really influence the future of their communities. That’s empowerment.” She tells attendees that her own attendance at the institutes is “like being plugged up to a charger” and that it is a “true reminder of why we do what we do.”

With each class of participants who return to their library, a ripple effect of change has accompanied them as they put their new knowledge and skills into practice. “Directors report a night-and-day change, with their staff returning to their libraries with entirely different attitudes,” said Smith. “They get involved, they start planning, they seek opportunities to improve service.”

The 26 directors surveyed after the 2008 Librarianship 101 Institute gave a unanimous “Yes” to the question, “Have you seen any change in the employee’s on-the-job performance since the institute?” Specific changes included: “helped form a Friends Group”; “confidence building”; “more comfortable with technology”; “reference skills improved”; “became better supervisor”; “tackled weeding project.” Attendees have accepted new responsibilities, sought growth opportunities by attending additional classes and workshops, and implemented their new knowledge of library processes and practices.

The bonding between participants does not stop after they return to their libraries. Every year at the Mississippi Library Association Annual Conference, alumni hold a working meeting where they network, share success stories, and continue their training in librarianship through presentations and workshops.

On a statewide level, the institutes have increased participation at conferences, meetings, and other activities, as well as facilitating more communication between the library commission and the state’s libraries. “It’s wonderful now when I visit a library and someone jumps up from behind the circulation desk to hug me, still talking about what a difference the institute made for them, six years later,” said Smith. She reports that participants ask more questions, share more of their needs and ideas, and generally are more comfortable communicating with MLC staff.

The institutes have a remarkable success rate in “growing their own”: Out of 150 library workers who have participated, MLC estimates that 15–18 have gone on to attend library school for their MLS/MLISes, and others are now working on their undergraduate degrees in preparation to attend library school. In 2008 survey results, over 38% of participants said that attendance inspired them to enroll in a class to pursue a degree. “The number of people who decided to go back and get their master’s degrees is much greater than we ever anticipated,” noted Smith.

After attending the institute, Corey Vinson, a library assistant at Lafayette County and Oxford Public Library, received an MLIS degree from the University of Southern Mississippi in December 2009. Vinson called his experience at the institute “very inspiring.” He appreciated the practical information he learned there, but also came away with a “stronger feeling about what an important service it is that we provide in libraries and what a positive thing it is to be a part of,” with his experience helping him decide to make a career as a librarian.

An intensive follow-up

Almost immediately after the first Librarianship 101 Institute ended, participants asked MLC to develop a follow-up workshop. In 2007, MLC’s Walker wrote a successful grant proposal to the Institute of Museum and Library Services for Librarianship 201 Institutes, resulting in an award of a $100,000 Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program Grant, which will fund Librarianship 201 Institutes for three years, through 2011. The first Librarianship 201 Institute was held in February 2009 in Jackson, and the second in February 2010.

Librarianship 201 is an intensive five-day workshop that covers fewer topics than 101, but focuses more deeply on selected core concepts and best practices. Topics include building relationships with community groups, understanding one’s role in the library, and programming for adults. In addition to seminar-style learning, attendees participate in lab activities designed to put theoretical concepts into practice. Nationally renowned speakers present on library topics during the institute. Eligible participants include alumni of Librarianship 101 Institutes, mid-level public library staff, and newly degreed MLS/MLIS librarians.

Nettie Moore, a participant in both Librarianship 101 and the first Librarianship 201 Institute, said the follow-up gave her “strength and confidence to step out and do things I really didn’t realize I was capable of doing.” She said that Librarianship 101 was “where I learned about tools and terminology” and Librarianship 201 taught her “different ethics, different ways to work with people, and how to improve myself to be a better library employee.”

Lynn Shurden, a library consultant for MLC and one of the creators of the original Librarianship 101 Institute, saw firsthand the difference that the institutes have made: “One of the things that worked really well was participants coming back and leading staff training for other staff members on what they learned, a train-the-trainer approach.” Shurden has observed that participation “has made a lot of difference on a local level.” Currently director of the Bolivar County Library System in Cleveland, she recognizes the excitement of learning in her staff who participated. “When you see eyes light up and you see people realizing that they can do more and are happy to do more, it’s very rewarding.”

Reflecting on the improvement in the quality of public library service created by the Librarianship Institutes, Smith said, “For me, this program is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. The institutes are making a difference.”

KATHY ANDERSON is a writer and editor for Lyrasis.