From Para-Professional to Director: A Librarian’s Tale

By A.D. Beman-Cavallaro, MLS

Over my academic and professional career, I attended Florida State University, (attaining my B.S. in Geography in ‘05) and University of South Florida, (to receive my MLS in ‘08). My time at USF, (as a Master’s Student: ’05-’08 and para-professional Library Employee: ’05-’10), prepared me for a position of Reference/Instruction Librarian at the Bartow Public Library in Polk County, FL, (’10-’12). I then returned to the academic world as Associate Library Director for Pasco-Hernando Community College’s (PHCC) Spring Hill Campus, (’12-present). The variations in roles and differences in assigned duties amongst the positions I have held have given a broad perspective on access, instruction and engagement. One element has remained constant however: the desire to provide unbiased access of information to a population.

As a new graduate student in MLS I wanted to gain library experience as soon as possible. My school offered Graduate assistantships, but I chose not to become a GA. Graduate assistants were at the mercy of the Library Science department; some GAs were placed in the library, others were assigned to a Library Science professor. In both cases, GAs worked 20 hours/week outside of their classes. The immediate advantage was the tuition waiver; tuition would be waived so long as the GA took one class per semester.

Several factors influenced my decision not to become a GA. First, I wanted to be able to take credit for getting my own employment. Second, I felt overwhelmed after taking my first full-time graduate semester; after my first semester, I usually only took one class per semester. Third, I did not want to risk being paired with a Professor; if I was paired with a professor, I would not be able to work in a library. Fourth, when GAs graduate they lose their jobs with the University and frequently remain unemployed for a time. Fifth, there is no chance for full-time employment or insurance while being a GA. None of these options sounded appealing to me so I simply stayed away from them.

I applied for a position in my school’s library as a part-time Student Assistant in the Government Documents section. I hoped my B.S. in Geography would give me an advantage over other applicants. When the position went to another individual, one with more library experience, I realized that experience is necessary before applying to even your first paid job in the profession. I then decided to volunteer.

Hoping that no one would turn down free work, I tried to find the appropriate person to set up an interview. I hoped to work in Reference, but I accepted that I would start wherever I was able. Thinking that the top-down method would work best, I contacted the heads of the Reference and Media Resources (MR) departments and established interview times for a volunteer position with each. The MR interview occurred one day, and the Reference interview the next. At the end of the MR interview I was surprised when the department head simply went to get the paperwork for me to sign to begin working. I then canceled my interview with the Reference department, though I didn’t know then that I would one day volunteer for that department years later. 

Within MR (the collection of all non-book/non-periodical items in the library), my volunteer duties included small stints at the service desk and circulation of materials, but primarily the completion of long-overdue projects. For weeks I searched through projection slides to find damaged items (little did I know the entire slide collection would be thrown out a few years later). After three months of volunteering, a part-time supervisor position became available once the Library Science school stopped sending Graduate Assistants to the MR department. The department needed someone to work nights and weekends. My big break! I was hired. I supervised Student Assistants, ran the routine tasks of the face-to-face Patron interactions of the department and experienced the oddest hours and days off my new career could offer. I was with MR when the entire collection transferred floors from the 6th to 1st, thus sharing a mutual desk space with the Library’s Circulation Department. This big move opened the door for my first full-time position with the University.

Soon after the move, a Circulation Department employee left, creating a vacancy for a Library Assistant on the front desk. I applied. Now armed with library experience, over a year in the Library Science Program and even supervisory knowledge, I was hired. My new position offered a pay raise, insurance and a tuition waver for 6 credit hours per semester. The last rendered the remainder of my Master’s degree gratis! 

My time in Circulation was relatively brief, lasting only a year. During this year I gained the bulk of my patron service skills. The sheer volume of students needing assistance, especially during the final weeks of a semester, was quite huge and often involved handling a large number of impatient and irate individuals in need of books they did not know how to locate and laptops or study rooms which always seemed to be in use. The experience overall however allowed me to gain confidence in handling stressful situations.

After my job in Circulation I was hired as an Assistant Stacks Supervisor, a position in which I become co-responsible for the checking-in, sorting, shelving and locating of all print material within the Library. I managed the veritable army of part-time Student Assistants, and I was also responsible for hiring, training, scheduling, project management, quality assurance and Patron assistance. Learning quickly became very important; whereas my previous position in MR allowed me to supervise two or three individuals, I was now responsible for dozens of employees. It was at this point that I learned one of the most important, unbreakable rules of supervisory work: make sure the people whose timesheets you handle always get paid on time! I remained in the position for two years. While holding this position I also volunteered at the Reference desk during lunch hours, and eventually had Reference work incorporated into my paid daily tasks.

These years working at the USF Tampa Library, combined with my freshly printed MLS, gave me the experience necessary to attain my first professional position.

I became the Reference/Instruction Librarian at the Bartow Public Library in June of ’10. The shift from large University to small town Public Library was indeed a big change. Rather than considering myself an individual who merely granted access to those who came searching for academic knowledge, I became an active educator responsible for teaching those who had no technological background how to access and utilize different forms of information, from the recreational to the life-critical. Instead of searching for answers to Ph.D. questions, I was now teaching basic computer classes; navigating unemployment benefits pages; searching government resources so convoluted it seemed as though they were intentionally designed to be nearly impossible for the average person to find; helping divorcees find their online paperwork; assisting single laid-off Moms find food stamps so their children could eat; getting disabled Vets in touch with places to live; teaching released convicts how to create resumes; and searching for the latest Debbie Macomber novel for the retired lady from the age-restricted community across the street. I came to view the library Library as a service, not merely a place; as an outreach organization to the community, not a stationary set of employees; as a hub of radical positive change, not a stereotyped outdated institution; and as an overall place of instruction in person in groups, in one-on-one tutorials and online through modern mobile technology. These views have become ingrained, and will stick with me for the rest of my life.

For two-and-a-half years this mission was my existence and it has changed very little even though in September of ’12 I applied for and in December accepted the position of Associate Library Director of PHCC’s Spring Hill Campus which I began in January of ’13. Though the position is new for me, the drive which I share everyday with my Staff and Patrons is not, and I am certain that the work I continue with my (once again!) academic colleagues will be as satisfying as that which I have been fortunate enough to be involved with in the past. Fortunately my staff is small and excellent in their work ethic and quality allowing us the ability to collaborate with others to form an environment for access, instruction, engagement, information literacy and support. My own personal hope is that the people with whom I work on a constant basis can themselves be as fortunate as I.