The Difference is YOU! Honoring Support Staff

By Kimberly Brown-Harden

Every year, support staff get excited about a conference geared especially for them, called “The Difference is you!” Hosted annually by the Indiana State library, this conference is an opportunity for support staff to hone current skills or to gain new ones. The Cambridge Dictionary defines support staff as: “the people who work for an organization to keep it running and to support the people who are involved in the organization’s main business.”  Library support staff work in tandem with librarians and administrators, playing a key role in making library services more efficient and welcoming to the community. Often, they are the ‘face’ of the library. These are your pages, library assistants, clerks, bookkeepers, secretaries, etc. They are often working in the background, unseen, making the ‘magic’ happen. Professional development opportunities are somewhat limited or unavailable for a variety of reasons:  funding, lack of time and resources; or professional development opportunities aren’t pursued because there’s very little that apply to their positions or skill requirements.

The first Difference is You Conference was held September 2015. It was in partnership with the Indianapolis Public Library and it was an overwhelming success!  The Difference is You conference provided a day of learning, networking, honing or learning new skills, and listening to inspiring keynotes. Some staff reported that they came away from the conference excited and energized—ready to apply new skills or tools to their jobs!  Many staff members asked if there would be another conference-and there was!

What does it take to plan a conference such as this? A lot of time, energy, commitment and thoughtfulness are involved. It is a challenge to prepare and plan a conference that appeals to a variety of interests, personalities, and positions within libraries.  When the planning committee meets, we talk about a ‘theme’ for the day. The general title/theme is The Difference is You, but we like to add a ‘tag’ such as ‘You make the Difference;’ ‘Staff Transform Libraries;’ and ‘Be Inspired!’  Themes are helpful when we look for keynote speakers and potential presenters. It also helps when we promote the conference to get attendees excited about attending!  We also think about the time of year. For the first year we had the conference in the fall, only to be told that we miss out on media specialists in school libraries. We changed it to the summer, which fit with the media specialists’ schedules, but we ran into the conflict of summer reading programs.  For 2019, we decided it would go back to the fall since the majority of our attendees come from public and special libraries.

One of the most import things to consider in planning an event for support staff is the content.  We look for subjects/sessions that are needed and also timely. For example, we had a session on ‘Bystander Intervention’, which talked about how to diffuse hostile situations in the library.  It was very well received and has been presented several times throughout the state. We put a ‘call for proposals’ out early in the year and reviewed topics for quality, timeliness, potential interest, and most importantly, the potential for support staff to gain new skills. In addition, we wanted to provide support staff with an opportunity to present sessions so that they could develop public speaking skills (or sharpen them).  Typically, we have 12-15 concurrent sessions, with at least one technology-related session at each time slot. The goal of the committee in selecting speakers and sessions is to ensure that each session can be used in individual libraries as an in-person, one-hour training or webinar.

The most critical issue to consider when planning a support staff conference is the budget.  How much of a budget do you have? Can you afford to pay for a keynote speaker? Do you decide to charge attendees to offset costs?  We have a small budget and have to charge attendees a small fee to attend. The conference fee is minimal compared to similar conferences and it does include lunch.   

Another issue to consider is where to host the event. In making a decision about location, you need to think about ease of getting to the site; cost (if any), parking availability, size, etc.  This can be very tricky in planning. For example, when we hosted the conference at our library this year, parking was a concern. We are a state agency, which means we share our parking with approximately 18,000 state employees and contractors!  An additional issue is technology: will you provide laptops and projectors for your presenters? Do you have enough? If you are providing technology, is it compatible with your presenters’ presentations? When we plan our conference, we do ask that presenters send in their PowerPoint, Google Slides, handouts (if using) etc., in advance.  We post the slides and handouts on the website, so attendees can download them and also get more information about the sessions to plan their day. Finally, will you serve food? Will it be breakfast and lunch? Lunch only? Breakfast only? Buffet or boxed lunches? If you do serve food, how do you handle those with food allergies? Vegetarians?  Vegans? Sometimes, dealing with a lunch and breakfast menu can be just as stressful as planning the conference itself!

In 2016 we created the ‘Difference is You’ Award as part of the conference.  The theme of the conference and the award was ‘Your Service Matters.’  It was truly inspiring to read all the nomination forms that came in from all over the state describing the various ways staff served their communities.  It was deeply rewarding to have the winner celebrated and acknowledged in front of all their peers. Every year, we try to change and grow this conference, but the commitment to honor and celebrate our support staff remains the same.  Remember, no matter what you do in your library, the difference is YOU!

Resources for Professional Development for Support Staff

Kimberly Brown-Harden is the Northwest Regional Coordinator for the Indiana State Library/Professional Development Office in Indianapolis, Indiana.