Thursday, November 09, 2006

One Year Later

(Originally posted to NEXGENLIB on Google Groups)

Question: So if you have the option between a paraprofessional position in the library you would kill to work in, versus a professional position in a library you would like to work in, would it be better to choose the professional one even though it's not in the type of library you want?

I have wrestled with this very same question for the past year or so, so I hope you don't mind if I share my experience in trying to find an answer. I've been working as a library assistant since 1998 (and for three years before that as well, from 1992-1995, with a break in between jobs to go back to school in order to finish my BA), so when I finally took the plunge and went to library school I assumed that the first thing I'd do upon graduation would be to leave my current parapro gig and land an entry-level librarian position.

But no sooner did my final semester approach than a job opened up several grades above me in the department I was working in. Yes, in relative terms it represented one heck of a raise, an opportunity to get some management experience, and work with rare library materials and visiting scholars from all over the world -- and at what I consider to be one of my "dream libraries", no less -- but it was still a paraprofessional position. What to do?

On the one hand, I thought of the numerous reasons not to apply for the job: not only would I be working for less pay and with fewer responsibilities than a professional librarian, but I would be taking a perfectly good parapro position off the market for someone else, with no guarantee of making the transition from library assistant to librarian no matter how many years I clocked within the system. And darn it, didn't I deserve a professional job? Hadn't I just finished my MLS after years of thinking about it and several difficult semesters finally doing it?

But then I thought about the reasons *to* apply: while the pay and responsibilities were less than I had hoped for as an entry-level professional, I would be making a full-time salary that added up to more money than I'd ever brought home in my entire life (at the time I was working a half-time but benefitted position and making up the shortfall in pay by teaching adult ed and staying home with my daughter a couple days a week rather than pay extra for a full week of childcare), and for the first time in my career as a library employee would be directly responsible for managing a crew of roughly a dozen staff members, work-study students, and temps. And although it was true that I knew all too well that "getting a foot in the door" didn't count for nearly as much as it used to in academic libraries, it seemed silly to pass up an opportunity to stay just because it didn't give me the title I wanted.

The ethical dimension of the question was not so easily resolved, however. Wasn't I contributing to the watering-down of the profession by "settling" for a parapro job whose duties and responsibilities read very similarly to that of many of the entry-level librarian positions I was scoping out elsewhere in the region? Moreover, at the same time didn't my entrance into the applicant pool for non-professional library work unfairly raise the bar of qualification for other would-be parapro job seekers? And hadn't I *sworn* to myself many times before that I didn't want to contribute to either of these problems upon graduation and instead take the high road, however far that might take me from my ideal library in the short or medium (or possibly even long) term?

Did I mention that we really, really needed the money at the time, though?

To be fair, I think the ethics are more complicated than that. While libraries have indeed enjoyed a long period during which there has been a somewhat strict delineation between professional and non-professional positions, it wasn't always that way, and perhaps we should view the modern trend towards deprofessionalization as an inevitable correction in the always-fluid relationship between labor and management. We are by no means the only professionals for whom times are currently less than ideal, so perhaps the changing realities of the library are less a function of choices such as mine and more a reflection of the early 21st century American workplace -- more public service, more flexibility with one's job definition, more ambiguity overall.

So I took the job -- and promptly freaked out for the next few months. What had I done? How could I have so little faith in my own abilities? Was I dooming myself to a life or paraprofessional hell? And pity my poor wife, who got to feel both frustrated at my own turmoil and guilty that we as a family had put ourselves in a financial position whereby we had little choice but to take the proverbial bird in the hand rather than hope for the two in the bush! I told my boss that I was actively looking for work as an entry-level professional (I'm lucky that he understood my situation and didn't begrudge me one bit) and blanketed the Northeast Corridor with applications, even getting a callback or two along the way. Still, nothing materialized that made it worth my while to leave, so I just kept looking for jobs and feeling sorry for myself.

But as time went on, you know what? I started to realize that the job I currently had, while not professional in name, certainly had the potential to be a lot more than I had originally made it out to be. As I worked my way through an entire academic year, I began to feel more attuned to the rhythms of the library's workflow, and more specifically I started to appreciate what role I had played in not only making my department function not just smoothly but better than I had originally found it. I began to reflect on the faces I'd seen over the year, the research I had assisted, the problems I had solved, and the knowledge I had acquired along the way. And I realized only then that after almost twelve months of pining for my big chance to make myself as a librarian, I had already done exactly that, title or no title.

We'll see what happens next...

Kind of a long and rambling post, I know. But I guess the long story made short is: if the alternative to taking a parapro job is not working in a library at all, then you should by all means choose the option that will allow you to make money doing something that you are passionate about. Whatever the ethics of the situation, your education and skills will serve you well on the job, and perhaps open up opportunities in the workplace that may not have otherwise been available -- for example, I have recently given a couple of talks to various departments in my library about the Google Book Search service, as I had taken a course in library school which had focused on Google's digitization efforts and fashioned myself into something of a guru on the subject.

To make the short story even shorter: do it. Because life is too short not to be working in a library, in whatever capacity.

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