by Norman Oder — Library Journal, 03/01/2002
Cynthia Ahrens’s title at the Hennepin County Library (HCL), Minnetonka, MN, is Administrative Assistant to the Director, but, as her nominating letter suggests, “she assumes roles far beyond her job description.” Indeed, Ahrens is a force both within the library and within the larger state library advocacy world.
Her “multiple contributions to library-related activities, her work as a staff mentor, as a leader in Minnesota library legislative activities for library service and support, and her activities in promoting paraprofessional staff participation in the Minnesota Library Association (MLA)” all reflect her dedication. So say her current and former bosses, Charles Brown and Robert Rohlf; a past chair of the HCL board, Milton Goldstein; and a past president of the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies, William Asp.
With nearly three decades of service, Ahrens surely could coast toward retirement. In the past few years, though, she’s increased her participation at the library and beyond. The main issue for paraprofessionals, she says, is respect. She aims “to make sure that directors and managers know they need to respect support staff, and that support staff understand that they deserve it.” This staunch sense of mission made her the choice for Library Journal Paraprofessional of the Year 2002.
Over her career, Ahrens has been encouraged to attend library school, especially since she could get college credit for past school and work experience. “I’ve always just backed off; life got too busy,” she says.
Also, she notes, “Because my salaries were increasing, I didn’t know if it would be worth it for the monetary reward. I feel quite rewarded—in pay and psychically—in what I’ve been doing. I’m respected by my colleagues here at HCL. And it’s so nice to be sitting at the table of the [MLA] legislative committee, with these system directors and state program coordinators and to realize that my voice carries as much or more weight than anyone else at that table.
“I think and hope that they realize that the library degree is not the do-all and end-all as far as participation and contribution that people can bring.”
Ahrens has a long history of working in libraries, including a work-study program in high school and part-time work in the library at St. Cloud State College in Minnesota, which she attended for three years. She was majoring in elementary education and minoring in library science but decided that she didn’t want to stay with education as her major. She moved to Minneapolis and, in May 1969, got a job as an HCL clerk/typist.
“You start this job and think you’ll work here a while,” reflects Ahrens. “And the job has just grown into this career. I’ve been able to grow with the job and with the county.”
After about five years, Ahrens became a library assistant in collection development. She made the first pass through review literature and recommended titles to the selectors. She also supervised staffers processing materials.
Then, in 1979, she began a six-year stint as secretary to the system’s associate director. “What discouraged me was that, for promotion, I had to go back to the secretarial field,” notes Ahrens. Her supervisor had encouraged her to go to library school. “I thought I couldn’t afford it at the time.”
Ahrens was promoted in 1986 to secretary to the library’s deputy director and supervised a secretarial work unit. In that job, as before, she showed her capacity to lead and mentor fellow employees, helping them to expand their horizons and be aware of training opportunities.
For Ahrens, the real catalyst for change came when she left the library system in 1988—there was no opportunity for promotion at HCL—for a four-and-a-half-year stint as administrative secretary in the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office. “I was interested in how the [political] process worked. When I found myself in the throes of it, I realized that the only way to make change was to get involved in it myself.”
So Ahrens joined in her State Senate District Central Committee and the state Central Committee for the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and volunteered on several local and statewide campaigns.
After she returned to the library system in 1992 as Rohlf’s administrative secretary, Ahrens rejoined the MLA. The paraprofessional subgroup had been promoted from a round table to a section, and she became involved with new intensity.
In 1999, she became the vice chair of the MLA Legislative Committee and was chair in 2000—one of very few nonlibrarians to serve in that post. She ran the monthly meetings, helped develop a platform, held steering committee meetings, and wrote a weekly article for the organization’s electronic mailing list.
While the committee was not successful in getting a statewide public library construction grant program off the ground, it did convince legislators to exclude state agency libraries from paying sales tax on materials purchased and to give school media centers greater attention.
“I’m currently the only staff member from HCL active in state legislative activity,” she says. “I bring back information and try to share it with my colleagues.”
Last year, Ahrens served as state coordinator for MLA’s contingent at the American Library Association Legislative Day in Washington—and she’ll do it again this year. The Minnesota contingent doubled its attendance, and Ahrens made sure the Congressional staffers they met remembered them. “I wrote little notes on the letters we sent them,” Ahrens says. “I learned from my time in the county attorney’s office that those handwritten notes work.”
In recognition of her role, Ahrens won the MLA President’s Award in 2001. “She’s one of those optimistic, warm people who could do anything,” says former MLA president Carol Johnson. “She’s organized, efficient, and just a wonderful personality.”
Ahrens currently chairs MLA’s SSPIN (Support Staff and Paraprofessional Interests) section. Last year, as vice chair, she scheduled eight programs at the MLA state conference. Among the topics: collaborative working atmosphere, diversity, and safety in the library. “I tried to make it so support staff would come and also pull in library directors.”
This year, as chair, Ahrens is trying to boost membership. Already the SSPIN web site has been linked directly from the MLA web site.
She advises other paraprofessionals, “Take advantage of every opportunity you have for educational experiences and attend conferences. You need to make that move, to initiate your self-awareness program. Become active in outside activities in your community, your church, your school. Every opportunity like that is a building block in your development.” Ahrens has also served as local Ladies Auxiliary President of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and has headed her local Toastmasters Club.
Indeed, she notes, “The skills you learn in committee work carry over to all your other work.” A self-described “listmaker,” Ahrens says her job as Brown’s assistant is “to make everything appear seamless.” She manages his calendar, alerts him to staff sentiment, serves as a liaison between the library and the county, and is often the first contact with library users calling about nonreference issues.
One of Ahrens’s roles in her current jobs is clerk to the HCL board, recording the meetings, preparing board members’ packets, and drafting agendas. In two years, Ahrens, 53, plans to retire with her husband to a “dream home” in a small community. “I hope to run for library board,” she says. “The community we’re moving to is trying to build a new facility, and I’d like to help them.”
|Norman Oder is Senior Editor, LJ|