February 17, 2018

Cathy Bennett | Movers & Shakers 2002

At the Intersection of Needs and Opportunities

Cultivating the talents of support staff in remote locations

Cathy Bennett was an administrative aide at a small college near the border of Ohio and West Virginia when the library director left, and the dean asked her to take over that work. This happened just as the University of South Carolina made its MLS program available by distance education. So while working as a library director, just as Netscape and the World Wide Web came along, Bennett was simultaneously learning the technology so she could become an official librarian.

She knew distance education worked. She also knew that library support staff in isolated rural areas wanted to improve their skills and learn to use the new technologies but couldn’t attend regular classes because of difficulties with schedules and transportation. So when library directors asked her if there wasn’t a way to offer courses for them, Bennett automatically thought about a distance education solution.

It was fraught with obstacles, both bureaucratic and technical. She had to figure out the requirements for degrees and transfer of credits, the LSTA grant process for funding, and the negotiating process that would convince various library groups to sponsor tuition grants. Then she had to line up librarians, nationwide, to do the teaching.

Her next challenge was figuring out how to deliver the courses and make sure students had the equipment, connections, and basic skills to take them–there weren’t any manuals telling people how to set this up (though there darn sure will be, because she’s going to write one). Fortunately, many of the support staff’s facilities had new Gates Foundation computers and connections by this time, so a number of students were able to work from their libraries.

Bennett built community into the program, even suggesting that students sign up with colleagues, because these geographically dispersed students needed people nearby who could help with both technical problems and course work. She got them using, and loving, online chat–these same women who would chase teenagers off library computers because they were chatting online.


Current position: Director of Learning Resources, Belmont Technical College, OH

Degree: MLS, University of South Carolina, 1995

The degree program teaches skills for basic IT, communication, and library support, but Bennett doesn’t want to stop there; her next project is a 2 + 2 + 2 program, also through distance education, so support staff can move from technical degree to bachelor’s to MLS if they wish. She thinks it will be a shame if our profession doesn’t cultivate the tremendous talent she sees among underpaid, underappreciated support staff.

Bennett also cofounded L.O.S.T. in Cyberspace (Librarians’ Online Support Team)  to offer geographically remote librarians a place to “meet online for instruction and discussion with the goal of professional development.”

Bennett became a librarian at the exact time when everything was falling into place: the need for professional development among support staff along with the technologies and funding opportunities that allow foresighted librarians and educators to make it possible. She’s made it happen in Ohio; the next step is to make it happen throughout the country. Wind her up and watch her go.