February 17, 2018

Elisa Topper | Movers & Shakers 2003

An Unabashed Librarian


It offends Elisa Topper to the soul that the image of librarians continues to be “books and boring,” in the words of two schoolgirls she once overheard. She holds librarians partly responsible: she thinks we are too humble about our professional abilities. “We should be singing the song of librarianship wherever we go,” she says. “We’re part of an exciting profession.” And it’s that attitude she wants to pass on to everyone in the profession.

Topper did not originally intend to be a librarian, though it was inevitable that she would be living the life of the mind in some way. She had taken to heart the lesson her parents took from surviving the Holocaust: everything else can be taken away from you but not what’s inside your mind. When not working at her family’s grocery store in her teen years, she worked as a library page, and throughout her college years it was always easy for her to find work in a library. When she realized that this might not be an accident but destiny dropping a big hint, she went on to get her MLS.

After a stint as a business librarian, Topper became involved in recruitment and training issues, as director of personnel and training at the Chicago Public Library (CPL), director of member services for the Association of College and Research Libraries, director of information services at the Jewish Vocational Center in Chicago, and now head of recruitment at Dominican’s GSLIS.

With the graying of our profession, recruitment of new librarians has become a critical issue, but Topper knows a secret she is willing to share: the best prospects can be easily found already at work in our libraries as paraprofessionals. In frequent presentations at library conferences, she tells librarians to provide money and time off so that paraprofessionals can take classes toward their degrees. One model program she’s involved with is the partnership between the Alliance Library System in Pekin, IL, and Dominican’s GSLIS to allow a cohort of paraprofessionals to obtain their MLIS in two years. She also speaks every year at the Illinois Library Technical Assistants conference to urge them to consider becoming librarians.

It is also critically important, she believes, to encourage minorities to enter the profession. To this end, she has worked with both the Chicago Public Schools and CPL on diversity recruitment and staff development.

Another issue that concerns Topper is keeping the librarians we already have. She wants librarians to take advantage of the opportunity to refresh and reenergize themselves by attending conferences and participating in the committee work of professional associations. In so doing, they will also meet interesting people and become known in the profession, building networks that will help them advance in their careers. As a further effort toward retention, Topper is now writing a column for American Libraries
called “Working Knowledge,” in which she offers advice on practical career issues.

The profession is changing with new technologies. While some librarians find it threatening, Topper relishes the challenges and opportunities. “Having been in this profession for over 26 years,” she says, “I am more excited than I was when I first started.”

Even now, when she’s putting in overtime on her day job, preparing the next presentation, whipping up a column, answering the questions of this writer, and squeezing in a healthy family life, her motto is still, “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.”




Current Position: Assistant Dean for Recruitment, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Dominican University, River Forest, IL

Degrees: MLS, Florida State University, 1975; MA, Industrial Relations/Career Development, Loyola University of Chicago, 1985