February 16, 2018

Paraprofessional of the Year 2004: Linda S. Porter

Burlington County Library System, Mt. Holly, NJ

By John N. Berry III — Library Journal, 03/01/2004

“Linda Porter opened the doors here,” says Gail Sweet, director of the Burlington County Library System (BCLS) in Mt. Holly, NJ. ” ‘Whether or not you have a library degree,’ Linda said, ‘get out there and go to the workshops and bring the information back. You’ll find that it makes you more effective, and makes your job more interesting.’ This has really made us a lot more efficient.”

Porter’s activism as a member of the New Jersey Association of Library Assistants (NJALA) truly enriched her work at BCLS. It proved the validity of Sweet’s assertion that “we encourage people to have careers rather than jobs.” That’s the way Porter sees her work as head of acquisitions at BCLS and her activism as a library assistant. That combination of effective hard work in the library and active participation in librarianship has won Linda S. Porter LJ‘s 2004 Paraprofessional of the Year Award. The award is sponsored this year by Brodart Library Supplies & Furnishings, the Brodart division in McElhattan, PA.

To take her first library job, Porter gave up better paying work, first picking orders from the shelves of an office supplies warehouse, then testing computer keyboards at the end of an assembly line. What she calls her “career” began at BCLS in 1984. The job paid $7500. She was mired in an “early midlife crisis” and wanted change. Alerted to the job opening by a friend, she pursued it for the most traditional reasons: “I took it because I love to read. Besides, I felt that all I had done was take care of kids.”

Doing it all

Porter did everything from circulation to reference in that first junior library assistant position at one of the seven BCLS branches. Now a supervising library assistant, Porter quips, “That’s as far as I can go, the top rank of the assistants. To go further I’d have to get the MLS degree. I’d have to start from scratch, and I just don’t have the time now.”

Porter had to take civil service tests to be promoted to senior, principal, and supervising library assistant. There was no way to prepare for the tests of general knowledge, and they have been abandoned since. “They were very arcane, covering things like grammar and spelling,” Porter says. Now people get promoted on the basis of their experience as reflected on their résumés, but Porter worries that experience may get inflated.

About 16 years ago Porter started as the only person in acquisitions at BCLS. Now the department handles some 65,000 books and irregular serials for the system. Two library assistants help with the load. BCLS has migrated from its original Dynix system to the firm’s Horizon product, and acquisitions is accomplished through the system. Porter ensures that the review sources are routed to the collection development teams of librarians and some library assistants, who mark them up. Acquisitions extracts the orders from the marked review sources and places them with book distributors.

The tension

Both Porter and Sweet strive to connect librarians with the MLS degree and the library assistants who don’t have that credential. But they both recognize that tension remains. “Many of the librarians are open to working closely with paraprofessionals,” Porter says, adding, “Gail is a strong supporter of the lower ranks. She believes that you should work at whatever you do best.”

Sweet puts a slightly different emphasis on the idea: “I’ve come to believe that the person who can do the job best, should have that job…. Unfortunately, sometimes there is a divide between the professional staff and the paraprofessional staff. That is a library reality.”

Sweet asserts that Porter has raised the awareness of the need to work together. “We can’t operate without our paraprofessionals; indeed, they are professionals,” Sweet adds. “We are also finding that many of the jobs here are in a gray area. They are not exclusively jobs for librarians or assistants. We have people who have not been to library school who are manning reference desks, especially in the children’s room. It is a team effort.”

At BCLS, both librarians and library assistants belong to the same union. Regina Reay, a branch manager at BCLS, has no MLS. When she was chosen to head that branch, some librarians filed a union grievance. “[Reay] is a very good administrator,” says Sweet, who was assistant director at the time, responsible for personnel. The matter has since been resolved.

Motivated by the wall

“I am very close to this issue of librarians and assistants,” Sweet says. BCLS has a total staff of 219, of which 90 are librarians. Sweet is quick to point out that she supports the MLS and values it. “We encourage people to go for the degree and provide tuition reimbursement if they enter an LIS program. Currently, we have six staff members who are working on their MLS,” she says.

Porter understands why some librarians are unhappy with the role of library assistants. “The tension is not personal,” she says. “They put a lot of time and money into their degrees. The trouble is that on-the-job knowledge and training and experience are just not considered to be worth much by some.”

“We used to call it a wall. It is better now, but that wall was what motivated me,” Porter continues. “I wanted to try to do something to bring us closer to the librarians. Library assistants became my cause. I wanted to work to help them get recognition for the important part of the library that they are. After all, we are all in a field where nobody is that well paid.”

Organizing the troops

Porter got involved with NJALA in 1994 and is just finishing her second term as president. She credits Sister Anita Talar, head of reference services in the library at Seton Hall University, for helping NJALA get started and supporting it. Porter has been a member of the NJALA Executive Board since 1998. “Librarians accept us and our organization much more now than they did at the beginning. The field has changed. We’re welcome and included in the New Jersey Library Association. It is much easier than it was for assistants to get permission to attend our meetings, although resistance to that fluctuates.”

Until Norma Blake, Sweet’s predecessor, became director at BCLS (she’s now New Jersey State Librarian) library assistants were not allowed to take time off to go to conferences. “Norma gave me my wings,” Porter says. Lynn Crawford, BCLS head of technical services and to whom Porter reports, is also very encouraging. Porter attends the conferences of the American Library Association (ALA) and was a delegate to ALA’s Third Congress on Professional Education (COPE III). She was delighted with the recommendations that emerged. She has been active in ALA’s Library Support Staff Interests Round Table (LSSIRT) and has participated in support staff conferences in other states. “You can change peoples minds when you get them to participate,” Porter says.

A proud career

“College was never in the cards for me,” Porter admits. The oldest female, Porter was the third child in a family of four boys and four girls. She met her husband in high school, eloped to marry him at age 18, 35 years ago, and pinned his wings on when he graduated from Army flight school before going to fly gunships in Vietnam. They now ride their Harleys together and have two sons in their thirties.

Asked if she is frustrated at still being a library assistant, Porter says, “It doesn’t frustrate me. I’ll be honest, I never wanted to be a librarian. I believe my work is a career and I am quite happy with it. I love my job. I love the work I do. It is not just a job—this is my career. I’d like to make more money, but I know the importance of my contribution to the whole organization.”

Porter was among the paraprofessionals who petitioned LJ to set up the award. “I think it was a major milestone when we got you to give the award. I’m pleased as punch to get it,” says Porter, quickly adding, “I think Regina Reay [who nominated Porter for LJ‘s award] deserves it as much as I do.”

“Linda Porter is doing a lot of good for library staff members,” says Sweet. “She has broadened everybody’s horizons here.”

Author Information
John N. Berry III is Editor-in-Chief, LJ


Award Support

Library Journal thanks Brodart Library Supplies & Furnishings, McElhattan, PA, for underwriting the $1500 award to the Paraprofessional of the Year and a reception at the American Librarian Association conference for the winner.

Four More Makin’ Waves

These four candidates stood out from a dynamic group of nominees for LJ‘s Paraprofessional of the Year Award. The editors are pleased to bring them to your attention.

Deborah Blackwell has earned the respect of her peers, who named her Ocean County Library’s Support Person of the Year in 2003 for “going above and beyond the call of duty” in her work as Supervising Library Assistant at the Brick Branch in Toms River, NJ. As cochair of the Diversity Committee and a creator of the inaugural communication plan, she’s focused on connecting everyone at her library. She is also active in the state’s Association of Library Assistants.

Leslie Monsalve-Jones doesn’t let her part-time status limit full-time involvement. As State Documents Assistant at New Mexico State Library in Santa Fe, she excels at her work and has repeatedly put marginalized members of the profession on the map. She helped reestablish the state’s REFORMA chapter and organized and chaired last year’s Special Interest Group for Library Support meeting at the New Mexico Library Association’s Mini-Conference.

Claudia Race is sought out for her reference skills at Aurora Public Library, IL. As Support Services Manager she’s reinforced this commitment to good information by writing an effective training manual and launching a newsletter for pages, 16 of whom she supervises in addition to six computer assistants. Her mentorship extends beyond daily tasks, however. She has facilitated career steps for pages within the library, helping create new positions such as clerical aide and computer assistant.

Joanne Ross makes positive change happen, which is perhaps why the paraprofressional advocacy group she founded via the Nevada State Library is called Action. Within the Las Vegas–Clark County Library District, where she supervises a branch’s computer center, she has served in the Staff Association and developed a staff training program for a new online computer reservation system.