ASSOCIATES (vol. 4, no. 1, July 1997) -

Table of Contents

                 *NEW HORIZONS - NEW CHALLENGES*
                        Keynote Address
                 19th Annual NYSLAA Conference
                          June 13, 1997
                     Presented by Ed Gillen
              Office of Human Resources Management 
              New York State Education Department 

They say you can't go home again but these last three days have
felt like a homecoming to me and it feels great!  I have attended
many library assistant conferences around the country and
NYSLAA's conference ranks among the best, if not, the best.
Although it feels great being here I feel a little weird being up
here addressing this conference.  I confess I'm a little nervous.
Not about public speaking - I've given plenty of speeches before
and although I am superstitious, it's not because today is Friday
the 13th.  I'm nervous because of that old adage about a prophet
in his own land.  Too many of you know me all too well -- I feel
like I have to be at my very best today.  So as I prepared for
today I tried to recall what worked and didn't work for past
NYSLAA keynoters.  One thing that used to raise the hair on the
back of my neck was keynoters who began their address by
incorrectly calling us librarians.  I guess I had gotten use to
the public calling us librarians but not keynoters at a 'library
assistants' conference.  At least I won't make that mistake.
In preparing for today, I also asked myself 'if I was sitting out
there, what would I be thinking about, what would I want to
hear?' If I recall correctly, on this last day you are probably
thinking about going home or maybe how much work is waiting for
you on Monday.  If you're like me, however, you're wondering if
there's any more dessert?
I am honored to be here and I'd like to thank NYSLAA and
especially the library assistants of the South Central Research
Library Council for inviting me to address our conference (I'm
still a member) with the theme 'Library Assistants: Hand-in-Hand
Reaching New Horizons.'
New horizons!  When I think about horizons I think of something
off in the distance, something I can see.  If I can see it, I
know I can reach it somehow.  When I think about horizons I also
think of the futuristic unknown as in 'what's over the horizon?'
There's an excitement about not knowing what's over that horizon
and what challenges that future might bring.  As we approach the
year 2000, it seems everyone is speculating what the next
millennium will be like.  Sometimes we are so focused on looking
forward that we don't stop to celebrate the fact that horizons
have been reached or to reflect on the paths we took to reach
those horizons.  You might be thinking about getting home right
now or wondering how much work has piled up while you were away
but how many of you are thinking, 'wow, the 19th annual NYSLAA
conference, how did we get to this point?'
I would like to use this opportunity to look back and see how far
library assistants have travelled; to examine what worked or what
hasn't in trying to reach those horizons; and finally building on
that -- library assistants reaching for new horizons and the key
to reaching those horizons - working together.
Looking back.  Why should we take a look back?  The history of
the emergence of the library assistant is a proud one.  Knowing
that history puts into proper framework where library assistants
are today and how they got there.  It's important to know your
history because before library assistants can work towards
reaching any new horizon you need to know where you are now.
Over thirty years ago a movement began - a movement catapulted by
the introduction of technology to the library workplace.  You
didn't need to read that with that new technology came expanded
duties and increased responsibilities because many of you
experienced it firsthand.  The movement was forwarded, however,
not by the technology or the increased responsibilities but by
the perceived unfairness or glaring inequities that came about
because of them.
On one hand you were given expanded duties and responsibilities
and on the other hand you were not allowed to attend staff
meetings, participate on decision-making committees that affected
your own job, no time or money was allocated for your continued
professional development, your status at the library didn't
change, and your paychecks didn't reflect your new duties and
When library assistants spoke up about these inequities, a
typical response that was heard was 'why don't you go to library
school and get your MLS?'  I can't begin to describe the looks I
got from the librarians at the State Library when I expressed my
feelings to them that I didn't want to become a librarian.  Some
library assistants have gone on to become librarians and that's
great, but the majority, including myself at the time, came to a
career awakening that I like working in a library and I, as a
library assistant, have an important role to play in my library's
success without becoming a librarian.  To me, this 'career
awakening' is the most significant result coming out of the
Those who came to that career awakening had some decisions to
make when it came to dealing with their own inequities.  They
could throw up their hands and say, 'I'm lucky to have a job' or
'I can't fight civil service' or 'things could be worse, I guess
that's that, learn to live with it.'
This decision reminds me of the story of the library assistant
and the fortune teller.  A library assistant went to a fortune
teller who looked into a crystal ball and said, 'For the next 15
years you will work in a job where you will not be valued or
compensated for your contributions.'  'Then what will happen?'
asked the library assistant.  'Then you'll get used to it.'
There's an expression - life is 10% what happens to you; 90% is
how you will handle it.  A large minority of library assistants
decided, 'No, that's not that!  I'm not going to get used to it.'
They decided to take the initiative to enact change.  In most
cases, these initiatives initially involved enacting change to
right that individual's wrong or to alter the status quo at their
I was one of those library assistants.  For me, it was leading
the initiative to obtain an increase in salary grade for the four
Library Technical Assistant positions at the State Library.  This
effort took ten years but it finally happened, resulting in an
increase of five salary grades.  It made me realize that, if you
want change to happen, it takes hard work and it takes time.
Ironically, by the time we received our upgrade (along with some
nice back pay), I had decided to leave the library profession.
My increasing interests in library assistant issues, many of them
being personnel issues, led me down a career path in human
resources and labor relations.  When I left, I left knowing that
the library technical assistant who would fill my position would
benefit from the initiative I took to enact change.  I felt that
I had made a difference.
Stories like mine were taking place at libraries all across the
country.  These individual initiatives collectively formed some
of the most significant milestones in the library assistant
Some initiatives involved just stepping forward and questioning
an administration's staff meeting or committee membership
practice or policy.  Questioning, more questioning, asking the
right question!  Why can't I go to the statewide library
association conference?  Why am I not allowed to attend that
professional development workshop?  Some who did ask to attend
and were told they couldn't didn't let that stop them.  They went
anyway - on their own time and their own money.
I believe that many library administrators were caught off guard
by this sudden career awakening by library assistants.  Horizons?
Many librarians, supervisors and library directors assumed you
didn't have any horizons.  By just questioning 'Why?', many
library workplaces and cultures began to change for the better.
The movement has expanded the professions horizon!
Has there been resistance to this change or sudden career
awareness?  You betcha!  But what is great about the history of
the emergence of the library assistant is that individuals have
time and time again stepped forward and have risen to meet their
challenges head on.
No literature on library assistants?  No workshops?  No
conferences?  No money?  No representation?  No section or
roundtable in the statewide organization?  No organization at
all?  Your collective response has been "NO PROBLEM!"
Let's celebrate past accomplishments!  I'm going to play a quick
round of library assistant history trivia.  If you know the
answer I encourage you to shout it out!  Today there is a library
assistant organization, roundtable, section, etc. in almost every
state in the nation.  What state leads the nation in the number
of library assistant organizations? (New York)  What was the
first independent statewide library assistant association? (New
Jersey Association of Library Assistants)  What was the first
regional library assistant organization in New York State
possibly the country? (South Central)  In addition, there are two
nationwide organizations (COLT & ALA SSIRT); a number of
electronic discussion lists for library support staff (LIBSUP-L
or NYSLAA-L); websites (LSSRC); an electronic journal
(ASSOCIATES); an international publication (Library Mosaics), a
distance learning teleconference (SOARING).  Other significant
milestones include library assistants being elected to office in
statewide library associations, and even a resolution adopted in
the New York State Legislature celebrating you, your career, the
profession and your professional association.
How did library assistants reach all of these past horizons?  The
answer is "usually not alone".  Involving others and working
together towards addressing group-identified issues and concerns
was and still is a key component of the movement and the career
awakening of the library assistant.  Library assistants are
moving beyond self interests and are increasingly working toward
the benefit of the group.
Although library assistants have worked hand-in-hand to enact
change, they too, have not done it alone.  On many occasions,
librarians and library directors have cooperated in enacting
change for the better.  For instance, this conference began with
the help of a librarian named Ray Murray.
At this point I would like to stop and have you join me in a
moment of appreciation for those individuals who have taken the
initiative to enact change and make things better for library
assistants as a group -- many who are out in this audience today.
Without you knowing it and without compensation they have been
working on your behalf for many, many years.
Now, with all of this movement forward, a career awakening, all
of these historical milestones, 20-30 years of time ... library
assistant issues should all be addressed by now.  Library
workplaces should now be the most cohesive places to work and the
library profession should be among the strongest of professions.
Are they?
I believe the answer is no.  Does that mean the movement and all
of its historical milestones has been a failure?  No.  Remember,
the importance of looking back is to understand where you are now  By looking back you can build on what worked and
improve on what didn't so that you can work towards reaching new
horizons tomorrow.
So where are library assistants today?  I think the library
assistant community is at a very important crossroads.  There's a
growing recognition among library assistants that many of the
issues that have been around for decades need resolving.  I'm
reminded of that line from 'The Search for Signs of Intelligent
Life in the Universe' that goes 'I worry that our lives are like
soap operas.  We can go for six months and not watch and then six
months later we look in and the same stuff is still going on.'
I'm sure you would agree that ten years from now at the 29th
annual NYSLAA conference issues like terminology, certification,
recognition, continuing education, etc. will have been put to bed
or at least some action had been taken to resolve them.
There's also a belief that it has taken the past thirty years to
create the system necessary to finally address library assistant
issues.  For example, the creation of organizations with missions
that library assistants identify with; those organizations
providing places for assistants to gather and to be
professionally developed; fostering leadership development within
the organizations and the profession; opening, and improving on,
communication channels between these organizations and between
library assistants and to the profession; the ability to share
best practices so the wheel is not reinvented over and over
again; and the raising of, and sharing of, limited financial
In addition, the past thirty years has created a growing sense of
community - where what happens to you at your library affects
library assistants elsewhere.  All of these are things that have
worked in the past and library assistants should continue to
build on these.
If it has taken 30 years to get to a point where library
assistants now have a system in place to address their issues,
what will it take now to get beyond this juncture.  This is where
history comes into play again.  Looking over that history, what
was missing these past thirty years?  I'd like to briefly explore
four items.
The first two elements in my opinion are having a united vision
agreed upon by the entire library assistant community and working
toward that vision by having an integrated strategic plan.  A
vision and a plan -- maybe it's not the most inspirational
keynote message you'll ever hear -- but having a vision and a
plan is so practical that it is often overlooked.  You've
probably heard of the expression 'if you don't know where you
are, going any road will take you there.'
Think about your trip home today ... home is your desired
destination.  Have you thought how you are going to get there?
Have you mapped out your route?  As you get closer to your home
do you notice signs that mark your progress?  You may stop and
rest awhile and that is definitely needed.  However, you realize
that it is a long journey and you keep going ... heading home.
Hopefully you will not encounter any detours or bumps in the road
along the way.  The history of the library assistant has had its
fair share of detours and bumps in the road.  Admirably, library
assistants have kept going.  But where too?
That vision - that desired future state - should be the new
horizon library assistants work hand-in-hand to reach.  That plan
should be the right road there.  What should that vision be and
what should that plan include?  I am not here to determine that.
That is your challenge!  However, I would offer that the vision
be clear in its understanding and passionate enough to motivate
individuals to work toward reaching it.  I would propose that the
plan be crafted with the understanding that the goals be achieved
by a coalition of library assistant organizations - because what
affects one organization affects the other and because leaders of
these organizations would be better served sharing what time,
energy, resources and talents they have.  Once that plan is
established, I would recommend that it be used to measure success
and that the plan be periodically re-evaluated.
I have always been a big believer in having a plan.  If 90% of
life is how you will handle it then I feel I can handle it a lot
better with a plan.  It has helped me achieve both professional
and personal goals.  I brought this belief with me when I served
as a member of NYSLAA's Executive Board and I continue to bring
that belief with me as Chair of the American Library Association
Support Staff Interests Round Table Strategic Planning Process
Steering Committee - a committee charged with identifying the top
issues facing library support staff today so that solutions can
be implemented to address these issues tomorrow.
The next two items deal with resistance.  Over the years library
assistants have moved beyond self interests to addressing the
issues of the group they could identify with.  Although many of
those issues haven't been resolved yet, library assistants today
are more aware of issues facing the entire profession and are
actively working on behalf of the profession itself.  At times
there has been an us versus them attitude within the profession.
Now, I accept the fact there's one profession but there's no
denying there are different communities when it comes to library
personnel within that profession.  The third item is making sure
that these communities visions and plans are aligned with the
vision and plan of the profession.
Why is this important?  The answer is to reduce resistance to
reaching your horizons.  I think you'll agree that much of the
resistance to the career awakening of the library assistants has
been because you are/were perceived by the profession as a threat
to their power, status, and livelihood.  On the other hand
library assistants have felt excluded from this community
Librarians and library assistants are natural allies. Many of the
issues and concerns facing library assistants -- status,
salaries, value -- face librarians.  I believe there's a growing
understanding between these communities of the value of working
together - of heading in the same direction.  The challenge for
library assistants then is to continue working on behalf of
addressing their issues while simultaneously working on behalf of
the challenges facing libraries in the next millennium.
Alignment will help in that challenge.
The theme of this conference is 'library assistants: hand in hand
reaching new horizons'.  What will be needed in the future will
be more hands!  The movement has produced a large minority of
individuals who have changed from complacency to activism for
themselves, their professional organizations and for their
profession.  They know their role and they care about the
profession and its future.  They have changed the conventional
norms of what was expected of library assistants in the past and
by doing so they have reduced much of the resistance that
existed.  But they still are the minority!
For whatever reason, the majority of library assistants do not
support this culture change yet or do not help to perpetuate the
values or beliefs that the library assistant community deems
important today.  This will continue to have a detrimental effect
as you try to reach your new horizons.
My challenge to you is to lend a hand in trying to get other
library assistants involved in what's happening in the library
assistant community as well as the larger library community.
There's hundreds of ways to lend a hand and I know how difficult
it is when they don't seem to care.  I've come back from
conferences all charged up, my batteries renewed, and I'd march
right up to my co-workers and start telling them about it and how
great it was and how they should get involved too.  I don't mean
to offend anyone here but the response I got was like a person
who had found religion - people were happy for me but they didn't
want to be preached at all day.
Are there ways we can enlist the help of this majority?  Well, if
they knew what their horizon looked like and what needed to be
accomplished to reach it, maybe, just maybe, they would get
That's another reason why I believe having a vision and a plan is
essential.  By communicating that vision and plan it may answer
the one question that may get the majority involved -- 'What's in
it for me?'
Before I finish I would like to spend a few moments talking about
NYSLAA.  I hope you are as proud of this association and its
history as I am.  I am fortunate that I have had the ability to
travel around this country to attend library assistant
conferences.  Everywhere I go, people have mentioned NYSLAA and
the leading role it played in the formation of their conference
or their organization's mission and bylaws or their newsletter or
their membership recruitment and so on.
NYSLAA is a proven leader and has many characteristics of a
leader -- being open to change; encouraging personal
responsibility; attentive to members needs; rapid innovation with
a concern for results; and promoting collaborative behavior.  One
of its most important characteristics is that NYSLAA has a vision
to identify positive change and it has a long-term focus.  It is
helping to make those changes happen.  It is one of the main
reasons why NYSLAA is so successful.
Yesterday there was a roundtable discussion on the 'future of
NYSLAA.'  I think it is healthy to have discussions about
NYSLAA's future direction.  Has NYSLAA become obsolete?  Are they
a victim of their own success?  Leaders ask tough questions of
Personally, I believe there are still new horizons left for
NYSLAA to reach and I'm confident that they will continue to be a
leader in meeting the new challenges over that horizon.
Well, if there is one important thing I've learned about speeches
given on the last day is to try and keep it short.  As you leave
here today I would like you to consider the following:
1. Get to Know Your History -- How you got to today.
2. Be a Part of History --  get involved; everyday there are new
horizons being reached because people are taking the initiative
to change things for the better.
3. Understand that your actions may benefit you, those like you
and those who may come after you.
4. Have a vision or a horizon in your personal and professional
5. And have a plan to reach that vision.
6. Involve others in obtaining your vision -- there's power in
numbers and more hands means less resistance.
7. Reevaluate
8. Finally, stop and celebrate horizons that are met.
Library assistants have come a long way since this movement began
over thirty years ago.  They have overcome many obstacles on
their way to reaching past horizons.  As was done in the past,
your new horizons will be reached and your new challenges will be
met by working together hand in hand.