ASSOCIATES (vol. 10, no. 1, July 2003) -

*A View From the Rungs:
Confessions Of a Career Ladder Climber*


Carole Covington
Library Assistant, Acquisitions Department
Ralph Brown Draughon Library
Auburn University, AL

It was the middle of December. It was 8 AM. It was ch-chilly--indoors. Why was I shivering in the drafty chamber into which plunges the baggage of the outside book drop, rather than sipping a cup of coffee at my desk in nice, warm Acquisitions? FIELD TRIP, thatís why!

This excursion was part of a class on Circulation/Stacks Maintenance functions, and represented one mini-step on the way up the Auburn University Libraries' Career Ladder Program for Library Assistants. This program, begun in 1999, provides a way for employees to promote within their current positions, rather than going to another unit or outside the University in order to find such opportunities. One of several components of this program is the training of library personnel through extensive coursework that includes both library-specific and university-wide classes.

I participated in the inaugural round of classes in this Career Ladder. I must confess that I initially approached this chance for upward mobility with some qualms, some concerns, some misgivings. After all, I had been voted "Most Pessimistic" in my high school graduating class, and I was not sure that this opportunity would turn out exactly as advertised.

Are you about to start up a career ladder? Perhaps my confessions will reflect similar concerns you have. Are you already scaling a career ladder? Perhaps the ways in which my concerns were (or were not) resolved will resonate with you.

My concerns vaguely coalesced into three areas: time and scheduling, test-taking, and person-to-person relationship issues. Guess which one is still an area of concern? This question will be on the test.

Issues of Time and Scheduling

Have you ever had that dream in which youíve registered for a class, but forgot to go, and now itís finals time, and you have no idea what went on in the class? This dream suggests the same species of anxieties that surfaced as I faced the coursework component of the Career Ladder. How would I carve out the time needed for classes, when I was already applying myself 100% to my job? How would the scheduling of classes be arranged so that everyone had the opportunity to take all classes needed? Would some people get into a class before it filled up and others be left out? Would every library assistant in the place suddenly leave his/her desk at the same time to attend a class?

Would I get all the classes I needed in time to apply for promotion?

The Test Issue

Do the words, "There will be a test on this," still rankle with you years after graduation? The Career Ladder program required tests covering the material of each class, and this disconcerted many participants. As one put it, "Everyone knows that when there is a test, we are thinking about what is going to be on the test, not about learning the material." Aside from the psychological commonplace that adults do not like to take tests, there were several reasons for this test-aversion. We were already highly motivated adult students; why did our attentiveness have to be questioned? What about the formulation of test questions? I had done classroom teaching; I knew the difficulties involved in writing tests that would be "fair." I had the feeling that someone (like me, for instance) would question the wording and the fairness of every question. Underlying these issues were embarrassingly insistent but unspoken questions: "Will I do well on the tests or merely humiliate myself?" followed immediately by "Why in blue blazes does this bother me anyway?"

Person-to-Person Issues

The smooth functioning of libraries depends heavily on carefully nurtured and sometimes precariously balanced interpersonal relationships. How would the career ladder affect relationships among staff members, between staff and supervisors, and between staff and faculty? Would it create tension and contention? Pique and re-pique? The in-house classes were taught initially by librarians with staff as students. Would this separation of personnel into "teacher" and "learner" groups accentuate hierarchical boundaries and undermine efforts toward an egalitarian workplace?

Well, What Happened?

Did I pass the tests? Is the person with whom I share this cubicle space still talking to me? Were any fisticuffs involved in getting into classes? Each area of concern has had at least partial resolution; some concerns were resolved in surprising ways; some were resolved more fully than others. Perhaps of more lasting effect and greater importance is the unexpected learning--out-of-the-blue truths--that emerged during the process.

Resolution: Issues of time and scheduling

The problem of how to manage the time required to participate in the Career Ladder classes was eased by the fact that our administration, department heads, and supervisors clearly supported participation. My unitís supervisor worked closely with us in arranging work assignments and schedules so that we could attend classes without worry. My supervisor and department head helped with departmental tasks in order to encourage involvement in coursework.

The committee charged with curriculum created a sufficient number of classes to give everyone adequate opportunity to attend whatever classes each needed. As the process of class creation went on, the scheduling structure became increasingly sophisticated, with tiers of beginning, introductory, intermediate, and advanced courses in various library functions. The accumulating class offerings soon came to resemble a college catalog, with detailed course descriptions, complex course numbering, and the use of such academic expressions as "TBA". There were plenty of classes and repeated offerings of each; there were no registration lines; if a few participants missed a class, it was offered again to enable them to attend.

Resolution: Test-taking

Testing has proved to be an ongoing source of concern, though of gradually lessening intensity. Some of my concerns about the clarity of questions on tests have unfortunately proved to be well-founded, and the icky sensation about being tested has not gone away.

There are a number of factors that have mitigated test anxiety. Examples include the following practices:

Resolution: Person-to-Person Issues

Iíve found that interpersonal relationships among staff and between staff and supervisors have been affected positively, rather than negatively, by the Career Ladder. Often this was aided by simply having the chance to get to know people in class. Frequently we have introduced ourselves or other class members to the group. This is not without its dangers, however. In one class, I was supposed to introduce to the group a person whose last name I could not remember no matter how hard I tried, and who clearly expected me to remember it. I do not count this exercise among my successes.

The staff-supervisor relationship was often strengthened by the close interaction required to create career ladder agendas. I saw how hard my supervisors worked on creating classes and doing paperwork, and appreciated their efforts.

The issue of teacher/student dichotomy has turned out instead to be an "all-in-this-boat-together" phenomenon. Everyone, regardless of rank, has taken classes of some description. Non-supervisory personnel have taken and continue to take leadership roles in instruction. Even I teach career ladder classes now.

Unexpected Learning

Unexpected learning appears frequently along Career Ladder rungs. I may have to refer to class notes in order to recall the intricacies of serials cataloging, but I easily carry around in my head lessons learned in understanding others and understanding myself.

Do you ever feel that no one else really has as much to do as you? That nobody else is really as pressed for time as you? I found learning in detail about the job duties of every person in the library to be very therapeutic in correcting this condition. Taking that chilly field trip to the book drop area helped me appreciate the people in Circulation and Stacks Maintenance more than ever.

Behavior-related classes provided by the University were included on the Library Career Ladder. These courses, on such topics as handling conflict in the workplace and developing listening skills, were illuminating for me.

I have always felt quite frustrated when instructors use initialisms, acronyms, and jargon that I do not understand and which they, apparently perversely, do not explain. This practice seems to be absolutely rampant within the library profession, and I was pretty cranky about it by the time I arrived in the "How to Listen" class. As the class unfolded, I came to understand not only why this practice bothered me so much, but what to do about it. Iím the sort of listener who is very content-oriented, who earnestly wants to learn the content of a class, who canít learn it if it is couched in meaningless abbreviations and mysterious language, and who, therefore, becomes very cranky. I also found out that a lot of other people donít understand unexplained jargon either, but are afraid to ask for clarification. I always ask now, as soon as an unknown term is used, even if I feel embarrassed. This has at least four good results: I find out what the term means, the people who were afraid to ask find out what it means, the instructor is usually more careful about using jargon, and I enjoy the learning experience much more. A step in the right directionóup!


Even so promising an opportunity as a career ladder can generate concerns and questions. I must confess that I wondered about matters of time management, test-taking, and person-to-person interaction as I began Auburn University Librariesí Career Ladder for Library Assistants. The process of resolving of these issues and the ongoing discovery of unexpected learning make for an interesting climb. To learn more about Auburnís program, go to

Copyright@Carole Covington 2000

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