Paraprofessional of the Year 2010: Allison Sloan

Allison Sloan, Library Journal's 2010 Paraprofessional of the Year. Photo by Jonathan KannairThey call them “paralibrarians” in Massachusetts now. The main reason for that is Allison Sloan, the 2010 winner of LJ's Paraprofessional of the Year Award, sponsored by DEMCO, Inc. Her outstanding service and her championship of the term paralibrarian illustrates her passionately held and most fundamental belief: “This is not just a nice job, this is a career.” When she launched that career at the Reading Public Library (RPL), MA, nearly 20 years ago, she was caring for two young kids (both now graduates of the University of Connecticut) and running a home-based résumé-writing business. For several years before her children came along, she worked as a state and federal legislative aide for Blue Shield, lobbying legislators in Boston and Washington. “I was a health-care lobbyist,” she says ruefully, telling about her work with staff of Massachusetts Senators John Kerry and Ted Kennedy. When she knew she could work away from home again, she wanted to stay nearby for the kids. Happily, this “nice job” has proven to be anything but.

Continual professional engagement

Dee Brennan, now library director in Oak Park, IL, was appointed director at RPL soon after Sloan arrived. Brennan believes in the value of giving staff time and support for participation in professional organizations and opportunities. That got Sloan started in the Massachusetts Library Association (MLA). “I learned about the library vision from Dee. If not for her, I couldn't have had time away from the job to be active in MLA,” says Sloan, who gives a lot of her personal time to association activity as well. Sloan's career-long mentor and one-time boss at RPL, Michael Colford, now director of resource services and information technology at Boston Public Library, nominated her for this award. “The number one influence in my career,” Sloan calls Colford. “He is an unbelievable mentor.” His support also encouraged her MLA activity. “Sloan has provided top-notch customer service and spread the word about many wonderful services modern libraries offer. With a smile, she checked out materials, offered readers' advisory, created displays, and volunteered on in-house committees,” says Colford. Sloan volunteered to serve on the team to train staff on RPL's first new online system. She was promoted to the Technical Services Department and in her new job embraced the service of interlibrary loan (ILL). “From local networks to the statewide Virtual Catalog and OCLC, Allison works with patrons and librarians, retrieving unusual and hard-to-find materials from all around the country,” says Colford, who lauds her research skills and personal contact with libraries. Sloan also judges the children's summer writing contest. She was chair of the Reading Cultural Council, which funded young adult author visits and library programming. She serves as recording secretary to the RPL trustees. As Colford puts it, “She happily wears varied hats to support the library and the community.”

Anything patrons want

Sloan was recently promoted to senior library associate in the Technical Services Department, where her major job is ILL. Surprisingly, in surveys for RPL strategic planning, ILL came out as a number one RPL service. Sloan says ILL systems have become more sophisticated, and patrons now have direct access to them on the web, so her role is complex. She is asked to find items that are much more difficult to locate, but, she says, “I go after anything patrons want.” Her other job, and her other great love, is audiobooks. Her mother was vision impaired, and Sloan handles acquisition, processing, and even some booktalking about them, as at a recent “speed booktalking” event. In addition to audiobooks, RPL lends Playaways, those very popular, credit card–sized, battery-operated devices with audiobook content and player combined.

Enabling participation

Colford also encouraged staff participation in professional activities when he was at RPL. “Michael is extremely involved himself and supportive of our involvement. He understands that you never lose when you make employees happy and get them [to take part] in creative opportunities,” says Sloan. Her current boss, RPL technical services head Jamie Penney, is equally supportive of professional participation. When Colford asked Sloan to chair the paraprofessional librarians section of MLA, it had been defunct for years. The 2003 conference program she developed was called “Behind Every Great Librarian There Is a Great Paraprofessional.” It showed how a reference librarian is supported by circulation and other support staff. The adoption of the name paralibrarian for the MLA section came soon after. The Paralibrarian Section is now very active. Award programs like the Outstanding Paralibrarian draw many nominations. The American Library Association (ALA) donates a complimentary membership to the winner. When the MLA section voted to be called Paralibrarian, the options turned down were Paraprofessional and Support Staff. Sloan won the MLA Paralibrarian Advocate of the Year honor in 2004. It recognizes someone who works to give paralibrarians opportunities and praise. Sloan was the second chair of the Paralibrarian Section of MLA. In addition to the two awards, the section issues “Notices” of Paralibrarian Recognition of Achievement for skills acquired. Sloan's inclusive perspective and leadership qualities led her to earn certifications in the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners “Library Leadership Massachusetts” Basic Library Techniques and PARA levels II and III. Now each year at the MLA conference, Sloan is instrumental in developing new and exciting programs to bring librarians and paralibrarians together in a partnership to grow library services, open communication, and demonstrate the strength of teamwork. The 2005 program, “Extreme Customer Service: Springfield College Builds a New Desk,” recounted an innovative project to combine the reference and circulation desks—and cross-train paralibrarians to answer reference questions and librarians to provide circulation tasks. Sloan's enthusiasm connected a dedicated group of library staffers who rejuvenated the MLA Paralibrarian Section. Sloan applied for and was chosen to be a base tester for ALA's Library Support Staff Certification Program, in which coursework, study, and experience earn points toward certification.

Vive la différence!

“In Massachusetts, there are paralibrarians who are department heads and even directors of libraries. I think a paralibrarian director has the skills of a librarian, but of course you can't compare a circulation technician to a degreed librarian. I respect the difference because I understand where my skill and knowledge of the depth of librarianship begin and end,” Sloan explains. “I respect the difference, and I respect the professionals. There is an important difference. It depends on the job of the paralibrarian just how big that difference is. For me, it is clear,” Sloan asserts. When she was chair of the Paralibrarian Section, the board brainstormed a mission statement that aimed to achieve a group that “increases awareness of paralibrarians…advocates for recognition and participation in the library community… promotes and provides a forum for networking and career development opportunities.” Sloan has not only done all of that and worked to highlight the valuable talents and contributions of paralibrarians to the library community, she has also reached out to connect them with librarians, library directors, and trustees to strengthen libraries. The way she delivers her message is especially effective. “Of course there is an important place in libraries for people who do not have an advanced degree but who want to pursue a library career,” she says. “In Massachusetts we know that, and we call them 'paralibrarians.'”

Three To Watch

This year saw a record number of outstanding nominations, and among them the following stood out: Gerry Deyermond Assistant Head of Circulation, Memorial Hall Library, Andover, MA Lori Reed Learning & Development Coordinator, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, NC Linda Reimer Acquisitions Specialist, Southeast Steuben County Library, Corning, NY Demco logoThe Paraprofessional of the Year Award is sponsored by DEMCO, Inc. of Madison, WI, which underwrites the $1500 cash prize and a reception to honor the winner at the American Library Association conference in Washington, DC, in June. The award recognizes the essential role of paraprofessionals in providing excellent library service. “All of us at DEMCO have long recognized the vital work done by library paraprofessionals,” says John Ison, director of library relations. “These staff members often are truly the people who keep the wheels greased and the library on track. We're pleased to sponsor the award as our small way of saying, 'Thanks for all you do.'” Special appreciation to Wyoming State Library's Trish Palluck, Paraprofessional of the Year 2005, for her assistance judging the 2010 award.
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