Professional Development through Associations: Why, and what’s in it for Library Technicians?

We want to acknowledge the Coast Salish First Nations, on whose land we both reside, work, and study. For the Simon Fraser University Burnaby campus, this includes the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), Kwikwetlem (Coquitlam), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) communities. It is important for us to offer this recognition as uninvited visitors to this territory, whose family roots are grounded elsewhere.


Professional associations are an avenue to professional development, an integral avenue to our continued learning. They are often a great way to connect with other professionals in your geographic area who have similar career interests. There seems to be a never-ending list of conferences, webinars, readings, and so on to engage with—if you are a Librarian. What is out there for Library Technicians?

Ashley Edwards is a Library Assistant within the Learning & Instructional Services Division of Simon Fraser University. She holds a Library Technician Diploma, BA in Adult Education, and is currently an MLIS candidate in the University of Alberta’s online program. She is of Métis and Western European settler heritage, and is privileged to have grown up on Stó:lō territory in the Fraser Valley of BC. She uses she/her pronouns. Ashley is a current co-Chair of the Mentorship Committee, and past Library Technicians/Assistants Section (LTAS) Chair.

Dawn Smaill is a Library Assistant within the Learning & Instructional Services Division of Simon Fraser University. She holds a Library Technician Diploma and a BA in Communications with a minor in Publishing from SFU. Dawn has a strong teaching background, primarily with English as another language students. She uses she/her pronouns. She has previously served on the LTAS Executive as Social Media Coordinator and Vancouver Chapter Co-Chair.

In the conversation below, we talk about barriers that we have faced as Library Technicians when seeking both professional development opportunities and involvement with professional associations. These barriers are interlinked and often compound one another.

We recognize that there might be more barriers, than the ones we’ve discussed, that add to the complexity of the conversation, and to the frustration of not feeling valued and recognized within the broader library profession.


What were your expectations when you initially joined BCLA?

Ashley: When I joined BCLA it was during my first semester at the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV) in the Library Technician program, and I really didn’t know what to expect. It was the first time I was a part of a professional association, and we were encouraged by our teachers to join since student memberships are free. I did find at that point in my library education, I ignored most of the emails. I didn’t see how the association was or could be relevant to me.

Dawn: So, I had already been a part of a professional association when I was a Medical Office Assistant and attended annual conferences around education for members. Joining BCLA as a student was mandatory and since it was free, a no-brainer.

Ashley: Because who doesn’t love free things?

Dawn: Right! But, I would’ve joined no matter what because I recognize it as an important step in connecting with fellow library professionals.

Ashley: Do you think that’s because of your teaching experience in Japan? I remember being in my mid-twenties and more focused on getting out of working retail shift work … I think I even let that initial membership lapse after the first year… like I didn’t renew it right away.

Dawn: Yes! Being spread out over an entire prefecture [in Japan, similar to a province] meant connecting at bi-annual training sessions to share ideas on teaching, resources, AND self-education tips.

I also didn’t renew my BCLA membership as a paying member right away either.


So why did you renew?

Ashley: I renewed mine about two years after graduating. I was working in a small Indigenous library as the Assistant Librarian, with one other Library Technician (the Librarian), in the Fraser Valley. I began feeling out of touch with other technicians, and curious about other library environments. I don’t remember how, but I found the BCLA website and information on the Library Technician & Assistant interest group. I went to one meeting, and was encouraged to become more involved by another Library Technician. Which is how I also became a co-chair of the Fraser Valley section of what was at that time the Library Technicians/Assistants Interest Group (LTAIG).

Dawn: I had to renew shortly after being hired by SFU Library because I was going to be presenting at the 2015 BCLC in a group with you! But I have had years since then when I let my membership lapse because I chose to join the Alberta Association of Library Assistants (AALT) in those years. Membership in two associations is not feasible for me. Our CUPE Learning Opportunities Fund (LOF) cannot be used for association fees—only registration fees.


Financial barriers

Ashley: Even though we are encouraged [in our workplace] to be professionally involved, and conference registration is more affordable if you are a member, it’s like a catch 22; it’s better to join but there isn’t always financial support to do so.

Dawn: I know from speaking with my fellow graduates that some didn’t continue their memberships once they had to pay the fees themselves because they were in precarious employment situations.

Ashley: Honestly sometimes I wonder why I even renew each year. Sometimes I’m not sure what I’m getting, besides a discount on conference registration. I have one more year as a student, and will really need to consider renewing after graduation, because what if I’m not in a continuing position? If my primary involvement is going to the conference, is membership worth the cost?


Do you think there are barriers other than financial to becoming involved?

Dawn: BCLA seems like the only game in town for professional memberships in the library community in BC. So I want to be involved but it can be a challenge to see where I fit in within this structure beyond the Library Technicians/Assistants Section (LTAS).

Ashley: Right!? Because for so long some of the other Sections and Interest Groups (SIGs) specified in their name they were only for librarians. I remember being at another section’s meeting, and being challenged on what I was getting out of it by another attendee. Not exactly welcoming.

Dawn: So, as a past Chair of LTAS, do you think that enough has been done by BCLA and its members to engage with and support those members who are Library Technicians?

Ashley: Umm… not really. Ultimately it comes down to who is in leadership roles within the Board and the SIGs. There are people who believe and practice things like transformative leadership who have personally encouraged me, and been supportive of initiatives such as the BCALS & PLIG name changes. Despite that support and vision, some of those changes still took a long time, and were met with resistance. So I think there’s a continuing issue within the library profession on how Library Technicians are viewed overall.

This could be a reason why there is often so little involvement by Library Technicians. Like with your friends — why join when the benefits aren’t obvious? Especially when it might not be a welcoming experience?

Dawn: I know that when you were LTAS Chair and involved in promoting the section, I was very hopeful that the attitudes of many Library Techs who were not members would change because you were a very active and vocal supporter of LibTechs at a Board level and what they can accomplish.

Ashley: Playing devil’s advocate, change can’t happen unless Library Technicians want to be involved. If there are no conference presentations that seem relevant, for example, next year propose one. Write something for Perspectives, join a SIG.

Dawn: But it does take some encouragement to do those things. And I do know that the UFV Library and Information Technology (LibIT) Program instructors encourage student participation, but there is a definite lack of involvement post-graduation. How do we solve that?

Ashley: If I could answer that we wouldn’t be having this conversation!! I do want to point out, as you saw, at this year’s conference, during the session I was part of, there were way more LibTechs in the room than Librarians. Which, I think, is a first. I was on a similar panel a few years ago, and am fairly certain the room was mostly Librarians then. In that panel, I was actually asked if LibTechs are just after Librarian jobs without having to go through the education.

Dawn: I chose the LibTech diploma over an MLIS! But I remember in certain courses of our LibIT program, we were cautioned that, for some in the library profession, the perception of LibTechs is that we are “less than” Librarians. So, I think asking LibTechs to lean in and participate more fully in BCLA is asking them to be vulnerable.

Ashley: Because there isn’t as much cross over education. Like, in my MLIS we haven’t had any conversations about working with groups of people beyond Librarians and patrons. So there’s a missing piece: LibTechs are taught they may not be welcome, Librarians aren’t taught about other library professionals. So LibTechs then are placed in a position at work where they also need to educate their colleagues on their education and capabilities.

… reflective pause …

Ashley: We are in unique positions at SFU Library, where as “library assistants” we’re encouraged and supported (both financially and personally) to participate in a variety of professional development, in-house and within the wider library community. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to find things that are Library Technician focused.


Do Library Technicians feel like there is enough support and opportunity to be involved?

Dawn: So every year that BCLA conference program is announced, I find sessions that fit within my work at SFU—such as the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Working Group and instruction—but there’s always a lack of LibTech specific sessions. I also am always confronted with the question of “So, what do you do?” when I say that I’m a Library Technician. Last year when we presented at the AALT conference, it was refreshing to talk about my library interests with people who have the same background and didn’t need information on what Library Technicians do.

Ashley: I think it depends on their institution, and supervisor. I’ve always felt supported at SFU, but have heard stories from other Library Technicians about not being supported. If your institution isn’t placing value on your involvement, it can be harder to see why you should get involved.


What opportunities are needed?

Dawn: I think being active as a Library Technician in BCLA is all about individuals approaching others that they know to join up and get more active—and recognizing that it’s a small pool that they are pulling from.

Ashley: I know from succession planning for LTAS that it can be daunting for someone to volunteer at that level, because the Chair for LTAS is also on the BCLA Board. While that’s a great experience, it can be difficult to volunteer for a role like that. I know I was hesitant. So I spoke with my supervisor who encouraged me, and checked with union agreements to make sure my time spent at Board meetings would be considered work time (it was). I’m grateful to have had people who saw more in me than I realized I was capable of, and who pushed me outside of my comfort zone.

That doesn’t mean it made it less scary!

Dawn: It is intimidating! And I am grateful for all that you’ve accomplished at SFU since it has laid groundwork for me to follow as I am deciding whether to become more involved in LTAS.

Ashley: It is a hope of mine that other institutions will see what SFU has provided their Library Technicians — financial support to participate in PD, personal encouragement, and recognition of skills and interests — and rethink their library hierarchies. Especially in academic libraries, where I think LibTechs are too often relegated to traditional “technician” roles.

I think you’ve hit on a good point — the mentorship piece. Not that I see myself as your mentor, but we do help each other through things and share experiences. We also have so much encouragement from our Librarian colleagues to be on committees and task or working groups. All that helps when thinking about joining other committees like SIGs.

Dawn: Maybe there needs to be more discussion with students in LibTech programs about the structure of BCLA and why it is important to join a SIG not just stay general membership.


Why is it important to get involved?

Ashley: I think that’s true, and it should be a continuous conversation, not just in the first semester in your first class. I didn’t connect the association to my career at all at that point. It wasn’t until I had graduated that I really saw the value of connecting with fellow technicians. Then I renewed my membership, started going to meetings, and became an involved member — not just with LTAS but also with the First Nations Interest Group, and I think the one for cataloguing since I was doing a lot of original catalogue work in my job at the time.

Dawn: Seeing technicians being involved and at the board level may make a difference—something needs to happen to overcome the inertia or ambivalence that many LibTechs feel about being members.

Ashley: LibTechs needs to know that there is way more than LTAS! Use LTAS as a welcoming place, but then check out what groups fit your interests.

There’s also the Mentorship Committee, where you can chat with a colleague one-on-one about different aspects of the job, different roles, whatever. The program was actually originally a LibraryTechnician one that became more BCLA-wide, and I’d love to see Library Technicians become more involved.

Dawn: I know from experience that the more I talk with colleagues, the more I discover that many are introverts and suffer from imposter syndrome. Both of these things can prevent us from joining PD workshops because we think we’re the only ones who feel this way. More discussion among Library Technicians(and students) about these issues and coping tools would be a benefit. And this is truly what being a member of a professional association is all about!

Ashley: YES!


We hope this sparks more conversation among Library Techs about being involved—and reach out if you want to chat!