Library Issues

Editor: Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan.
Contributing Editors: Steve Marquardt, South Dakota State University; William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Sarah Pritchard, Smith College; Mark Sandler, University of Michigan

Vol. 17, No. 1 September 1996

Transforming Library Staff Roles

by Mark Sandler

"Like their colleagues in many service professions, librarians have responded to the forces of technology, budget constraint, and administrative reorganization by creating new opportunities for LAs to assume more diverse and higher levels of responsibility. The result has been a blurring of the traditional distinctions that separate the classes of library employees."

Over the past two decades, one of the more significant personnel trends in libraries has been the growthboth in numbers and work roleof paraprofessional library assistants (LAs).1 Libraries have always been labor-intensive organizations with a high demand for clerical support functions related to acquisitions, cataloging, circulation record keeping, shelf management, and correspondence. In the traditional library setting of the 1950s and 1960s, these clerical tasks were readily distinguished from the professional roles of librarians in cataloging, reference, and collection development. Today, however, the boundaries have become increasingly blurred with growing areas of functional overlap.

Traditionally, the higher status of librarians was based upon their relationship to the content of library materials and to the users of this content. Clerical and paraprofessional staff assumed roles that were largely restricted to tracking and organizing the package or objectified form of materials without concern for content or use. Beyond this emphasis on subject specialty, it has generally been assumed that professional librarians bring such special qualifications as:

  • an understanding of the principles of bibliographic organization;
  • an in-depth knowledge of information tools;
  • a broad perspective on the social role of libraries; and
  • a strong commitment to professional principles and ethics.

In general, librarians are distinguished from other library workers by their links to content and the broader principles underlying information services.

As libraries have grown larger and more complex, the relationship to content and principle as a basis for professional status has been supplemented, if not supplanted, by managerial responsibility. In most cases, this assumes an organizational model of librarian department heads planning and directing functions carried out by paraprofessional employees, or, as likely, mixed groups of librarians and paraprofessionals.

Paraprofessional roles have been viewed generally as supporting the work of librarians, and the workers occupying these roles as subordinate to librarians. In the past, LAs came to libraries with clerical skills that made them desirable employees in support of the more visible library professionals. Over the past two decades, howeveras has been the case in other fields such as education, medicine, social work, and businessparaprofessionals have taken on more diverse roles and higher levels of responsibility.

Like their colleagues in many service professions, librarians have responded to the forces of technology, budget constraint, and administrative reorganization by creating new opportunities for LAs to assume more diverse and higher levels of responsibility. The result has been a blurring of the distinctions that separate library employees.

LA Roles in Research Libraries

The transformation of LA roles and its effect on the responsibilities of library professionals is clearly evident in four key departments: cataloging, reference, systems, and collection development.

Cataloging. LAs have long been centrally involved in deriving and upgrading library records from national bibliographic utilities. In the last ten years, copy cataloging has made up between 80 and 90 percent of total record production in larger U.S. libraries, meaning that most of the nation's cataloging is being done by paraprofessionals.2 Professional catalogers have assumed management roles or shifted to focus on specialized formats or languages. Now, even the latter is threatened as a number of libraries contract with external agencies for such specialized work. As a result, professional roles in cataloging have been considerably weakened and many research libraries have granted LAs the opportunity to take on increasingly high levels of work including the content-based activities of original cataloging and subject analysis.

Reference. In the mid-1980s, my own institution was among the first wave of libraries to experiment with LA involvement in providing direct reference service, staffing a research library reference desk without the immediate presence of professionals. Supervision of the desk and staff remained in the hands of professionals, and procedures were established to refer in-depth questions to off-desk professionals. Other institutions experimented with more mixed staffing models. In both cases, however, most reference transactions are handled by paraprofessionals who became a significant public face for our libraries.3

Systems. The need to develop and maintain computing systems has created a relatively new set of library functional roles. Staff tend to be hired based on programming and networked computing facilityskills that are not necessarily claimed as the traditional province of librarianship. It is now possible to hire non-librarians for new positions and often to establish new pay ranges based on market forces in the computing industry or campus computing. These pay scales do not necessarily reflect the accustomed salary hierarchy for library staff in other areas and have in many cases created viable library career opportunities for non-librarians.

Collection Development. Although later to develop than in other library departments, the use of LAs in collection development activities has been steadily increasing in recent years.4 Libraries can no longer afford to hire full-time librarians to cover numerous subject specialties. Further, the rise of approval plans and other vendor-supported selection strategies has lessened the collection development emphasis on content decisions as opposed to speedy and cost-effective receipt and processing of new acquisitions.

The Labor Pool for LAs

For decades, leading U.S. universities have successfully trained thousands of subject specialists who have not been absorbed by the limited job opportunities available in academic and cultural institutions. All types of libraries can draw upon this highly educated labor pool whose members are often willing to tolerate lower salaries for an opportunity to work at the fringes of their chosen field of study.

In academic communities, these potential library employees may already hold Ph.D.s, may be long- or short-term writers of dissertations, or may have completed significant graduate study in an academic discipline. Some library managers would note that these LAs can have strong campus department ties and could be knowledgeable and trusted library representatives to academic departments.

Traits attributed to LAs at this level include a deep understanding of the research process as well as teaching experience in their specialty. Such LAs may have made extensive use of collections throughout graduate school and thus be in an excellent positionwith general training in the principles of collection development to assume responsibility for acquisitions and collection management. Although it is debatable whether an LA with such qualifications is better suited to reference and collection work than the average librarian with an MLS and zero to five years experience, it is significant that this question is increasingly posed by library and campus administrators.

Equal Pay for Equal Work?

As paraprofessionals increase in number and influence, administrators are confronted with difficult questions of staff equity. Salaries for paraprofessionals may, on average, be half that of librarians.5 As the task differences separating classes of employees blur, some argue that allowing LAs to assume roles traditionally performed by librarians is exploitative without commensurate changes in status and salary. Presumably, those making this argument are concerned not simply with job protection for MLS librarians but with fair treatment for others.6 Nonetheless, librarians would be foolish to think that their status or salaries are secure if others can perform the same duties at significantly lower cost.

LAs confronting these issues are individually and collectively ambivalent in deciding their own self interest.7 On the one hand, it is reasonable to expect that as workloads more completely overlap those of librarians, salaries should be adjusted accordingly. On the other hand, if earning librarian salaries is not an optionor institutions take the unstated stance that if they wanted to pay librarian salaries they would hire librariansLAs have a different set of choices to sort out.

At a given salary level, many workers would not opt to minimize their contribution but may prefer to work at the highest possible levels of skill, autonomy, and responsibility. In some cases, this is intrinsically motivated by a desire to maximize one's productive activity while for others the motivation is extrinsically rooted in the belief that advancement and salary advance is a function of performing at higher levels. Whatever the motivation, the result is that many or most LAs show considerable work commitment at salaries well below those of their librarian co-workers.

Beyond Salary

Beyond the obvious savings in salary, LAs bring other real or imagined advantages to the library. (There have been few studies of LAs as a workforce, so beliefs and anecdotal experiences are still influential factors in many employment decisions.) First, LAs are recruited locally or regionally and are less geographically mobile than their librarian counterparts. LA skills tend to be library specific and they are not likely to pursue, nor be pursued for, positions at other libraries. They may, however, be lost to more remunerative non-library positions which is less likely among professionally identified librarians. But experience suggests that, either by choice or opportunity, LAs are not very occupationally mobile.

Second, unlike their librarian counterparts, most LAs are not involved in professional activities such as association participation and publication. Although the enrichment value of such activity is undeniable for the individual, the benefits to a library system are more nebulous. Hence, LAs whose time and effort are focused on local concerns may be an important balance to other staff who are outwardly engaged.

Third, the convergent interests and perspectives of librarians as a profession is broadened by the addition of staff with divergent academic training, work experience, and avocations. For many libraries, racial and ethnic diversity has been served by the addition of staff of color among the ranks of paraprofessionals. Paraprofessionals are also more likely to have had experience in other types of organizations including business settings, the military, and cultural institutions. Such experience introduces new ideas to the library environment and provides staff support for needed organizational changes.

"The hallmark of a profession is
the ability of its practitioners
to exercise exclusive control over
the knowledge base of a field
including control over
the criteria for entrance into the field."

Status of Library Professionals

The counterpart to the rise of paraprofessionals is the declining hold of librarians over library work skills. The hallmark of a profession is the ability of its practitioners to exercise exclusive control over the knowledge base of a field including control over the criteria for entrance into the field.8 Over the past 20 years, librarians and their professional associations have not been able to maintain exclusive control over the qualifications needed to perform library work. In part, this inability has been caused by the rise of information computing which has challenged the traditional skill base of librarians.

Like it or not, most library professionals will concede that increasingly sophisticated technologies have created an ascendant class of librarians and non-librarians with technological mastery while librarians with traditional skills have suffered a relative loss of status. Traditional librarian skills related to the organization and retrieval of informationalong with the high premium placed on excellent servicehave, to an extent, been redefined in the present information environment as "simpler" skills than those involving technology.

Further, the very activities of organizing and retrieving information are increasingly incorporated into the basic structure of information systems. Therefore librarian contributions to the information-seeking process are marginalized to identifying older materials, foreign language resources, or "gray publications." If the needs of most users can be satisfied without direct librarian intervention, it becomes critical to ask whether those remaining needs can be satisfied in a cost effective manner.

As a matter of fact or faith, most librarians hold that their training and experience prepare them to offer higher levels of service and to solve uncommon problems. In something approximating the 80/20 rule, however, it can be assumed that the great majority of users bring common problems and are satisfied with average services. Thus, library and campus administrators could come to question the value that librarians might add at the margins in functional areas like acquisitions, cataloging, or reference.

Administrative Imperatives

The erosion of librarian control over work skills is not "caused" by the rising aspirations of LAs nor by the prevalence of information technology. Rather, the changing work roles in research libraries, including the shift of responsibilities to LAs, reflect human decisions made in the context of "business models" that place a premium on efficiency and cost effectiveness. This trend is part of an established professional culture broader than librarianship. It is encouraged by managers and administrators whose values do not necessarily emphasize traditional assumptions regarding professionalism and the prerogatives of professional staff.

Librarians have been encouraged to link their status to the supervision and management of others, and in doing so, have complicitly abandoned the skill base that has traditionally defined the profession and have assumed increasingly abstract management roles. The danger is that management is a profession unto itself and librarians could ultimately lose control of both the front-line work of libraries as well as their administration.

Contested Terrain

The American Library Association policy manual asserts that,

[T]he title "librarian" carries with it the connotation of "professional" in the sense that professional tasks are those which require a special background and education . . . The masters degree from a program accredited by the American Library Association is the appropriate professional degree for librarians.

The manual also recognizes that

[T]o meet the goals of library service, both professional and supportive staff are needed in libraries. The library occupation is much broader than that segment of it which is the library profession . . . Skills other than librarianship have an important contribution to make to the achievement of superior library service. There should be equal recognition in the professional and supportive ranks for those individuals whose expertise contributes to the effective performance of the library and the most effective utilization of personnel at all levels.9

Toward this end, ALA has established the Support Staff Interests Round Table and has directed an increasing number of professional development activities toward library paraprofessionals as have a number of state associations. Clearly these associations have taken the path of collaborating with, and hopefully controlling, the trends toward increasing employment of paraprofessionals rather than confronting the trend directly in an attempt to protect the prerogatives of professional librarians.

The struggle to define appropriate staff qualifications for the modern research library is not likely to be settled quickly or definitively. In the short run, team management solutions in libraries should allay explicit confrontation over staff roles. Following the lead of the professional associations, teams of managers, librarians, and LAs will collectively seek to find and implement solutions to library problems which somewhat begs the question of exactly who is doing what in the current work setting.

The pessimistic outlook for the profession suggests that in the long run, librarians, squeezed between LAs and professional managers, are likely to garner a decreasing share of library personnel budgets. Optimists may respond that, individually, many of these information professionals will find new and fruitful opportunities outside traditional library settings. Both seem to accept the view that the collective trend for the coming decade points to a transformation of professional and paraprofessional work roles within major libraries in the U.S. and a corresponding decline of opportunity for professional librarians in these settings.M.S.


1See for example, Larry Oberg, "The Emergence of the Paraprofessional in Academic Libraries: Perceptions and Realities," College and Research Libraries 53 (March 1992): 99-112; Larry Oberg, Mark E. Mentges, and P.N. McDermott, "The Role, Status, and Working Conditions of Paraprofessionals: A National Survey of Academic Libraries," College and Research Libraries 53 (May 1992): 215-238; and "Who's Who: The Changing Roles of Librarians and Support Staff," Library Personnel News 8 (November 1994): 1-4 (program report from the 1994 ALA Conference).

2Patricia A. Eskoz, "The Catalog Librarian: Change or Status Quo?" Library Resources and Technical Services 34 (July 1990): 380-392.

3Marjorie E. Murfin and Charles A. Bunge, "Paraprofessionals at the Reference Desk," Journal of Academic Librarianship 14 (March 1988): 10-14.

4Ron Ray, "Paraprofessionals in Collection Development: Report of the ALCTS/CMDS Collection Development Librarians of Academic Libraries Discussion Group," Library Acquisitions 18 (Fall 1994): 317-320.

5Edward B. Martinez and Raymond B. Roney, "1993 Library Support Staff Salary Survey," Library Mosaics 5 (May/June 1994): 6-10.

6Ray, "Paraprofessionals in Collection Development," pp. 319-320.

7Ed Gillen, "To Live and Die an LA: Career Paths and Professional Development of the Library Assistant," Journal of Education for Library and Information Science 36 (Winter 1995): 5-11; and Ed Gillen, "What Defines a Professional? A Library Support Staff Point of View," Library Personnel News 8 (November 1994): 5-6.

8Nina Toren, "Deprofessionalization and Its Sources," Sociology of Work and Occupations 2 (Spring 1975): 323-337.

9American Library Association Policy Manual, Library Personnel Practices, 54.1-54.5, ALA Handbook of Organization, 1995-96, p. 136.

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