Advancement for Support Staff

American Library Association Office for Library Personnel Resources
Standing Committee on Library Education

World Book-ALA Goal Award Project on Library Support Staff

Issue Paper #6

Paraprofessional library positions offer limited advancement opportunities. In most libraries the higher level positions with more authority and more compensation are reserved for MLS librarians. Paraprofessionals by definition do not have the MLS. Paraprofessionals also lack advancement opportunities because personnel classifications in many libraries do not reflect the variety and depth of paraprofessional work and/or do not deal adequately with the longevity of many paraprofessional workers.

Many paraprofessionals would like to get an MLS and enter the librarian ranks but not all feel this way. An avenue for advancement other than the MLS is a major issue for paraprofessionals. Many paraprofessionals are concerned with the attention paid their ranks as potential MLS candidates particularly with the current focus on recruitment. Yet the paraprofessional ranks have long been a major source of MLS candidates with roughly 50% of the MLS candidates surveyed in 1988 (the most recent data), having worked in libraries or currently doing so. Paraprofessionals would like to have the same level of interest shown in developing their career options as paraprofessionals as is shown in encouraging entry to MLS programs.

Many paraprofessionals would like a career ladder that gives greater recognition to their general education beyond the high school or GED, up to and including advanced degrees in fields other than librarianship. While there are some opportunities for "non-librarian professionals" such as accountants or personnel specialists in larger libraries, many of those now considered paraprofessionals bring other professional backgrounds to librarianship and would like the option for advancement as a "non-librarian professional." For example, the paraprofessional with an elementary education degree and experience working in children's services where that background is useful to their role would like the opportunity for the recognition and compensation accorded to the accountant. Paraprofessionals also want career ladders that give greater recognition to their experience and to what they have learned on the job. Promotion opportunities for part-time workers is also an issue of interest to paraprofessionals (and to many MLS librarians).

In organizations that do not provide sufficient advancement opportunities or for individuals who cannot advance for whatever reason(s) "topping out" and/or "plateau-ing" have become a concern. "Topping-out" refers to reaching the top of a pay range within a class. "Plateau-ing" refers to reaching a level period in a career with no opportunities for advancement or promotion. Paraprofessionals who "top out" may have the potential of increasing compensation through a promotion to a higher paraprofessional position. Often the few higher level positions are occupied with little or no hope that the incumbents will vacate them. Paraprofessionals who have "plateau-ed" are in the highest classed position in their category. It is possible to both "top out" and to "plateau" at once but also possible to face one or the other situation. Either way, finding methods to keep paraprofessionals vital and committed to their work once they have reached the top of the ranks or have little opportunity to advance in the foreseeable future becomes an issue for employer and employee alike. (See Issue Paper on Morale for more discussion of this.)

While the need for increased compensation is a major issue in the desire for advancement, paraprofessional interest in promotion opportunities is not limited to financial benefits. (See Issue Paper on Compensation for further discussion of this issue). Many paraprofessionals want an opportunity to grow in their jobs and to be recognized for their contributions. With advancement they want to participate more in policy setting for their area and for the library as a whole.

Mobility as a means to advance is also of concern to paraprofessionals. Yet, because most libraries do not have highly developed paraprofessional classification systems, experiences paraprofessionals seeking new positions often have to start in lower ranks or make lateral moves.

In larger organizations of which the library is only one unit, paraprofessionals and personnel directors report that library paraprofessionals who seek advancement in other units with more and/or higher positions often face difficulties in doing so because of a general view that their skills aren't transferable. This only exacerbates the problem of employees who have "topped out" or "plateau-ed" in their careers.

There are strong differences of opinion on how involved paraprofessionals should be in policy and planning and other aspects of management and these differences of opinion result in very different views of how far and into what areas paraprofessionals should advance.

Some of those who favor creating more advancement opportunities for paraprofessionals or extending the career ladder, tend to see paraprofessional work as a separate career track within librarianship. Others are concerned more with the personnel problems that result when staff cannot advance.

There are those who are concerned that more advancement opportunities for paraprofessionals would reflect negatively on the status of the profession. Others see paraprofessional jobs as having limited advancement by definition.

Since promotion implies increases compensation there is also concern with whether and how libraries will be able to financially accommodate advancement for paraprofessionals.

Questions typically raised about advancement include:

  • Why can't experienced paraprofessionals become librarians?
  • How can more categories and steps within categories be created for paraprofessionals?

Comments on advancement from the paraprofessionals and MLS librarians who participated in the 45 focus groups held as part of the ALA project include:

  • "If we could change jobs every three years, we would get paid more."
  • "If you get and MLS, you must move on. What good would it do if you like where you work?"
  • "Employers outside the library don't think we have useful skills."
  • "In certain departments, promotion is not an option. In the state system, it's the position and not the person."
  • "Don't make the MLS the end-all and be-all. 15 years experience can't get you the title of catalog librarian--but you do the work. There needs to be a way to move--a career ladder based on experience."

KW September 17, 1991