Continuing Education 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 #3

Most support staff or paraprofessionals acquire their basic library education through on the job experience, in-house staff development programs, non-degree educational programs or some combination of these and other activities. (See the Issue Paper on Basic Education for further discussion of this issue.) It is therefore often difficult to distinguish between continuing education for paraprofessionals and basic education delivered through a continuing education mode. Paraprofessionals, no matter the length of their tenure in libraries, tend to report the bulk of their library education, both basic and continuing, to be "in-library" through on-the-job training, hearing reports brought back from conferences, information sharing and other informal methods typical of most workplaces.

For some paraprofessionals continuing education is viewed as getting a master's degree in library and information studies that would permit them to move from the paraprofessional to librarian ranks. For others continuing education is viewed as getting an undergraduate degree. For most paraprofessionals continuing education means acquiring knowledge appropriate to the current job or to promotional opportunities.

Despite the twenty-five year history of national and regional programs sponsored by the Council on Library/Media Technicians (COLT), scattered exemplary programs such as the 12 year old New York Library Assistants annual conference and the longstanding existence of a number of state organizations for paraprofessionals such as that in the California Library Association, formal continuing education activities targeted at paraprofessionals as paraprofessionals are a fairly new phenomenon. Until recently the continuing education of paraprofessionals has been assumed to be the responsibility of the local library or library system rather than an issue of national concern. Where continuing education planners on the state and national level have tended to focus on library staff without the MLS, the programs have been, for the most part, aimed at the heads of smaller public libraries.

Within the past five years, conferences, courses and programs within conferences have become much more common. Many of these are being planned by paraprofessionals although some are planned by librarians with the MLS, often in consultation with paraprofessionals. No matter who the planners are, the presenters at programs for paraprofessionals are more likely to hold the MLS than to be paraprofessionals themselves.

Paraprofessionals also participate in continuing education activities that are not specifically targeted for them but this participation is more difficult to track and describe. At general educational activities or programs on specific library functions paraprofessionals tend not to identify themselves on the assumptions that all other participants hold the MLS and that they wouldn't be comfortable as the "only paraprofessional present."

Not much is known about the continuing education needs of paraprofessionals although continuing education planners are beginning to seek such information. In Minnesota, for example, a recent state level continuing library education needs assessment included examination of the needs of paraprofessionals as well as of librarians holding the MLS. It is likely that needs assessments have been undertaken at the local and system level but there has been little sharing of this information to date.

Paraprofessionals are taking on more and more library functions at increasingly responsible levels, to a point where formal provisions for continued learning are becoming a necessity to assure high quality library operations and services. Many paraprofessionals are also asking for continuing education opportunities.

The availability of administrative support for paraprofessional continuing education varies greatly. It is probably a fair assertion to state that, with exceptions, most libraries do not extend the same level of support to paraprofessional continuing education as to that of the MLS librarians. The views of MLS librarians and, consequently, their support--not just that of library administrators--seem to vary. There are also paraprofessionals who do not perceive continuing education to be important. In addition, there seems to be little incentive, other than the satisfaction of doing a better job, to encourage paraprofessionals to participate in continuing library education.

Questions typically raised about continuing education for paraprofessionals include:

  • What are the continuing education needs of paraprofessionals?
    • Whose responsibility is it to find out?
  • Who or what agency(ies) should plan and deliver continuing education for paraprofessionals?
  • How can employers be encouraged to provide resources for continuing paraprofessional education?
  • How can paraprofessionals be encouraged to seek continuing education opportunities?
  • Should continuing education be related to advancement and, if so, how?

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

  • "Support staff education is important. Get support staff going to meetings, do staff exchanges. Librarians can compare library A and B and support staff need to be able to do this too."
  • "This [continuing education] should be made an official part of the job description: support staff must read the journals, continue their education, go to meetings."
  • "I am the only one who is doing my job. I am always told that I will not be able to attend any seminars or meetings because there is not one to do my job."
  • "Paraprofessionals at my library were shocked to hear about these workshops and the focus groups. It was unbelievable to them that these opportunities were available."
  • "We get no release time, support for any activities . . . Librarians go and come back and give us a 20 minute session then we are supposed to go and perform miracles for them."
  • "A study should be done to suggest guidelines about how to divide the travel pool monies between faculty [librarians] and paraprofessionals . . . but not in direct competition with each other for the exact same conferences and programs all the time."

KW August 29, 1991