Library Support Staff Morale

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 #10

Morale varies greatly from person to person and from library to library. This is true for all library employees but from the perspective of many paraprofessionals there is also a profession-wide morale issue related to them. Many paraprofessionals feel undervalued, under-represented and underpaid, some to the point of bitterness. While the same could be said of some librarians, they, at least. have more control over their chosen field than paraprofessionals do and can exercise leadership in their libraries, their communities and their profession more readily than can the typical paraprofessional. Librarians more often than support staff also can gain a perspective on their own situation and on themselves from communication with other librarians from other libraries. Librarians, in other words, are more likely to have more opportunities for renewal and revitalization than are support staff. In addition, morale is seen as a profession-wide issue by paraprofessionals, because many of the concerns about low morale expressed by them have to do with their interactions with librarians.

Certainly the morale issues for library paraprofessionals are not unique to this category of worker. Many factors affecting morale arise because of the female intensive nature of the workforce and the related generally low status of librarianship as a field. The fact that libraries are primarily in the education and public sectors is also an issue affecting status, funding and hence morale. Troubled economic conditions which threaten libraries in all types of organizations also affect the morale of all levels of staff. Paraprofessionals are also typically in the middle or lower ranks of library organizations and for many there are limited promotion options. (See Issue Paper on Advancement for more discussion of this issue.) For many paraprofessionals these factors are aggravated by the perceived, and sometimes quite genuine, negative attitude displayed toward them by librarians. (See Issue Paper on Communication and Mutual Respect for further discussion.)

For many paraprofessionals, self-esteem and the related self-confidence, a concern clearly connected with morale (and often to performance), are personal issues. For some this stems from their lives, for some from work, and for still others, from both. Mutual respect is a major factor in self-esteem. The issue of terminology, which leads many paraprofessionals to feel excluded or degraded is also related to this. (See Issue Papers on Terminology and on Respect.)

Morale is also influenced by low compensation. Not only is earning enough to live on a problem but in a society that equates value and money, those who earn less may tend to question their contributions to society. Public employee paraprofessionals may also suffer from public employee syndrome, a lowering of morale due to the continuing public debate about the relative worth of their work. Many publicly paid paraprofessionals have also not had compensation upgrades in several years, and in some instances this is true even when other, often higher, categories of public workers have received increases. Also affecting morale is the fact that many long-term paraprofessionals may not have opportunities for compensation increases because they have reached the top of their grade and pay scale. (See Issue Paper on Compensation for further discussion of these issues.)

The steadily increasing workload reported by most paraprofessionals and the issue of responsibility without authority also contribute to morale problems. Many paraprofessionals feel that when new services or projects are undertaken or when more funding is not available they are asked to take on more. But when library growth is slow or stalled, or when growth is evident, they view that they are not "permitted" to do more because they can or would like the opportunity to develop.

Paraprofessionals, Iike librarians, are also troubled by lack of support for libraries. Budget cuts or freezes not only affect the amount of work to be done but also have an impact on how one feels about that work.

Paraprofessionals are further affected by what some see as a lack of leadership on the part of librarians. Many would like a vision of librarianship and libraries that they could "buy into." They feel cut off from that vision and question why they do what they do.

There are those who would argue that morale is a personal issue and therefore not appropriate to national or profession-wide discussion. Others see morale issues as unique to each workplace, a concern for management and for the entire staff, not the profession. For them the profession-wide concern is not the morale of a particular category of workers but rather the issues related to morale such as compensation and role definition. Still others see paraprofessional morale problems as derived from problems in librarianship, such as role definition, that must be addressed by the field as a whole.

There are also those who may not believe that paraprofessional morale is low. They may see the concerns expressed here as to be expected given the nature of the positions.

Some, including many paraprofessionals, would argue that paraprofessionals have a responsibility to deal with their own unique morale problems. And indeed this is occurring through the formation of paraprofessional organizations and networks. The publication of Library Mosaics is perceived by many, paraprofessional and librarian alike, as a long overdue and much appreciated effort towards improved paraprofessional morale.

Questions typically raised about morale include:

  • How can we improve paraprofessional morale if we can't increase compensation or provide opportunities for advancement?
  • How can paraprofessionals improve morale; we have no power?

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

  • "The formation of an ALA committee for support staff is a step in the right direction. I have a nagging suspicion that if support staff interacted more with one another their self-image would soar."
  • "A satisfied paraprofessional is well paid, appreciated, and respected."
  • "Have administrators work the circulation and reference desk. We need contact. We need example. This would generate good feelings. Money isn't everything."
  • "There are any number of things support staff could do. lf the issues are to be addressed, the support staff have had to take the initiative to get what they want out of the system."
  • "A satisfied paraprofessional has a career, not just a job."

KW September 17, 1991