Library Support Staff Issue Papers

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

World Book-ALA Goal Award Project on Library Support Staff

Library Support Staff: Ten Issues
by Kathleen Weibel

What are the Issue Papers?

The World Book-ALA Goal Award Project on Library Support Staff served many purposes, not the least of which was providing a variety of forums for support staff to express themselves on issues personally important. The project also gave librarians concerned about issues related to support staff the same opportunity to express their opinions. People wrote letters phoned, participated in focus groups, sent what they considered important articles and citations, lobbied in hallways, and talked over breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The results of these discussions, a review of the literature, and the knowledge gained from workshops conducted with library paraprofessionals around the country all contributed to the formulation of ten issue papers.

These brief issue papers honed in on recurring themes: basic education and continuing education, compensation and advancement, communication and mutual respect among librarians and paraprofessionals, paraprofessional responsibility without authority, morale, role definition, support staff certification and terminology.

Role definition, mutual respect and continuing education were considered to be the most significant of the ten issues by the project steering group.

Each issue paper was written to stand alone and provide a common base of information for a group discussion, a kind of common denominator or jumping off point. In each paper the issue is outlined, definitions offered, examples given, and various perspectives described. Questions commonly raised about the issue are listed, and comments illustrative of the issue are quoted form the notes made by those reporting on the project focus groups. The numbers given to the issue papers are arbitrary and do not necessarily connote any priority order to the issues.

That there are only ten issue papers is an arbitrary decision. Recognition, for example, is not one of the ten issues but it is a word repeated frequently by support staff who seek acknowledgment of the significance of their work. They want to be acknowledged through compensation, opportunities to participate and to learn, and respectful treatment, to name but a few ways to recognize the contribution of individuals to an organization and a common effort. In the ten issue papers recognition becomes a sub-theme but is not less important that the issues identified as topical focuses for the papers.

These topical focuses were selected for varying reasons. The terminology issue, for example, was selected for inclusion because it typically comes up in any discussion of paraprofessionals. There is an initial awkwardness in talking about that segment of the library workforce who are not librarians; there is no agreed upon terminology and there is general dissatisfaction among paraprofessionals with the term used by many librarians, "non-professionals." Problems of terminology are really symptoms of underlying issues, the chief of which may be mutual respect. Terminology is also related to personnel classification and job titles, in themselves major areas of concern woven into the discussions of compensation and advancement.

So there are many ways to categorize concerns of, and about, library paraprofessionals. Consider the ten issues chosen for the papers as just one of the many patterns of the kaleidoscope.

How Were the Issue Papers Used in the Project?

The issue papers were drafted by Kathleen Weibel in June 1991 and used as a basis for discussion and formulation of action recommendations at a program held at the American Library Association 1991 Annual Conference in Atlanta. The papers were also distributed and discussed at smaller meetings held daily during the ALA Atlanta conference program. Prior to the AKA conference they were distributed and discussed briefly at the annual meeting of COLT, the Council on Library/Media Technicians.

Based on comments at these discussions and review by the project volunteer staff and steering committee, the papers were revised. The revised versions presented here have been distributed at various conferences and meetings and sent to the state paraprofessional organizations.

Some Suggestions for Using the Issue Papers

The papers can be read for an overview of issues relevant to library paraprofessionals. But they weren't designed for that purpose. There are no transitions between the papers and the repetition of a common format may be a barrier to smooth reading. They were meant to be read as a preparation for a discussion and this is probably still their most appropriate use.

For a large group, at a conference, for example, ten smaller groups could be formed (ideally, no more than seven people per group) and each group given copies of one paper to read, discuss and report on. Discussion could focus on pros and cons and other opinions, action recommendations, or the general questions listed after the statement of the issue.

As part of a library staff development program, a small group could meet weekly and discuss an issue paper each time. Or a group could discuss only those issues of interest to them. These discussions could be held separately for support staff and librarians or they could be for mixed groups; it depends on what you are trying to achieve and the climate of the organization in which you function. Also consider having separate discussion groups and then joining together to share results or engage in further discussion.

The issue papers can also be used as handouts. And they can be reprinted in staff or association newsletters. Please be sure to credit the American Library Association World Book-ALA Goal Award Project on Library Support Staff. It would also be useful to know what use has been made of the issue papers.

Kathleen Weibel is currently the Director of Staff Development at Chicago Public Library. She is a popular conference speaker and an advocate for library paraprofessionals.