Responsibility Without Authority

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 #7

Paraprofessionals are involved in almost all functions of librarianship with the possible exception of collection development, although, as with everything having to do with paraprofessionals, this varies greatly from library to library. While paraprofessionals do "everything," as they frequently say, they are less typically involved in the management aspects of the functions they carry out. Paraprofessionals express considerable frustration at having the responsibility for library operations but not the authority to shape those operations. This frustration is modified somewhat by the availability of opportunities for input and consultation in the decision making process. Some paraprofessionals see the assignment of responsibility without sufficient authority as an indicator of lack of personal respect. Others just see it as a barrier to efficiency.

As paraprofessionals are assigned increasingly higher levels of responsibility, the assignment of that responsibility without the authority to manage work-flow and operations can become an impediment to successful library services and operations. Librarians with the MLS who, in many organizations, have retained the authority but not the responsibility for carrying out operations, may no longer have the detailed knowledge of operations needed to supervise on a day to day basis or directly manage a unit. Without a consultative style of management, communication and operations problems could increase and potentially hinder performance.

The issue often expressed as "experience versus education" emerges in discussions of responsibility and authority. Paraprofessionals feel that their years of experience qualifies them to have the authority with the responsibility. Yet there is a concern on the part of librarians that this experience is often limited to a particular institution and that the overview of issues that is characteristic of formal education in librarianship is needed to manage many library functions.

Paraprofessionals who can and do manage their own operations are sometimes not included in management level policy setting discussions that will affect their area or the library as a whole. This frustrates them particularly when policy changes impact their ability to "get their work done" and deliver the highest level of service. Paraprofessionals feel they have knowledge, information and experience that would be useful in policy setting. They would like to have an opportunity to share this through consultation, review, or participation in policy making, as appropriate.

Paraprofessionals, particularly in larger libraries often directly supervise other workers: clerks, pages, student aides, and other paraprofessionals. In some organizations paraprofessionals have more people reporting to them than do librarians. When these supervising paraprofessionals are not given the full authority of supervisors (evaluation, hiring and retention, input in salary determination) there can be considerable frustration and role confusion on the part of all in the organization.

In some libraries the responsibilities and the authority given to paraprofessionals is an issue of management style and organizational climate and changes when directors and/or supervisors change. In other libraries assignment of responsibility and authority are more structured with limits set by civil service or a parent institution such as a university, corporation, school district, etc. Union contracts also affect assignment of responsibility and authority.

The issue of responsibility and authority is tied to advancement as well as to job satisfaction and quality library service. In many organizations increases in authority are required for promotion and if paraprofessional positions are not assigned sufficient authority they can not be upgraded. (See Issue Paper on Advancement for further discussion.)

While local practice clearly varies there is also a profession-wide issue in the assignment of responsibility and authority. (See Issue Paper on Role Definition.) MLS librarians, who tend to control the shaping of the library field as a whole, disagree on what constitutes appropriate functions, and responsibility and authority within these functions, for MLS holders. Paraprofessional assignments, including responsibility and authority, tend to flow from the profession's view of MLS functions. Essentially the discussion of authority for paraprofessionals stems from perceptions of the knowledge, skills and abilities needed for librarianship and varying views of how best this is acquired and demonstrated. Those who place a high legitimacy on experiential learning as well as formal education tend to assign experienced paraprofessionals more responsibility with more authority. Those who see formal library education as essential to these functions do not assign them to paraprofessionals, and if some assignment had to be made, would exercise a higher level of control.

There are those who see the authority/responsibility issue as appropriate for discussion only at the level of the individual library and there are those who see it as an issue appropriate for national level review and discussion. Some consider responsibility and authority to be a personal matter best addressed by adaptations to existing policy, procedure and classifications. Others see the authority/responsibility issue as one of many indicators of the need to restructure the entire field of librarianship.

Questions typically raised about responsibility and authority include:

  • If I can do the job why can't I figure out how best to organize the work?
  • Why can't paraprofessionals, who implement the policies, be involved when policies are set?
  • How much can paraprofessionals be asked to do without having than work out of classification?

Comments on responsibility without authority from the paraprofessional and MLS librarians who participated in the 45 focus groups held as part of the ALA project include:

  • "Seventy-five percent of the work is done by us but we have no part in policy decisions or even discussions. If consulted, the decision has really already been made."
  • "Support staff don't want someone to stand over them and tell them how to do their jobs."
  • "Supervisors give responsibilities and then take them away."

KW September 17, 1991