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 #8

There is no satisfactory or agreed upon terminology for library staff who do not have a master's degree in library and information studies. They are referred to, and refer to themselves, as support staff, paraprofessionals, library technicians, library assistants and associates, para-librarians, etc. They are also referred to as "clerks," and while paraprofessionals will use this title when talking about themselves, they do not do so with any satisfaction.

The one term on which there is almost universal agreement is "non-professional." Paraprofessionals or support staff do not like it and many deeply resent it. When paraprofessionals or support staff hear "non-professional," a term frequently used in library literature and in many libraries, they hear it as an adjective and not a noun. They find it demeaning.

For many paraprofessionals, professionalism is an attitude and many feel that they competently demonstrate that attitude. Thus the use of the term "professionals" to distinguish librarians with the MLS from those library workers who do not have an MLS also presents difficulties. For example, Ask a Professional ... [a librarian]," the American Library Association campaign designed to emphasize to the public the importance of library staff (not just materials or buildings) was troubling to many of those who work in libraries but do not have an MLS. They felt it left them out.

Complicating the issue even further is the fact that library users tend to call anyone who works in a library "a librarian." In attempting to distinguish various staff members to the public, all library staff tend to talk about "having" or "not having" a master's in library and information studies. This further exacerbates the central terminology issue; that is, there is no agreed upon term to define the "non-MLS staff" except in terms of what they are not. Further, the terms used most generally by librarians and paraprofessionals alike frequently have a negative impact on paraprofessional morale. (See Issue Papers on Morale and on Communication and Mutual Respect.)

Some paraprofessionals are also frustrated by the fact that in public libraries, and also in special libraries, many of those who have the title "librarian," and indeed direct the library, do not have an MLS or other formal library education credential, and gained their knowledge of librarianship in the same way most paraprofessionals do, through experience and continuing education opportunities. Paraprofessionals wonder why they too can't be called librarians.

The issue of appropriate terminology is not limited to distinctions between those who have, or do not have, an MLS. In an attempt to be inclusive many paraprofessionals (and librarians too) have difficulty in identifying appropriate language to distinguish among various levels of staff yet distinctions in responsibility and level of work do exist.

The language used in job titles and in position titles within classification systems also presents problems as this is frequently ambiguous or inappropriate to the function being performed. There is also tremendous variety in paraprofessional job titles reflecting, most probably, the great range of work done by paraprofessionals and the fact that there are profession-wide standards. The range of classification titles appears not as great, possibly because these tend to be established within the standards of the personnel field. The American Library Association Library Education and Personnel Utilization Policy (LEPU, 1970) suggests the titles "Library Assistant" and "Library Associate" for those positions between the clerical level and the librarians, and while some libraries use these titles, these terms, like the concepts outlined in LEPU, are not universally accepted.

As with most issues of language, the terminology problems related to library staff reflect underlying issues. In the case of librarianship these issues stem from the shifting and blending of responsibilities within the field and in each library workplace. (See Issue Paper on Role Definition for further discussion of this issue.) Language also reflects how people feel about themselves and about others. We know from the struggles of people of color, ethnic groups and women to determine what they will, and will not, be called that concerns over terminology are not trivial.

This is not an issue on which opposing viewpoints have coalesced sufficiently to suggest what arguments might be proposed by people of differing views. There are those who do not see terminology as an issue. And there are those who do.

Those who do, see a need to find appropriate terms for people who work in libraries. They tend to believe that whatever terminology is settled on should adequately identify what people do and should be structured in such a way that the distinctions affirm the significance to the library of each employee.

Some people don't think language is important or vested with the power to include or exclude. Some people prefer traditional terminology for a variety of reasons. Some who don't see terminology as an issue may still be concerned about the issues underlying the terminology discussion but may focus on other manifestations of these issues. Still others may not think the underlying issues of importance.

Questions typically raised about terminology include:

  • Why can't everyone who works in a library be called a librarian?
  • What should we/they [paraprofessionals] be called?
  • Is everyone who is not a librarian a member of the support staff?
  • Is there a difference between a paraprofessional and a clerk?

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

  • "Paraprofessional makes it sound like you're only half a professional."
  • "I think we should be called librarians' assistants."
  • "If we could think up a new term for ourselves [paraprofessionals] that would solve a lot of problems. We need a term which isn't loaded, something like 'flowers' so we could use it and not feel bad about ourselves."
  • "The paraprofessional is not simply a clerk."
  • "Should a circulation clerk be termed a paraprofessional?"
  • "The title doesn't matter."

KW September 17, 1991