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In the Beginning, There was Support Staff . . .
by Edward B. Martinez
The history of support staff helps us know who we are and where we came from and goes back to the roots and evolution of the library itself. Generally, libraries have existed since records were first kept. The first libraries may well have been established by Stone Age cave people. One cave person's thoughts and experiences, painted on a cave wall, were considered worthy of saving, to keep and share with neighbors and future cave people.
As these expressions and records evolved from pictures to clay tablets to printed letters on paper, thoughts became portable and collectible. These collections took a formal arrangement in the record rooms or archives in the ancient world of Babylonia and Assyria. By the 14th century B.C., Egyptian manuscripts referred to early libraries and by 537 B.C. Athens could claim the establishment of the first public library.
Technological advances, like the printing press and movable type, helped create more books for more people. At the same time these books became available, a parallel development of educational institutions helped create a literate society.
As the library developed from clay tablets and papyrus sources to vast systems of book lending institutions, the roles and responsibilities of those in charge of the management and maintenance of the collections changed.
When libraries were small entities, they were managed by one person. That person was responsible not only for the care of the materials, but also for the maintenance of the collection. For, although libraries had existed since ancient times, they were usually a part of religious or educational institutions, and the library tasks were usually relegated as only one of the tasks of one of the members of the institution.
However, by the late 19th century, the growth of the libraries and public educational systems was well established and increasing. In America, Andrew Carnegie stimulated the development of libraries by finding the building of 1,679 public library buildings, in 1,412 communities, between the years 1897-1917.
As the libraries grew, both in numbers of buildings and volumes of books, they naturally required more staff to maintain these collections. Specific tasks and responsibilities were developed for each staff member. It was with this development that the library world attempted to clearly define and clarify the roles, education, and training for its personnel.
In the late 19th century, formal programs were established to train library staff. Melvil Dewey established the Columbia College School of Library Economy in 1887 and soon library schools were established at other institutions. It was at this time also that the need for a support staff training program was taking its roots, for as M.S.R. James reported in 1892, librarians had a right to expect support staff to come to them in some measure prepared for their work. ( 1)
The Carnegie Corporation recognizing the importance of a well-trained library staff in its newly-erected libraries, commissioned Alvin S. Johnson and later, Charles C. Williamson, to study the effects of its library building projects.
The Williamson report became a landmark work by establishing the relationship and organization of library personnel. The most noteworthy aspect of this report is that it segmented library work into "professional" and "clerical" or "non-professional" activities.
In addition, it proposed a reevaluation of the curriculum in library education and demanded separate training programs for each classification of library worker. ( 2)
Although the Williamson report of 1923 would eventually have an impact on the library support staff, a review of library literature reveals little was acted upon as a result of this study. Possibly due to outside political and economic factors, the support staff training issue was swept aside temporarily. However, by the late 1930s, articles about "non-professionals" began resurfacing.
One such article, published in 1938, described a course which was established at Los Angeles City College in 1937. The course was developed to meet the needs of local schools systems for library clerical workers. This program served as the first library technicians' program and pre-dated the oldest continuous program which was begun in 1948 at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. ( 3)
Political and social factors associated with WWII interrupted some of this support staff impetus. By the mid-1940s many libraries began training their own support staffs. These programs were expensive, however, and eventually the aegis fell on the community colleges to fill the need for a well-trained support staff.
TIMES THEY ARE A CHANGIN'
Much as the rest of the world, the status and training of support staff went through many changes during the 1960s.
In 1965, John Martinson released the first major survey of library technician training programs. In addition to identifying institutions offering programs, Martinson stressed the need for research into issues regarding support staff, including the recruitment and training of support staff, the job market, curriculum planning and evaluation. ( 4)
There were 31 library technician programs in 1961. By 1969, over 90 programs were listed by the Council on Library/Media Technicians (COLT). COLT itself had come into existence in 1967 as an important support staff association. The organization was formed to discuss and identify the goals and objectives of a new awareness of support staff.
The U.S. Civil Service Commission, in the mid-sixties, officially recognized the middle-level library worker when it released the Library Technician Series, GS-1411. This series provided position descriptions and salary schedules for library technicians in federal libraries. ( 5)
One of the more monumental hallmarks of the sixties, however, was the publication of Lester Asheim's Education and Manpower of Librarianship. Asheim, then Director of the ALA's Office of Library Education, proposed, similar to the Williamson report, a hierarchy of training and education for all library personnel.
Asheim suggested dividing library personnel into two categories, "professional" and "supportive." The "professional" category had two levels, "Senior Librarian," requiring a post-Masters degree, and, "Librarian," requiring a Masters degree. The "supportive" category had three tiers: the Library Associate, Library Technical Assistant, and Clerk: each with its own minimum requirements and definitive "Nature of Responsibility" statements.
Asheim's report was an important milestone for "supportive" staff. For, in addition to establishing these categories, Asheim acknowledged and codified the existence and appropriate training for library technical and clerical assistants. ( 6)
A TIME OF AMBIVALENCE
The 1970s saw struggles between the professional and support staff, as financial restraints forced managerial re-evaluation of tasks. "Professional" activities were being re-examined as the library technician's role expanded. Public and private funding of libraries and other publicly supported entities wavered nationally, and libraries were forced to make drastic cutbacks in personnel and services.
The Bowker Annual of 1976 reported on the scarcity of entry-level librarian positions and the California Library Association's efforts to establish stiff controls on certification, recertification and designation of professional positions. Despite these trends, however, the annual also noted the easing of friction between professionals and library technicians. ( 7)
Throughout the seventies, however, the library personnel hierarchy remained under siege due to the difficult financial funding of public institutions. Library administrators were forced to make cuts which often resulted in professional staff cutbacks and personnel re-organization. Library technicians became viewed as a job threat as administrators dealt with tighter budgets. As was debated by the Arizona State Library Association in 1978, librarians, regarded the library technician with much ambivalence and had problems in determining where the job of the technician ends and that of the librarian begins. ( 8)
SUPPORT STAFF TODAY AND IN THE FUTURE
Today there are over 42,000 support staff working in various capacities across the country. Key factors affecting support staff are the continued strained funding of libraries, the technological revolution in libraries, and the resulting importance of highly skilled support staff.
As reported by Raymond Roney,
"Economic necessities and shrinking budgets combined with the technological changes in libraries have created a smaller, more efficient library support staff. The relative expense of staffing and shortages in personnel monies have required improved staff efficiency.
Similarly, as a result of the new technologies, a more educated and specialized support staff is required to help coordinate library activities effectively." ( 9)
Thus, a new support staff with increasing responsibility and authority is evolving. As Roney reports almost every library personnel classification and description is undergoing significant change. New levels of skills have compartmentalized the library into units of specialists.
The 1985 COLT publication, Job Descriptions for Library Support Personnel, shows clear evidence of the new support staff profile. Support staff positions like Systems Circulation Coordinator, Lead Computer Operator, Acquisitions Coordinator, Library Associate (Television Producer/Director), Bibliographic Controller, are now vital segments of the contemporary library staff.
Support staff today are expected to employ increasingly sophisticated skills from knowledge of computer systems like OCLC and CLSI and MARC records to a variety of data control techniques and data file procedures. As tasks have become more specialized, educational requirements have also been increased. Many more support staff positions require college education or specialized technical training, from a college degree or a LTA certificate to data processing training.
The support staff profile has come a long way from the early library days. In the future, the technological and financial factors will continue to affect the library workforce. How the personnel structure bends and flexes to these factors is, of course, pure conjecture. One thing is certain, however, support staff will continue to play a vital role in the collection and maintenance of the records of humanities thoughts, deeds, and aspirations.
EDWARD B. MARTINEZ, Editor, Library Mosaics (now defunct).
This article was originally published in the Sept/Oct 1989 issue of Library Mosaics and is posted here on the LSSRC with the permission of the author and publisher.