Basic Education for Support Staff

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 #2

There is no generally accepted profession-wide educational preparation for paraprofessionals. This holds true for general education requirements (although a minimum of at least a high school degree is the norm), and for library education. Educational requirements for paraprofessional library positions are set at the local level and vary considerably.

Related but distinct issues germane to the discussion of both general education and library education for paraprofessionals include: standardizing and/or increasing requirements; the value and appropriateness of formal, curriculum based education, and of informal learning; and, the role of experiential learning. The issue of basic library education is more complex than that of general education. In considering general education for paraprofessionals the content of that education or the suitable delivery systems are not generally debated as they are with library education; rather the appropriateness of an already established level of education and/or credential from an existing educational system are discussed.

The American Library Association Library Education and Personnel Utilization Policy (LEPU, 1970) suggests entry level educational criteria for two paraprofessional categories: two years of college or an A.A. degree for "Library Assistants," and a college degree for the higher level "Library Associates," with the high school degree or GED required for clerical positions. For both the Library Assistant and Associate categories the college level work suggested in the LEPU may include the study of librarianship but this is an option not a mandate. The LEPU further suggests that education may be combined with experience criteria to establish entry level requirements. The LEPU pattern has been implemented in some but not all libraries.

No matter the basic general educational requirement for entry level positions, paraprofessionals typically acquire basic library training after initial employment. This is in marked contrast to those in the librarian positions (with the exception of many people hired to run small public libraries and, to a certain extent, small libraries); entry level paraprofessionals tend to learn about their job first and librarianship later, with entry level librarians it is typically the other way round. Librarians with the MLS typically bear the cost of basic library education and select the program themselves, with the curriculum of the program being established by the faculty within the parameters of university requirements and the ALA accreditation process. With paraprofessionals the employing institution more typically bears the cost of basic education and establishes or selects the program, if there is a planned approach.

More characteristically paraprofessional basic library education comes from on-the-job experience and from co-workers supplemented with local library or system staff development and continuing education programs. In larger libraries or library systems staff development for paraprofessionals may be systematic to the point of an established curriculum but more often it is not. Even with the most informal on-the-job learning, the employing institution absorbs the cost although often this is a hidden cost such as staff time.

There are exceptions to this reliance on experiential learning as the primary means of acquiring basic library education but these are not widely practiced or accepted. During the 1950s and 60s and continuing today, although at a much slower pace, two year library technology degree programs (LTA) leading to an associate degree, have been established in community and junior colleges. These programs are designed to provide basic library education for paraprofessionals or library technicians. The American Library Association has approved Criteria for Programs to Prepare Library/Media Technical Assistants (1971, 1979) but has no accreditation process for LTA programs as it has for MLS programs. Despite the strong educational preparation for paraprofessional positions offered by many of these programs, library employers have not widely accepted the LTA degree as an educational requirement for paraprofessional positions. In fact, many of the LTA programs have closed. Some paraprofessionals have also attended library science undergraduate programs. But as with the LTA degrees, these degrees are typically not a requirement for employment or advancement.

Given the variance in basic education requirements (high school, GED, some college or a college degree), the almost complete absence of basic formal library education requirements for paraprofessional positions, and the fact that most paraprofessionals learn about librarianship after they begin work in a library, it is difficult to make a clear distinction between basic library education and continuing education, particularly since most formal basic library education is planned and carried out through a continuing education delivery system. (See the Issue Paper on Continuing Education for further discussion.)

Proponents of formal basic library education argue that paraprofessional positions require more educational preparation than can be gained through experiential learning and that as paraprofessionals take on more functions and operate at increasingly responsible levels this need becomes more serious. They also argue that reliance on experiential learning is inefficient and that it is too costly to have every library individually educate each paraprofessional. Basic library education standards are also seen by some as a way to increase paraprofessional compensation and status.

Those who oppose formal basic library education do so from a number of points of view. Some argue that paraprofessional work in libraries is low paid and therefore that it is impractical to expect that individuals will be willing to invest time and money in meeting formal library education requirements for such jobs. Others argue that because paraprofessional work is "hands-on" it is best learned through experience or that local libraries prefer to train paraprofessionals because they then "do it our way." Many paraprofessionals, most of whom learned librarianship "on-the-job," are concerned that establishing formal library educational requirements would affect their ability to practice. Both paraprofessionals and MLS librarians express concern that such formal library education requirements would close off paraprofessional library work to many who could make meaningful contributions to library service and operations.

Questions typically raised about basic education for paraprofessionals include:

  • What do library paraprofessionals need to know?
    • To do their jobs?
    • To advance in their library careers?
    • To contribute more fully to the development of libraries and librarianship?
  • What should be the general education requirement for paraprofessional positions?
    • Should this vary with the level of position? Type of library?
    • Who, or what agency, should determine this?
  • Should basic library education for paraprofessionals be standardized?
    • By type of library? By type of position? Other?
    • Should basic library education be curriculum based, informal or some combination?
    • Who, or what agency, should decide the above?

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

  • "Technical assistants would have to have an associate's degree and/or a boat-load of experience."
  • "The library associate degree gives no leg up on getting a job."
  • "I think a standardized program of education for paraprofessionals would be counterproductive. Things change too fast at this level of library work. The same goes for certification."
  • "I refused to finish the LTA degree because of a required practicum even after my 17 years of experience."
  • "Formal education gets you to think like a professional."

KW August 29, 1991