MLS Librarian/Paraprofessional Communication and Mutual Respect

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 #4

In any discussion of library paraprofessionals, or when paraprofessionals write about their work-life and role in libraries, the issue of mutual respect, and an associated concern over communication between paraprofessionals and MLS librarians, comes up. It is unclear whether these concerns are related more to organizational climate and/or hierarchy within individual libraries or are characteristic of a profession-wide problem. If strength of feeling and expression are any indicators, respect and communication are both local and profession-wide issues manifested in different ways.

While there are exceptions, there is a generalized feeling among paraprofessionals that they are not recognized and respected for their contributions to libraries and librarianship. Associated with this feeling is a concern over the ability of paraprofessionals and librarians with the MLS to communicate, particularly in the workplace, but also on the state and national level. (See Issue Paper on Morale for a related discussion.) These feelings and concerns seem to go well beyond the "boss/worker" syndrome typical of most workplaces.

Concern with mutual respect is not verbalized to the same degree by librarians as by paraprofessionals, either in the literature or conversation. Yet mutual respect is also an issue for librarians not only because of the feelings expressed by paraprofessionals but also because of the low regard paraprofessionals often hold for librarians. The seemingly lesser concern of librarians with paraprofessional/librarian relations is probably due, at least in part, to their higher positions in the organization. Librarians also tend to focus on their own low status relative to others outside the library. Many librarians are also simply not that aware of paraprofessionals' concern with mutual respect. It must be acknowledged that there are librarians with the MLS who have little or no respect for paraprofessionals and/or have problems in relating well with others. Some librarians emphasize their professional status at the expense of those who do not have an MLS. Others do not.

On a workplace level, degree of consultation and involvement in planning and policy seem to be factors in whether or not, or to what degree, paraprofessionals feel respected by MLS librarians. Relationships with immediate supervisors and interpersonal relations among individual staff members are also factors. So too are access to educational opportunities or library resources. Opportunity for advancement and adequate compensation are also related issues. (See Issue Papers on Advancement for Support Staff and on Compensation for further discussion of this.) Part-time workers in an organization also affect communication. We do not know the number of part-time paraprofessionals but we do know that many paraprofessionals are concerned about part-time work and so we can assume this is a factor in the generalized concerns about workplace communication.

Ironically the continuing blurring of librarian and paraprofessional responsibilities that varies from library to library but is a clear trend, and which would seem to indicate respect for paraprofessional abilities, often exacerbates the issue, particularly in those library functions where librarians and paraprofessionals perform similar or identical tasks. (See Issue Paper on Role Definition for further discussion.) This is for many reasons. Paraprofessionals know they are doing work done previously by librarians who were typically paid more and who's positions had more status in the organization. They resent this if, as is often the case, commensurate pay increases, participation in decision making affecting the job, and increased potential for advancement do not accompany the increased or expanded duties. They feel the librarians are "dumping" on them and that this would not be done if they were respected by the librarians. Paraprofessionals may also feel a diminished respect for the librarians in such situations stemming from awareness that the work the librarians were doing is not as complex as the paraprofessionals were once led to believe. Paraprofessionals begin to question whether this is true for all work done by librarians.

The fact that many users (and indeed non-users) of libraries are not aware of educational requirements for the field is also related to this issue. In responding to the question "you mean you have to go to school to learn this?" or in generally educating the public about librarianship, distinctions are made among library staff which often lead paraprofessionals to feel that their contributions are not important. (See Issue Paper on Terminology for further discussion of this.)

On a profession-wide level, until recently, there has not been significant attention given to the role of paraprofessionals in libraries since the promulgation of the American Library Association Library Education and Personnel Utilization Policy (LEPU, 1970). While typically open to all interested in libraries and librarianship, membership in national and state associations, for the most part, is made up of holders of the MLS or credentials required for school media certification, and public library trustees. Despite the longstanding affiliation of the Council on Library/Media Technicians (COLT) with ALA, national level library associations have not provided a forum for communication among a range of levels of library staff. The potential for this forum is building through efforts such as this project and the creation of an ALA Support Staff Membership Initiative Group.

The development of paraprofessional associations and units within state associations also offers the potential for such communication but these organizations are currently, for the most part, concentrating on serving paraprofessionals. Through these organizations and the national level journal, Library Mosaics , paraprofessionals are learning to be more assertive, telling librarians and themselves, that mutual respect and communication are issues of significance. (See Issue Paper on Support Staff Morale for further discussion.)

It is unlikely that there are those who think there should not be mutual respect between librarians and paraprofessionals or enhanced communication although there are those who do not see these concerns as significant issues. Some see these issues as personal differences or problems within individual libraries. Others see them as symptoms of wider problems, related to the status of the library field and/or to the changing nature of librarianship.

Questions typically raised about mutual respect and communication include:

  • Why am I treated the way I am?
  • Why can't paraprofessionals be told/asked about issues that affect them?

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

  • "ALA takes my money, my time, but doesn't care who I am, what I do."
  • "At my library school no one mentioned support staff yet over 50% of the people working in libraries I've worked in are in this classification. This astounds me."
  • "We are not treated any differently than the other librarians. None of the professionals staff looks down on us."
  • "We are second class citizens."
  • "I think people with a degree look down on support staff. We have two break rooms, one for professionals and one for the rest. I make decisions all day long. I think I can do just as well as my boss who has a degree."
  • "Many things are a matter of courtesy; there's not substitute for basic respect."

KW August 29, 1991