Role Definition

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 #9

At the heart of any discussion of library paraprofessionals is the issue of the blurring and shifting of tasks and, indeed, whole functions within librarianship. Functions and responsibilities typically are transferred from librarians, defined here as those with a master's in library and information studies, to paraprofessionals. The transfer can occur the other way, too. Who does what is determined on a local level although there are national trends.

Circulation, for example, is a function that now almost always uses paraprofessionals, often at the management level. Because circulation is a prime candidate for automation, paraprofessional circulation managers are often among the first paraprofessionals to be involved in library wide planning and decision making. However, in some libraries, as circulation is automated, paraprofessional circulation managers are replaced by librarians.

The situation is not as clear in other functions of librarianship. Paraprofessionals now carry out most interlibrary loan transactions and copy cataloging but are less likely to manage the department than they are in circulation, a function which has been "paraprofessionalized" longer. This is changing, however. There are libraries where the copy cataloging, serials or acquisitions unit heads are high level paraprofessionals. The Head of Technical Service, however, remains almost always a librarian. Reference, and information services, where a distinction is made between the two, are now more frequently being carried out by higher level paraprofessionals, but this function has not been "paraprofessionalized" even to the same degree as copy cataloging. It is clear, however, that more paraprofessionals are found in information services designed to handle first line user inquiries than in reference services designed for more complex questions. No matter how organized, reference departments are almost exclusively managed by librarians and librarians are the bulk of the staff in most departments. Paraprofessionals are also active in audio-visual services, programming, and services to various special user groups including children. Functions that only recently were considered to require the educational background of the MLS, such as online database searching, are sometimes now being transferred to paraprofessionals, typically with subject expertise. Bibliographic instruction, although for the most part confined to leading library tours and instruction in the use of the online catalog, is also being assigned to paraprofessionals in some of the larger libraries. Despite these trends it is still true that what paraprofessionals must do in some libraries paraprofessionals would not be permitted to do in other libraries.

In library literature the term "routine" is frequently used to differentiate between the work done by librarians and paraprofessionals. This distinction seems inappropriate to the jobs held by a growing number of paraprofessionals whose responsibilities require sophisticated judgment calls, supervision and complex operations. It may well be that the models and definitions which were useful in the initial development of paraprofessional roles no longer serve to describe the reality in a growing number of libraries. There are those who suggest that the roles of librarians and paraprofessionals have changed sufficiently to require a complete overhaul of our professional and personnel models. Suffice to say this is a controversial proposal. Some librarians are threatened by these changes, others welcome them. The same is true with paraprofessionals.

Changing roles and responsibilities are difficult because staff are always operating in new contexts. Appropriate behavior for one context is not necessarily appropriate in another. When roles are changing in a hierarchical organization, the reality in most libraries, the situation is even more complex. Staff are off kilter. Given that these changes are occurring at the local level without significant profession-wide discussion, and in a climate of scarce resources, paraprofessionals and librarians alike may be left feeling lack of direction. They are asking: what is the nature of the work that requires formal library education and what work can be carried out by a paraprofessional? These is no profession-wide answer and there may never be.

As library functions are transferred to paraprofessionals or particular responsibilities are shifted, librarians and paraprofessionals sometimes do the same tasks for varying lengths of time. When this occurs paraprofessionals may come to feel that they do the same work as librarians and their typically lower pay becomes a source of frustration. In situations such as these, where the frustration is quite Iegitimate, the other, different kinds of responsibilities assigned to the paraprofessionals and librarians must also be examined. Unfortunately it is often more difficult to obtain a position upgrade or salary increase than it is to shift responsibility among staff. Hard won upgrades are too often "after the fact." In organizations where the personnel structure is highly formalized and regulated, through a union contract or civil service regulations, for example, it may not be possible to shift tasks with any ease. This may result in another kind of frustration stemming from lack of administrative flexibility and job enrichment. No matter the perspective, for both librarians and paraprofessionals, the issues surrounding the assignment of responsibility and compensation are difficult.

Another source of frustration, often manifest when functions are first transferred, is the close supervision some librarians exercise over paraprofessionals. This may lead to paraprofessional perceptions that they are not trusted by the librarian. Librarians, on the other hand, may wonder what their role in the organization is if functions they have traditionally carried out are transferred to someone who does not have formal library education. For some librarians, as for some paraprofessionals, this leads to questioning self-worth.

The shifting and blurring of responsibilities reflects the desire of library managers and of the Iibrary field as a whole to make the best use of staff towards the highest quality library services. There are paraprofessionals who feel they have much to contribute to the discussions of these changes as well as to implementing the changes in their local libraries. Typically, it is the librarians who discuss and make the decision to transfer functions and shift tasks, not the paraprofessionals. There are librarians who agree with this and librarians who do not. Related to all this and complicating any discussion of paraprofessional roles are strongly held opinions about the MLS, professional image, and the best ways to develop and deliver library service.

Questions typically raised about role definition include:

  • What should librarians be doing? What should paraprofessionals be doing?
  • Who or what agency should determine the answer to these questions?
  • How do we begin to address these issues in a climate where the MLS may be threatened?

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

  • "A lot depends on the staffing level and the money. In my department there is not enough staff, so we all do the jobs that aren't specifically our class. The budget determines how things are handled."
  • "Librarians need re-education for management skills; there is a growing need for supervisory and management skills."
  • "Our librarians are called librarians but they are really faculty."
  • "A distinction should be made between management and non-management only."
  • "As we [support staff] take over more duties, librarians can concentrate on what their education has prepared them to do."
  • "Support staff run day-to-day operations. The job requires decision making ability and flexibility."
  • "Librarians are involved in research, planning, report writing, attending meetings and decision making types of duties."

KW September 17, 1991