ERIC Identifier: ED382197
Publication Date: 1995-05-00
Author: Oberg, Larry R.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Information and Technology Syracuse NY.
Library Support Staff in an Age of Change: Utilization, Role
Definition and Status. ERIC Digest.
Staff utilization, role definition and articulation, task overlap,
educational requirements, certification, and status have been cantankerous
issues within the library profession for most of this century and remain largely
As early as 1923, Charles C. Williamson challenged librarians to distinguish
unambiguously between professional and clerical tasks in his Carnegie
Corporation-sponsored report, "Training for Library Service." In 1927, the
American Library Association's "Proposed Classification and Compensation Plans
for Library Positions" marked the beginning of a long series of efforts to
separate library tasks into discrete professional and clerical streams. In 1939,
an ALA report advocated a three-tiered approach to staffing--professional,
subprofessional, and clerical. By 1970, the ALA Council had approved the
"Library Education and Personnel Utilization" (LEPU) policy statement which
proposed formal educational requirements for all library staff and three
distinct levels of employment for support personnel: library associates, library
technical assistants, and clerks. Although efforts to create unambiguous
staffing categories have largely failed to gain acceptance at the grass roots
level, a distinctive new employment category has nonetheless emerged.
THE EMERGENCE OF THE PARAPROFESSIONAL
Over the past twenty
or more years, automation of library processes, declining budgets, contraction
of higher education generally, and entry into the electronic information age
have changed libraries. New library tasks have been created and others
realigned. This redistribution of the library workload has given rise to a new
category of employee, the paraprofessional. Driven largely by forces from
outside the profession, the emergence of a paraprofessional category of library
employment has been largely uninhibited by associational policy or guidelines.
THE ROLE OF THE PARAPROFESSIONAL
In a recent survey of
their role, status, and working conditions, Oberg (1992) found that
paraprofessionals constitute a vital, growing force within our libraries. Few
traditional or newly created tasks are off-limits, and paraprofessionals are
assigned complex duties that a generation ago characterized the work of
librarians. Today, paraprofessionals administer major functional areas of our
libraries, are assigned reference and information desk duties, perform a variety
of systems work, and catalog most of the books that are added to our
Paraprofessionals have had a dramatic impact upon technical services. In the
brief period since the advent of the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC), they
have come to dominate this workforce. A similar increase in the utilization of
support staff may be occurring in public services as well. A movement toward
tiered (or differentiated) reference service, and a past record of successful
performance at reference and information desks is ensuring paraprofessionals a
larger role in the direct provision of information. In a number of libraries,
they have already assumed primary responsibility for basic reference.
EXPECTED NEW ROLES FOR SUPPORT STAFF
We can expect support
staff to be used increasingly in both new and reconfigured roles, in many cases
performing tasks previously considered to be the exclusive province of
librarians. In addition to increased responsibility for the direct provision of
information to patrons, support staff will assume increased supervisory
responsibility, including the hiring, training and evaluation of staff; complex
support roles in computer technology and applications; and an ever greater
responsibility for cataloging, acquisition, document delivery, and interlibrary
loan. It is likely that eventually support staff will be granted primary
responsibility for the day-to-day operations of our libraries.
TASK OVERLAP AND ROLE CONFUSION
The rapidly changing
library workplace has created tension, even resentment, among support staff.
Paraprofessionals see themselves performing the tasks they have watched
librarians perform for years, as well as the challenging new tasks created by
automation, but for less money and lower status. Whether or not the perception
that significant task overlap exists is correct, it devalues the MLS and creates
ill will between the two groups.
In 1992, Oberg warned that librarianship will fail to attain full
professional status unless librarians come to grips with these staffing
dilemmas. Although some task overlap is to be expected during a period of
change, librarians remain curiously reluctant to redefine their own roles.
TOWARDS A REDEFINITION OF LIBRARIANSHIP
A growing consensus
suggests that the roles of librarians as well as support staff must be
redefined. It has become increasingly clear that before librarians can resolve
the issues of support staff, they need to put their own house in order.
Increasingly, librarians suggest that the resolution of the profession's
staffing dilemmas may require nothing less than a redefinition of librarianship
In a search for common theoretical and methodological frameworks, Pritchard
(1995) reminds us that librarianship is the study of all forms of recorded
information, independent of place or package. She suggests that new roles will
emerge, not from a study of today's changing tools and procedures but, rather,
from an understanding of the field's structure, content, and services.
In its "Strategic Vision for Professional Librarians" document, the "visions"
group of librarians has formulated a statement that redefines service, outlines
innovative leadership roles for librarians, and articulates the values of the
profession. Martin (1993) notes that achieving this vision would raise
librarians' expectations of themselves and communicate the importance of
librarianship and information studies.
The process of reinventing librarianship may not need to be a revolutionary
one. Pritchard (1995) states that new roles for librarians can and should grow
out of the things that we have always done: relating user needs to information
availability; managing complex technological, financial, and bureaucratic
systems; designing interconnected technical systems, organizational structures,
and human interfaces; selecting and organizing information resources; teaching
and consulting; articulating logical and intuitive insights about information;
and interacting with the external environment through the formulation and
articulation of information policy.
While agreement exists that the
roles of all library staff must be clarified, many issues remain to be resolved.
Adequate compensation, status, and continuing education opportunities elude
today's paraprofessionals even though fair play for support staff is essential
if they are to succeed in their new roles. In an age characterized by
divisiveness and increasing assaults upon intellectual freedom, a means must be
found by which all staff can be socialized into the values librarians promulgate
and defend. And, importantly, the differences between support staff and
librarians must be addressed honestly and forthrightly.
Veaner (1994) points out that automation has transformed most library workers
into "knowledge workers" and that the once simple distinction between librarians
and support staff fails to describe adequately the complexities of today's
workplace. But, he cautions, control of the library's program and fiscal
responsibility are inherent in the librarian's position and, by definition,
cannot be delegated.
Many support staff, and not a few librarians, argue that the MLS should not
constitute a barrier to advancement and that librarianship ought to be
competency, rather than degree, based. Curiously, librarians remain reluctant to
address these and other questions candidly, even though their reticence impedes
the development of the field and limits their own status.
Automation, rapid change, and competition for control within the information
sector has placed significant stress upon the library workplace. A resolution of
the troublesome problems of staff utilization, role definition, qualifications,
and status is long overdue.
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