The Library Paraprofessional Movement and the Deprofessionalization of Librarianship

I have an article in the current issue of Progressive Librarian that I have put online this morning: “The Library Paraprofessional Movement and the Deprofessionalization of Librarianship.” It says something that some people won’t like, but it’s something that I think is true and something that I think we should discuss openly. It’s in the Fall/Winter 2009 issue, which is number 33 (no volume number). In the journal it’s on pages 43-60.

8 comments on “The Library Paraprofessional Movement and the Deprofessionalization of Librarianship

  1. Rory: Thank you very much for the essay. It is a topic that deserves a great deal more attention and discussion within libraries and between professionals and paraprofessionals. There are so many white elephants running around the library and you have done a good job of pointing some of them out.

    One point I would like to make is that your comment that paraprofessionals are unlikely “to be motivated by intrinsic rewards or the ethical foundations of practice” is true of just as many librarians as it is of paraprofessionals, and just as untrue in both cases as well.

    There are many paraprofessionals–like myself from 1979-1993–who are motivated by the work itself and exhibit the professional ethics you advocate; rather than giving them pat on the back with a paraprofessional certification or calling them professionals while continuing to treat them as a proletariat, the library professionals and management should be seeking them out and offering encouragement, guidance and support in leading them to equal pay for equal work as full professionals. I was lucky to get that support; many others will get a certificate, a pat on the back, and either punch the clock within am 8 minute window of opportunity every morning and afternoon or get fired.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this article. You made a compelling case for considering the implications of deprofessionalization in librarianship. These issues are very new to me as I have only been a professional librarian for just under 2 years. In my experience, paraprofessionals or “library specialists” who lack the knowledge and ethical foundation that define a profession were fewer or at least equal to the librarians who, despite their degrees, could also be said to lack these credentials (it seems like definitions of these are often abstract). Of course, my vision is very short-sited and my experience is so limited.

    I was so shocked when I started reading about the requirements for the paraprofessional certifications you describe in your article–I thought immediately: wait, is this not what the MLS degree is made of? While I didn’t see the requirement to understand “Information & Society” or “Professional Ethics” regarding social/economic/political nature of information access & retrieval, I wondered: could these larger questions of the profession be embedded in some of the skill-set-oriented content listed in the certification requirements? After-all, in my experience, this kind of knowledge merely bookended my own library-school experience. It wasn’t prioritized—didn’t seem anymore important beyond the core courses (hey, at least they were the “core” courses, though).

    I am always struck by how different everyone’s experience in library school really is. (Yes, not a profound observation, I know.) The academic “rigor” you refer to, one aspect of professionalism that sets the librarians and the paraprofessionals apart, was often *thee* thing to complain about in library school. Some would say: “I don’t need all of this theory. I want what’s practical.” Actually, “practical” was the word-of-choice in library school. I couldn’t go anywhere without hearing it. This impulsive yet understandable desire solely for what is practical is nonetheless problematic since what’s practical doesn’t necessarily require a broader understanding of the profession—the thing that defines a profession. What’s practical can often be learned on-the-job (and I’m thankful for that—since it’s difficult to navigate academia without becoming kind of disconnected from the world outside of academia. Overzealousness, naïveté, and isolation being some of the bi-products of being an irresponsible academic, in my humble opinion).

    For me, there were some library school students who indeed did immerse themselves in Daniel Bell, Harold Kumar, and even Marx; Eve Sedgwick, bell hooks, Arundhati Roy, and even Celeste West. I ‘m not dropping names for the sake of dropping names because that’s just annoying; but very little of the theory we were assigned in library school was also being read by students in other Master’s programs. The readings were pretty much library-centric–and that’s really important, (since I went to library school to get a specialized degree); but it didn’t seem like we were getting what other graduate students got in their Master’s programs. I certainly did get a glimpse into the literature of these other disciplines, and I take full responsibility for my education and don’t expect to be spoonfed everything I should be reading or thinking about; but these other theories—written from the perspectives of the scientists, economists, socialists, linguists, lawyers, health professionals, entrepreneurs, etc. were not being “pushed” at all, at least not in my experience. And that is increasingly strange to me given the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of the academic librarian. I guess what I’m blathering about is this rigor that is supposed to define a professional. What is the criteria for that?

    I’m so curious now about other’s experiences. Anyway, I guess that’s a whole new ball of wax.

    Something that really stuck out to me in your article, though, was the:

    “shared responsibility for guiding the development of the profession and the institutions in which the students will later work as graduates.”

    There is definitely a shared sense of responsibility for developing the profession that I have felt among colleagues. Another thing that really stuck out for me was the “autonomy” you discuss that professional librarians are granted—in a sense, they have earned their ability to be master’s of their own domain, to grow professionally, to be guided by their visions, to not be (micro)-managed in the way paraprofessionals are managed. So true, if I am getting that right. This is the most obvious distinction (in my experience) between library support-staff and the degreed librarians; and it’s also the source of much hostility. And I can understand that. I have worked with the most amazing, hard-working, and committed library staff and feel blessed to have been able to work with them, their talents and energy boundless. How can we, as librarians, be their allies and help them achieve job satisfaction, a sense of being valued, and the ability for development while also maintaining our professional status? I think it would be super-easy to get caught up in the “us-vs.-them” mentality which is counterproductive in our efforts to achieve professional status, respect, and garner more support for libraries.

    Well, thank you for writing such a compelling article. You’ve given us much to consider!!!

  3. In the 1980s the ALA Office for Library Personnel Resources under the capable stewardship of Margaret Myers tackled issues relating to the status of library positions (including that reclass at the federal level).

    Of related interest is defense of the MLS in Edward G. Holley’s “The Merwine Case and the MLS: Where Was ALA?” American Libraries, v15: May 1984: 327-30. Dr. Holley was an expert witness in the case.

  4. Some thoughts as a para-professional. First, for 14 years I worked in a county law library and, initially, took some LS classes. For various reasons, including lack of funds, I did not complete the MLS program. I might have taken a technician program if there were any nearby.

    One reason I think librianship is becoming de-professionalised: it’s not specialised enough. Librarianship, unlike law or medicine, does not require one to accumulate, within the same timeframe, an equivalent mass of special information and applications. It would be very difficult for someone who did not go to law or medical school to meet the minimum knowledge requirements for those professions.

    One does not need a masters degree to understand library classification systems when shelving, computerised circulation or serial check-in functions, or assist customers with basic reference issues. Even newly minted librarians learn these OTJ.

    The profession might better itself by creating a two-tier program. Create an affordable bachelors program for entry into the profession, and then a more specialised masters level for administrative or educational positions.

    Librarians worry about ethics and values. Do they think non-MLS people care less? I do care but it hasn’t gotten me employed.

  5. After having conducted my own survey of both paraprofessionals and librarians, there appears to be a very high degree of dissatisfaction among paraprofessionals with respect to salary and overall sense of appreciation for the day-to-day work done. I might add that the work typically done by MLS librarians is now being shifted to paraprofessionals who work for far less pay.

    In some cases, I found that MLS Librarians justify the status of paraprofessionals on the assumption that this is really all that some seek to accomplish implying that those who seek paraprofessional status do not seek the responsibilities held by MLS Librarians. Of course, this really makes no sense at all and seems to lend to the indoctrination of those in the para-professional field.

    That said, this entire movement seems to parallel that of our entire country insofar as seeing the disappearance of the middle class. Within the library profession, there are the paraprofessionals and the “librarians”; there really is not equity within the profession itself.

    It would seem plausible to create a system whereby all are recognized according to their education level, continuing education, experience, tenure/loyalty, etc. Librarian I, II, III, etc would perhaps equalize the pay scale, but it would foster equity within the profession.

  6. I understand why people want to comment on this post, but I have to add that none of these comments addresses the central argument of the paper, which has to do with the autonomy of librarians in institutions.

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