Editorial: Not Yet Equal
Giving lip service to paraprofessionals' work isn't enough
By Francine Fialkoff, Editor-in-Chief firstname.lastname@example.org -- Library Journal, 03/01/2010
If I had my way, we'd adopt the Greek definition of the prefix para—“at or to one side of, beside, side by side”—to describe the role of the non-MLIS librarian in libraries today, rather than the English definition. In English, says the dictionary, para is used “in the naming of occupational roles considered ancillary or subsidiary to roles requiring more training, or of a higher status.” Not quite the same as “side by side.”
I'm not minimizing the MLIS, but most people who work in libraries do jobs that never required the degree or no longer require it. Isn't it time to look at the people who do these jobs and come up with better nomenclature than paraprofessional, support staff, or library assistant? Or if we insist on keeping some of these titles, let's at least acknowledge that they refer to those who work alongside the “professionals” who deliver service to users and include staff in tech services or IT who make those services possible.
This year's LJ Paraprofessional of the Year, Allison Sloan (see p. 26 and the March 1 cover), made a case for using the term paralibrarian to her colleagues in the non-MLIS section of the Massachusetts Library Association, pointing out that paraprofessional is just a shortening of paraprofessional librarian. They voted to adopt the name for their section in 2004, choosing it over both paraprofessional and support staff. “Paraprofessional is a generic term and may refer to any and many professions, such as paraprofessional legal assistant,” says Sloan. “We lose the sense of the profession when we shorten it. By using paralibrarian, the profession is clearly explained.” (What's your preference? Take the poll on the homepage at LibraryJournal.com or email me at email@example.com.)
For years, we've been hearing from those with the degree lamenting the “deprofessionalization” of libraries, as administrators have hired fewer MLIS graduates and reclassified jobs that once were their bailiwick to “nonprofessional” positions to save money. Conversely, nearly 15 years ago, in a groundbreaking report on paraprofessionals (“We Are the Library: Support Staff Speak Out,” LJ 11/1/95), we heard from paraprofessionals about the resentment they felt taking on jobs once done by MLIS-holders—but for much less money. One paraprofessional we quoted said, “As long as librarians aren't getting paid fairly, paraprofessionals aren't going to get paid fairly.” That's still largely true. Whether librarians have an advanced degree or not, their work across the board warrants pay restructuring. With library budgets suffering all over, that's not likely to happen anytime soon.
At the very least, however, paraprofessionals or paralibrarians deserve respect for the work they do. There are numerous libraries where that isn't an issue, including the one where Sloan works. Unfortunately, that's not the case everywhere.
In a recent article, Toccara Porter, now a university reference librarian, decries the lack of respect from reference librarians whom she encountered and witnessed during her 15-month stint on the circulation desk at a large public library (American Libraries, Jan./Feb. 2010). She “may as well have gone by the moniker 'dummy worker,'” she writes, because circulation workers were prohibited from answering patron questions unless they were “directional in nature or…circulation-oriented...like a basic library catalog search.” She goes on to say, “One type of worker should not be treated as inferior because the nature of the work varies.... [E]very position...is necessary to help all workers perform their jobs efficiently.”
Sloan, too, points out that there are library administrators (and librarians) who “follow a traditional expectation of roles” and don't give their paralibrarians opportunities to develop their careers. “Being a paralibrarian is a career path, not just a job,” she firmly believes.
Obviously, we're still facing some of the same knotty issues that roiled paraprofessionals and MLIS librarians when we did that survey way back in 1995. The barriers between professional and paraprofessional in the library field remain. It's not about a degree, however, it's about basic human respect.