Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a meeting of Fedlink, the umbrella organization of libraries and librarians in the U.S. Federal government.
One of the sessions was devoted to discussion of the role of so-called “paraprofessionals” – individuals who work in libraries, whose jobs don’t require Library Science degrees and are generally lower-paid. One of the points of the meeting was that so-called “paraprofessionals” are indeed “professionals” at what they do.
Indeed, that term “paraprofessional” is odd. In the legal profession, there are paralegals. In the medical profession, there are paramedics. So why do we not use the term paralibrarians? It turns out that “paralibrarian” isn’t a brand new word. In fact, it first appeared in print almost exactly 20 years ago, in an editorial by John Berry in the Nov. 1, 1992 Library Journal. Still, a quick search indicates that “paraprofessional” shows up in the literature of librarianship about 100 times more often than “paralibrarian.”
Despite having the numbers against me, I’m going to adopt the term “paralibrarian.”
So, having said all that, the meeting got me thinking about the role of paralibrarians in an organization that is developing an embedded librarianship model. Of course, local circumstances will vary, but it seems to me that one important change that’s likely to occur is that paralibrarians will end up assuming greater responsibility for running that physical space we call the library.
For example, in a university I studied in my research, as librarians have spent more of their time away from the library, teaching classes and working with faculty – and as the library collection has evolved from heavily print to heavily digital – paralibrarians have transitioned from handling routine acquisitions, materials processing, and collection management tasks to providing information and assistance at a single-service desk in the library. They have picked up the slack for librarians who could no longer staff the reference desk because of their new responsibilities.
It seems to me that this is a good situation for everybody. As the nature of collections changes, and library spaces are repurposed from organized book warehouses to flexible learning spaces, the need for some types of traditional library jobs goes away. You don’t need as many serials staff to check in journal issues, for example, when 90% of your current subscriptions are digital. The growth areas are in technology and in more sophisticated forms of working with members of the community – yet the need for basic help and information services doesn’t go away. In the example I mentioned above, deploying paralibrarians to provide that help opens up new opportunities for them, while enabling librarians to focus on embedded roles.
In part 2, I’ll focus on more benefits and at least one potential conflict that can arise as librarians and paralibrarians assume these new roles.