Para-librarians and Embedded Librarians, Part 2


At the end of part 1, I promised to discuss benefits as well as a potential conflict that can emerge as both librarians and paralibrarians assume new roles and responsibilities in the library.

Let’s talk about the trend of replacing librarians with paralibrarians at the reference desk, or of merging reference and circulation desks into a single service desk or information desk in the library.

I think this is a good thing, because I think reference librarians have been largely misused and underemployed at the reference desk.

In a recent article (Arnason & Riemer 2012), the authors categorized over 6,000 public library service interactions. They found that only 25% involved finding information and materials at all. Technology help was the leading category with 31%, with circulation, membership (card status), directional, and procedural questions also accounting for significant percentages. Of the 25% that were information questions, the proportion representing complex research, as opposed to finding known items and basic information, isn’t known. Still the overall impression is that a substantial majority of the requests don’t require an advanced knowledge of resources and search techniques.

The same authors also quote another study (Ryan 2008) that concluded that 89% of interactions analyzed could be handled by staff without Master’s degrees or equivalent knowledge.

I have substantial, empirical, albeit unsystematic, evidence to support this view. Every time I teach our “Information Sources and Services” course, I send students out to visit a library of any type, observe the reference / service operation, and interview a public services manager or reference librarian. With few exceptions, the students report that the predominant service interactions fall into the categories mentioned above. Infrequently do they happen to observe a complex information request or an in-depth interview.

So it seems to me that it makes a lot of sense to redeploy librarians while maintaining essential services with well-trained, service-oriented paralibrarians.

Unfortunately, sometimes negative reactions to this change take hold among both librarians and paralibrarians. The librarians may feel they are being forced out in a short-sighted cost-cutting maneuver, while paralibrarian may feel they’re being asked to do the work of librarians without equitable pay and status.

If the change is made without a positive vision, then the conditions are created for these reactions to flourish. However, I think the embedded model provides a vision of better utilization of all staff, librarians and paralibrarians alike. The embedded role offers librarians the opportunity to fully apply the information retrieval, analysis, and management skills they went to school for, while affording the paralibrarians the opportunity to really take charge of the front line service operation.

Seems like a win for everybody… including the folks who need the information and the capabilities that librarians and paralibrarians bring to the organization!

Reference: Arnason, H., Reimer, L. (2012) Analyzing Public Library Service Interactions to Improve Public Library Customer Service and Technology Systems. Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, 7(1), 22-40.

p.s. In part 3, I’ll offer some thoughts in response to the question, “but what will happen to the complex questions that library users do bring to the reference/information desk?”


3 Responses to “Para-librarians and Embedded Librarians, Part 2”

  1. Patricia Orr Says:

    Have you measured the effect of an incorrect answer, on the library’s credibility with customers? When I came to my current position 10 years ago, paraprofessionals covered our reference desk while the librarian was at lunch. The number of misinterpreted reference questions by support staff, and resulting incorrect responses was troubling. So was the number of complaints I received from requestors. The policy change I made was to allow paralegals to perform specific tasks; document retrieval, interlibrary loan searches etc. Nothing more complicated. I see no benefit to putting credibility at risk.

    • davidshumaker Says:

      Patricia, I’m glad you raised this point. I agree that delivering consistent high quality and professionalism are important goals. It sounds as if your organization may have a higher incidence of sophisticated research questions coming to the reference desk than some others. Still, I don’t think that stationing a MLS-degreed librarian at the desk is a “magic bullet” to ensure that quality. In studies dating back to the 60s and 70s, it was found that public library reference staff provided flawed answers a great deal of the time — up to 50%, depending on which measure and interpretation you use. I think that good training and communication are necessary to maintain the performance quality of paralibrarians and librarians alike. Also I think there’s a structural problem with keeping librarians stuck at the reference desk that hampers their ability to perform at the highest level. I’ll elaborate on that in my next post.

  2. Bunny Hop Says:

    In response to Ms Orr:
    Your observation was 10 years ago. A MLS degree does not guarantee quality answers to patrons’ questions. I have seen many librarians using google search for answers. On the other hand, a properly trained well-qualified library technician can be a well fit at reference desk.

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