ASSOCIATES (vol. 4, no. 2, November 1997) -

Table of Contents

                           *DO WORDS COUNT?
                      LIBRARY ASSISTANT POSITIONS*
                           Margaret Friesen
                 University of British Columbia Library 

      Four years ago, the University of British Columbia (UBC) embarked
on a campus-wide job evaluation system project for all support staff.
The collective bargaining unit represents members in a wide range of
job titles: clerks, secretaries, program assistants, clinical
secretaries, computer operators, editorial assistants, several
one-of-a-kind jobs, such as stage and lighting assistants, buyers, and
the full range of library assistants from library assistant 1 to
library assistant 5.
      After a lengthy consultation process, the job evaluation committee
developed a customized job evaluation manual, drawn from several other
Canadian models.  The committee selected a number of criteria (factors)
for evaluating job content, including the factor of contacts, which
measures the relative value of the position's responsibility for
handling contacts with others.  The factors and guidelines in the manual
were pre-tested by asking a limited number of employees to complete a
written questionnaire which elicited job requirements for benchmark
jobs.  After preliminary evaluations of the benchmark jobs, revisions
were made and the questionnaire was administered to all members of the
collective bargaining unit for completion.
      During the evaluation phase of the project, several problems
surfaced. In some cases, both the written job descriptions provided by
employees and the job evaluation methodology seemed inadequate tools
for the task.  It was difficult to evaluate information-provider jobs
based solely on the written sources.  It was often necessary for me,
as a committee member, to supplement the written documentation by
providing analogies and further explanation to non-library managers
and non-library employees so they could understand the complex
communication process and the nature of information provision as a
service.  Further, although the job requirement of communications with
users was to be included in the evaluation of the contacts factor, the
level and skills required to do the job were not captured adequately
in the definitions of this or any other factor chosen for this job
evaluation system.
      A search for examples of other job evaluation systems was
undertaken to determine if other institutions had wrestled with this
same problem and/or had captured this component of the job in a more
explicit and satisfactory way.  Some reports of studies provided
tantalizing hints that this was so.  Upon closer scrutiny, no study
was found on the job evaluation factor of contacts as it relates
specifically to communications at the front line between information
providers (library assistants) and library users, and no study was
found comparing the differences in interpreting the contacts factor
between job evaluation plans, or testing the terminology of job
descriptions for the purpose of rating the contacts factor.
      An earlier study conducted by Anne Woodsworth and Theresa
Maylone (_Reinvesting in the Information Job Family_, Boulder,
CAUSE, 1993) emphasized the importance of using appropriate
terminology in describing jobs that contribute to a common
understanding of the roles of library assistants.  The authors
invited others to continue the research in a number of areas.
      This invitation lured me into proposing the thesis topic
_The Terminology of  Job Descriptions: the Case of Library
Assistants Who Provide Information Services_.  My intent was
twofold:  first, to write a thesis that was manageable and of
interest to me and that would lead to the upgrading of my BLS
to the MLIS degree, and, second, to examine the job evaluation
systems of several institutions to see if their methodology had
dealt with the terminology of job descriptions with respect to
the contacts factor more explicitly than UBC had.  A more
long-term goal was to begin the process of planning how to
rewrite job descriptions and job specifications.  Revisions
were needed to describe adequately the requirements of an
information service job at its several levels of complexity and
to bring requirements for expertise in information technology
and instructional roles up to date.
      In order to make the thesis a manageable project, it was
necessary to limit the study by focusing on a small set of
research questions.
      The purpose of this study was to investigate whether the
kinds of terminology used in writing job descriptions for
library assistants who provide information services affected
the job evaluation rating for the jobs described.  The study
provided background information on the importance of the
problem, pay equity and job evaluation systems, the nature and
purpose of contacts in information and reference services,
the changing roles of information providers and the problem of
terminology in writing job descriptions.
      To examine whether the terminology in job descriptions
made a difference in evaluation, three experienced job
evaluators were asked to rate nine job descriptions
representing three levels of jobs and three different
terminologies: library, computer and generic.  The respondents'
ratings, five sets of nine ratings each, were analyzed by
comparing the individual job evaluation plans, the respondents'
numerical ratings and rationales.
      The findings revealed the similarities and differences
in definitions used in each of the plans, the differences in
ratings within and among plans and the extent to which the
terminology used in the job descriptions could be attributed
to differences in ratings.  Some inconsistencies in ratings
occurred.  In most cases, the job description using library
terminology was rated higher than its computer or generic
counterparts, but in two cases it was not.  Of the three
versions of terminology, the generic version led to the least
favourable ratings.  Considering the complexity of the
responsibility of contacts present to some degree in all
three levels of jobs, some of the jobs may have been undervalued.
Recommendations were made for action and for further study.
      One of the most useful discoveries in this investigation was
to find another model of written descriptions of library jobs.
The Cornell model, referred to in detail in the thesis, retains
the library terminology in its descriptions of library functions,
categorizes the levels of complexity and responsibility of jobs,
including those related to information provision, and is adaptable
to the matrix organizational structure and multi-function jobs, now
common in restructured library environments.
      Furthermore, its method of categorization by function and
level takes into account both changing job requirements and
changing individual competencies.  In describing their own jobs,
library assistants can select the appropriate components of the
job from a whole range of library functions and apply the
appropriate level from a ranked list of definitions.  It may still
be necessary to supplement the written data with further
explanations and briefings for non-library colleagues in order for
them to interpret library jobs and library function levels
accurately, but the Cornell model provides a well-designed and
carefully thought out written scheme as a starting point.
      In some ways, the process of writing this thesis paralleled that
of evaluating jobs.  The job evaluation committee and my thesis
advisers both needed to be convinced that a problem existed and
required a solution; both groups needed to be persuaded that the
problem had not been addressed elsewhere; both could only be
persuaded through appropriate analogies and convincing words; and both
required that concepts and headings be defined and described with
precision and clarity.  In thesis writing, as in job evaluation, it
still comes down to making words count.
Print copy (123 pages): Can.$30.00
Contact: Margaret Friesen, Staff Training and Development Coordinator,
University of British Columbia Library
e-mail: or fax:(604)822-3335
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