ASSOCIATES (2008, March, v. 14, no. 3)


Are Library Paraprofessionals Treated Unethically?

cmillard.bmpCharles P. Millard
Ayden-Grifton High School
Ayden, North Carolina

The role and plight of the library paraprofessional, with complaints about unfair treatment, are common topics of articles. Paraprofessionals claim they do the same work as the MLS trained librarian but for less pay; the MLS librarians often look down on them; paraprofessionals have no avenues for further advancement, feeling they are, for the most part, stuck where they are with little or no opportunity for upward mobility. The claims of paraprofessionals being treated unethically have some merit.

The controversy centers on the fact that there is no clear delineation between the roles of librarian and library paraprofessional. Few delineations exist and devising them seems to be a complicated matter. Most people agree that two people who perform the same task should be equally compensated. Workers have a reasonable expectation of civil treatment in the workplace. Failure to treat people in a civil manner and fairly compensate them is unethical. As long as the jobs of the librarian and the paraprofessional overlap, the paraprofessional runs the risk of being treated unethically.

There is a significant overlap in the jobs of licensed librarians and non-licensed paraprofessionals. Many different types of libraries exist and within them are many different types of jobs. Very few libraries are exactly alike; therefore, job descriptions will vary from site to site. In some libraries, because of their small size or lack of funding, it may be necessary for everyone to do a little bit of everything. In a library where the roles are not well defined, we may see an expansion in the role of paraprofessionals. Larry Oberg stated in his article “Library Support Staff in Age of Change: Utilization, Role Definition and Status”:

Paraprofessionals constitute a vital growing force within our libraries. Few traditional or newly created tasks are off limits, and paraprofessionals are assigned complex duties that a generation ago characterized the work of librarians. Today paraprofessionals administer major functional areas of our libraries, are assigned reference and information desk duties, perform a variety of systems work, and catalog most of the books that are added to our collections.

The overlap of duties between the librarian and paraprofessional has been a source of study by the American Library Association (ALA). An ALA task force on compensation posed this question to paraprofessionals: “Are you now performing duties previously performed by an MLS librarian within your institution, or the same kind of duties routinely performed by MLS librarians in other institutions?” Of the respondents, 73.6% answered yes.

In some cases, especially in library management, it may be easier to distinguish between the librarians and the paraprofessionals, but in many departments paraprofessionals are performing tasks that were once performed by librarians or tasks that many assume only a librarian should handle. This is not a new development. Paraprofessionals have, for quite some time, been a staple at the reference desk. Terry Rodgers, in his book The Library Paraprofessional: Notes from the Underground, reports:

The history of using less than professional help at the hallowed horseshoe desk goes back to the inception of modern librarianship, when fresh young bookish high school girls, quickly trained in on-site classes or summer institutes, were placed at the circulation desk, where they were expected to field any and all questions with skill and poise.”

The trend that started in the early days of libraries continues on today. Rodgers goes on to say:

In most libraries plagued by increasing budgetary constraints, paraprofessionals – whether career support – staff members, student assistants, or library-student interns – after adequate training are trusted to staff reference desks not only during peak use times, when they generally work side by side with librarians, but also late at night, on large portions of weekend days, and early in the morning, when they are totally alone.”

Increasingly, paraprofessionals must extend their roles in libraries. Every library has a technological presence. Librarians and paraprofessionals must familiarize themselves with new technological trends. According to Rodgers:

Paraprofessionals and clerical employees comprise the bulk of library staffs and spend more time working directly with computers than do most librarians.

He goes on to say:

Moreover, it is frequently nonprofessional library technicians who set up these systems in the first place and keep them running.

Many librarians graduated from their MLS programs prior to today’s technological advances. Rodgers states:

One thing we can all agree on is that the library profession has undergone a rapid, radical, metamorphosis thanks to burgeoning computer technology. The fact is, most librarians who received a degree more than twelve or so years ago did not acquire their computer reference skills on campus. They picked up those skills on the job and through work-related workshops – as do many paraprofessionals.

A continuing theme that runs through the literature on the conflict between librarians and paraprofessionals is that many tasks relevant to the job are learned on the job. The paraprofessional learns this information, in many cases, alongside and at the same time as the certified librarian. The paraprofessional is doing the same job as the librarian, learning it at the same time as the librarian, but receiving far less compensation.

One final example of the overlap between the duties of the librarian and the paraprofessional comes from the school library. C. Pawlowski and P. Troutman, in their article “Library Media Paraprofessionals–We Can’t Live Without Them!” say:

At our school, we expect a lot from the media assistant. Experienced, knowledgeable, efficient, and dedicated, she does not disappoint. She is literally a third media specialist.

After proclaiming the paraprofessional a third media specialist, a list of her duties is provided. These include:

Run monthly and yearly reports, help with the implementation of new technologies, order and deliver audiovisual materials from the district film library, and process new materials.

Included in the list were some clerical duties that one might think more appropriate for the paraprofessional, but as the list above shows, assistants in school libraries are doing many of tasks normally expected of the librarian. If paraprofessionals are doing the same work as the librarian, one might expect the pay to be comparable. That is usually not the case.

In 1997, an ALA report showed that on average, a librarian with an MLS degree received an average compensation of $37,000 while the average compensation of a library technical assistant was $21,000. The library assistant received an average annual salary of $16,700.11. If the two groups were doing similar jobs, one would not expect a $4,000 discrepancy in pay.

Data that is more recent shows a continued gap in the pay of paraprofessionals and certified librarians. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that on average, a “library technician” will make $24,940 a year. A librarian will make considerably more, with the yearly average being $45,900. The fact that such a discrepancy exists has led paraprofessionals to make charges of unfair and unethical treatment. Rodgers states in an interview with a paraprofessional working in a university library showed paraprofessionals’ attitudes toward pay:

It’s probably simplistic, and certainly predictable, to say that I feel that, commensurate with my responsibilities and experience, my salary has been inadequate for all positions I’ve held in the library…it has always been difficult for me to accept the market reality that the person who empties my trash is compensated more than I for doing a job which is perceivably less technical, and requires less education and training, but I suppose this is capitalism at work.

Another issue regarding compensation of paraprofessionals concerns pay raises and cost of living adjustments. Questions regarding ethical treatment were submitted to a library paraprofessional listserv. One respondent said “Don’t give yourself a raise and then tell people who are not in administration that there isn’t enough money for everyone.” The same respondent said that library administrators “should know what the rate of inflation is in your area and assume that your staff needs at least that much in a COLA. Know that only 3.5% means one thing to someone who is making ends meet on $20K a year and something else to someone who is pulling in $45+++K a year.” Paraprofessionals feel devalued in the work setting. Many paraprofessionals report that they feel underappreciated and looked down upon in America’s libraries.

The hard feelings go beyond a lack of pay. Many paraprofessionals report that they have been treated rudely and looked down upon by certified librarians. In his Masters thesis titled Job Satisfaction of Professional and Paraprofessional Library Staff at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, R.A. Murray referred to the animosity between librarians and paraprofessionals as “a kind of apartheid, but based on library qualifications rather than color of skin.” There are many examples of this type of treatment. A. Woodsworth’s article, “The Plight of Library Assistants,” had some very disturbing findings.

When asked how librarians treat support staff differently, out came a litany of responses. Librarians had been arrogant toward them. Librarians had been heard to make snide comments just out of earshot, such as ‘Why is she doing that? She’s not qualified or trained to do that.’

This type of treatment occurs in all different types of libraries. Woodsworth further reports:

The mistreatment that support staff members encounter is not bound by type of library or management style, although it is worse in hierarchical organizations.

Libraries cannot run without paraprofessional support staff. To show them a lack of respect because one perceives their professional status to be higher, is indeed unethical. In the article “We Are the Library: Support Staff Speak Out,” E. St. Lifer reports that four out of every ten paraprofessionals working in public libraries say they don’t get the respect they deserve, while nearly half of those working in academic libraries say they feel the same way. The “us vs. them” mentality these researchers report is counterproductive to efficient libraries.

Several possible reasons for this type of behavior are apparent. There may be a historical basis for this treatment. Rodgers states that it was once “customary practice in public libraries to discourage clerks from fraternizing with pages, and librarians from fraternizing with clerks.” He further pointed out “librarians have been taught from library school to separate themselves from the lesser (in terms of professionalism) forms of workers, i.e., support staffs.” It could be that the conferring of the MLS degree leads to a form of stratification. Woodsworth reported that the change in behavior and attitude seem to come with the bestowal of the MLS degree. She reached this notion after interviewing a paraprofessional who said, “Former colleagues who earned an MLS suddenly joined a higher caste and acted differently toward her.” It could be that librarians with the MLS feel that the paraprofessionals are incapable of doing their jobs without constant supervision. Even though some librarians may feel that way, there are instances of paraprofessionals training librarians. Rodgers asked a paraprofessional if she had ever trained a librarian. She replied, “Yes, at times the librarians need training on the circulation terminal and also on registration procedures. There was one librarian in particular who knew almost nothing and I spent many a time training her and watching her at the desk. Oftentimes I was interrupted on lunch hours because she was stuck and needed help.”

There is really no set reason why the uneasy relationship between librarians and paraprofessionals exist. There can be as many reasons as there are individuals working in libraries. One paraprofessional responded to my listserv request, and refreshingly enough, she reported few instances of rude behavior directed toward her by professional librarians. Tina Gunther has been working as a paraprofessional for thirty years at the Biola University Library in La Mirada. She did report, however, one instance of rude behavior. Note the sarcasm in her first sentence:

I’m sure some visiting professional librarians thought they were acting ethically when they snubbed me and other paraprofessionals at a regional meeting that was held at our library some years ago. At the time, I was acting head cataloger and paraprofessionals also handled the Circulation and Serials Departments. The visitors were friendly enough when we were talking professionally and they thought I was a fellow MLS holder. However, when they learned that I was not a library school graduate, it was made obvious to me that I had insulted them by presuming to fraternize above my station. My knowledge and experience no longer meant anything to them.

Stories like this were frequently encountered while researching this topic. Fortunately, this story had a happy ending. The respondent reported that the library director apologized (even though he was not one of the offending parties) “and made it clear that he respected the work we did and valued our professionalism. He had not been director here for long and hadn’t realized how radically the attitudes toward paraprofessionals varied in different libraries.”

Because of negative treatment, many paraprofessionals are fighting back. Many are unionizing or joining support groups such as the Council on Library/Media Technicians (COLT). The North Carolina Library Association has an organization known as the NCLPA or North Carolina Library Paraprofessional Association. This organization works in conjunction with the North Carolina Library Association to promote the cause of the paraprofessional. There are professional librarians who speak out against the treatment of paraprofessionals. In “The Other Librarians,” J. Berry said:

Here is a large group of talented, experienced people who want to work in libraries. We are already exploiting their readiness to help us fill the vacant jobs in this time of a shortage of library school graduates. We must do no less than welcome them to the fold and meet their needs for career growth and meaningful recognition.

Library paraprofessionals complain that they have little or no room for advancement. In many cases, the library paraprofessional is in a dead end job. In “Stuck at the Bottom” by G.S. Farrell, who works in a university library, seems to feel that his employer is of the opinion that the only talent worth cultivating is the person who already holds the MLS. He says:

If you have an MLS and occupy an upper management position, you are a source to be cultivated; if you don’t, you’re on your own.

Unfortunately, this is the predicament faced by many paraprofessionals. If they want to pursue the MLS, they can move up in the management hierarchy. If they don’t pursue an advanced degree, they might have an opportunity for a lateral movement, but forward movement is difficult. Many paraprofessionals feel this is unjust because they are on the job everyday, working in the library, and learning the ins and outs of librarianship, many times alongside new MLS librarians who are learning the same thing. Historically, on-the-job training has been a path into full-fledged librarianship. Rodgers reports that in the 1940’s the journal Library Literature utilized the subheading “in-service training” to describe one form of library training for library personnel.

“The concept of on-the-job training was at no point in library history ever totally discredited as a viable mode of entry into librarianship.” Rodgers may be off base with that statement given today’s professional environment, but the fact remains that there are still paraprofessionals who work in the libraries and learn on the job. Many of them have learned their craft so well that they train MLS librarians.

One suggestion is that paraprofessionals should pursue the MLS degree. There should be some encouragement on the part of libraries to take their best and brightest support personnel and assist them to obtain the MLS. Some libraries reward paraprofessionals who pursue this path. St. Lifer’s article states one library director in Cleveland, Ohio said, “One of the things we do to encourage support staff to start library school is to promote them to Library Assistant II once they are halfway through their master’s program.” A program with this kind of incentive could be of interest to upwardly mobile paraprofessionals, but programs of this type are probably the exception rather than the rule.

For those who do not pursue the MLS, educational options must be sought. Planning staff development activities for paraprofessionals can be difficult for a library because of the wide variety of jobs paraprofessionals perform. The NCLPA encourages library staff members to advocate for themselves when seeking staff development. The director of this organization states that “if you wish to participate in a workshop, show your desire and make the case.” Another option would be an undergraduate degree that would certify the paraprofessional to do library work or offer community colleges courses. This idea is slow to come about. Lawrence W.S. Auld states in his 1990 article “Seven Imperatives for Library Education”:

The introduction of two-year library technical assistant programs in community colleges was supposed to provide a supply of trained LTA’s. The idea was attractive but it did not catch on. One likely explanation is the failure by both LTA and MLS programs to differentiate adequately the levels of work the graduates of each are prepared to undertake… this should come as no surprise because the course titles in the programs are much the same… if the transcripts for an LTA, an undergraduate major in library science, and an MLS are placed side by side and the names of the institutions and the degrees are covered up, it is difficult if not impossible to identify which is which.”

And that statement brings us full circle. Countless examples show that in many cases, the work of the librarian and the paraprofessional has few if any differences. When paraprofessionals complain that they are treated unethically, and when we look at the fact that in many cases they do the same job for much less pay, their arguments certainly have merit. As long as the roles overlap, there will be controversy.

The American Library Association has given thought to this issue, but they admit that it is a complicated one that needs much more thought. According to ALA, “who does what is determined on a local level, although there are national trends.” ALA conceded that circulation has, for the most part, been given over to paraprofessionals. Other areas of the library are not as clear-cut.

In library literature, the term routine is frequently used to differentiate between the work done by librarians and paraprofessionals. This distinction seems inappropriate to the jobs held by a growing number of paraprofessionals whose responsibilities require sophisticated judgment calls, supervision and complex operations.

A controversy remains because no one seems to be exactly sure what the roles for the librarian and the paraprofessional should be. ALA suggests that libraries do what is possible to make the best use of their personnel. However, they agree that in most cases librarians will be making the decisions on how to best use paraprofessionals.

The shifting and blurring of responsibilities reflects the desire of library managers and of the library field as a whole to make the best use of staff towards the highest quality library services. There are paraprofessionals who feel they have much to contribute to the discussions of these changes as well as to implement the changes in their local libraries. Typically, the librarians discuss and make the decision to transfer functions and shift tasks, not the paraprofessionals. There are librarians who agree with this and librarians who do not. Related to all this and complicating any discussion of paraprofessional roles are strongly held opinions about the MLS, professional image, and the best ways to develop and deliver library service.

Without a doubt, many paraprofessionals are treated unethically. Responses to the listserv questions showed that most of the respondents had encountered some type of treatment they considered unethical. They were quick to point out that it wasn’t an everyday occurrence, but it was something they had experienced during their careers. If those who work in the library field are unable to differentiate between the roles of the librarian and the paraprofessional, unethical treatment will probably persist. The stratification process that naturally occurs in just about every social and work setting will continue to manifest itself in the library. Until there is differentiation between the roles of the librarian and the paraprofessional, problems will continue to exist. Given the individual nature of libraries, it seems that paraprofessionals will be able to make charges of unethical treatment for years to come.


Auld, Lawrence W.S. “Seven Imperatives for Library Education.” Library Journal. 115 (May 1, 1990): 55-59.

ALA SSIRT Task Force on Compensation (not appropriate to level of education, experience and responsibilities). Submitted to the ALA Support Staff Interests Roundtable Board, June 2000.

Barbee, Annis. “A Message from the NCLPA Chair.” The North Carolina Library Paraprofessional Association: Visions. (Summer 2005): 1.

Berry, John. “The Other Librarians.” Library Journal. 114 (July 1989): 4.

Bureau of Labor Statistics. U.S. Department of Labor. Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2006-07 Edition, Librarians. (November 11, 2007).
Bureau of Labor Statistics. U.S. Department of Labor. Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2006-07 Edition, Library Technicians. (November 11, 2007).

Farrell, Gabriel S. “Stuck at the Bottom.” Library Journal. 130 (January 2005): 68.

Gunther, Tina. Re: [Libsup-l]Ethical Treatment of Paraprofessionals. (November 12, 2007).

Millard, Anita. Interview by Charles Millard. November 6, 2007.

Murfin, Marjorie E. and Bunge. Charles A. “Paraprofessionals at the Reference Desk.” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 14 (March 1988): 10-14.

Murray, Richard A. “Job Satisfaction of Professional and Paraprofessional Library Staff at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.” Masters Thesis. University of North Carolina. 1999.

Napier, Alan. “Spare – Don’t Pare – The Paraprofessionals.” American Libraries 34 (August 2003): 38.

Oberg, Larry R. “Library Support Staff in Age of Change: Utilization, Role Definition and Status,” Eric Digest, May 1995.

Pawlowski, Connie and Troutman, Patsy. “Library Media Paraprofessionals – We Can’t Live Without Them!” Book Report 12 (September/October 1993): 19.

Quast, Emilie. Re: [Libsup-l]Ethical Treatment of Paraprofessionals. (November 11, 2007).

Rodgers, Terry. The Library Paraprofessional: Notes from the Underground. Jefferson , NC: Mc Farland & Company, 1997.

Role Definition. American Library Association. Office for Library Personnel Resources, Standing Committee on Library Education. (November 13, 2007).

St. Lifer, Evan. “We Are the Library: Support Staff Speak Out.” Library Journal 120 (November 1, 1995): 30-34.

Woodsworth, Anne. “The Plight of Library Assistants.” Library Journal 123 (August 1998): 60. 11

Charles is a social studies teacher and tennis coach at Ayden-Grifton High School in Ayden, NC. He is pursuing his MLS at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC.