A Paraprofessional Library Manager Explains Herself
By Sarah Evans, dMLIS
In the last year, I've realized that my position in the library world can raise questions. Since I frequently find myself explaining it in conversations and emails, I thought perhaps there might be other people out there who would be interested to know about my current work. Plus, now I can just direct all inquiries to the Silverfish. (Not really, but it would make introductions speedier.)
"How did you become a library manager?"
After the birth of my first child in 1999, my husband and I decided he would stay home and I would seek full-time employment. If I was going to leave my precious newborn, I wanted a meaningful job, something that made a positive difference in the world. Plus, I wanted it to be fun, darn it. So, I applied to public libraries and won a position as a Children's Liaison in the Sno-Isle Regional Library System. I worked circulation and shared story time duties with a children's librarian. The position was indeed fun, but I felt restless to play a bigger part in the decision making process. A management position opened up in the system and I applied, citing previous management experience. I became the Branch Manager of the 2700 square feet Brier Library in 2000, where I continue to work.
"Aren't you taking a position away from a degreed librarian?"
I know that some libraries have recently altered job descriptions and pay levels so they can hire non-MLS candidates. I think it is a sad way to save money and contributes to degrading the information profession. In contrast, there are many libraries out there, mine included, where the use of a paraprofessional initially made sense and perhaps continues to. Many small communities begin staffing their tiny libraries with members of the community. It wasn't until these libraries grew in size and services that professionally trained librarians were needed to properly maintain and expand the library. Also, in a regional library system, such as Sno-Isle, the central administration and the largest branches are run by MLS degreed professionals. Initially, my branch was treated as a kind of satellite to a sister branch about 10 minutes away, where a managing librarian had an office. Eventually the need arose for an onsite manager to direct staff and take care of public relations within that community, but the small collection size and limited patron traffic did not require the expertise of full-time degreed staff (i.e. they would be bored and feel their education was going to waste). Hence the position of the branch manager was born.
"So what's the difference between what you do and what librarians do?"
I find there are lines drawn to establish the role of paraprofessionals versus professionals in each library I've encountered, though the rules may differ. In my branch, the staff can perform "basic" reader's advisory and reference services. The rule of thumb is if a patron question will take over 10 minutes of staff searching to answer, we should contact a librarian in the nearest branch. Of course, the 10 minutes doesn't include how long it may take for an effective reference interview with a reluctant patron. And the fact is our branch traffic is lighter, so we tend to spend more time with individual patrons. The clearest professional dividing line I've found in Sno-Isle is related to collection tasks. The branch staff and I are asked for collection feedback based on our experience with the community. But all weeding, replacement, and selection tasks are done by librarians only, as well as the writing of collection policy. The idea is that these tasks require the kind of knowledge gained through graduate education. In contrast, paraprofessionals participate equally with librarians in programming and community outreach. I've had wonderful experiences building partnerships in the local community we serve.
"When you're already running a library, why bother getting a degree?"
There are paraprofessional building heads that have been in place for more than 10 years. They seem content in the excellent work they are doing. I quickly realized that I wanted more out of my work. I wanted to contribute to the greater library community, participate fully in the ongoing dialogue of this profession. The librarians I worked shoulder to shoulder with inspired (and gently pushed) me to seek a professional degree myself. I also realized the degree would allow me to move into different kinds of information environments. I enjoy change and growth, two things I knew I would get plenty of in pursing an MLIS. Hopefully, when all is said and done, I will feel as professional inside as my official degree will proclaim me to be.