transplanted goose

Ask Susu, v2n2

Dear Susu, The only library class I have this semester is LIB 150, Reference and Database Searching. The very first question that was asked of us was "Do you think Paraprofessionals or Library Assistants should work at the Reference Desk?" What do you think? Besides the quality of service numerous other issues arise. How do librarians feel about paraprofessionals encroaching upon their domain? Why did I bother to get a MLS? Do the patrons even recognize the difference? Mary, from she can be taught .

Dear Mary, I felt I needed to do some field research on this one, so I asked several colleagues their thoughts on this issue. (Keep in mind that my field research was done in an academic library, where we already staff our reference desks with students several hours each week.) As you might imagine, my questions evoked a variety of responses:

One of the questions I asked was about the qualities of a good reference "person" - whether professional, paraprofessional, or student. Among the qualities they listed were curiosity, a general knowledge of the world, someone who is well-read, good people skills, and good computer skills. Strangely enough, no one listed patience, persistence, or tenacity as required qualities.

Are these qualities that are exclusive to folks holding an MLS? Certainly not. So what magic does the MLS hold that makes us reference librarians , as opposed to folks who are just good at answering questions?

First of all, let's consider the fact that the MLS is the result of a graduate education. Librarians have an undergraduate degree in some subject area, as well as at least one graduate degree. A graduate education requires a deeper commitment to the intellectual life, a desire to continue exploration within a discipline. In our case, the discipline is information. Graduate school introduces us to the principles and foundations of our profession - intellectual freedom, intellectual property, access, equity, and control - and (hopefully) instills in us a commitment to the profession and to service.

Second, we have a commitment to continuous learning. Graduate school is certainly the first step in this process, but most of us also take steps to continue to grow as professionals, to learn new things, to keep abreast of developments in technology, new products available to us, new ideas within the profession. We engage in conversations and debates about professional issues - to filter or not to filter, providing public Internet access without bankrupting the library, the spiraling cost of journal subscriptions - and work together to find solutions. We read the professional literature. We take responsibility for learning the things we need to know to be a good librarian.

Finally, we are more than just people who answer questions. We learn about our collections, participate in building our collections, and note patron behaviors that might indicate a problem in the way we provide service or resources and seek solutions to those problems. All of the things we do away from the reference desk contribute to our ability to connect patrons with the information they need.

I've known people without an MLS who are darned good librarians, and what makes them good is that they do all the things I just listed above. They don't have that MLS, but a combination of experience, professional development, and determination have given them a similar understanding of the profession. It took them a long time and a great deal of work to get there, and I value them as professional colleagues.

If we turn the question around, we could ask what value paraprofessionals bring to the reference desk. Paraprofessionals are more permanent than students, and therefore build an institutional history that can be useful at the desk. This also saves on the cost of continuous retraining that occurs when we use student labor. They can be dedicated to the values of the information profession - I've known paraprofessionals with a deep commitment to intellectual freedom, for example. Paraprofessionals can be continuous learners, and perhaps seek to work at the reference desk because of this interest in learning new things. And paraprofessionals certainly do other things besides work at the reference desk, but here is where the difference may be most significant. Paraprofessionals' duties away from the reference desk are more likely to be administrative (such as office management) or technical (such as materials processing or ordering) in nature. Their knowledge of the internal processes of the organization can be very useful while at the reference desk, but they are often not afforded the same opportunities to explore the larger questions within the profession, or the same professional development and networking opportunities.

If you want to know whether there's anything left for the reference librarian once paraprofessionals have "taken over" the reference desk, just ask the catalogers. They've successfully integrated paraprofessionals into their environment, and I'll bet that most professional catalogers will tell you they still find plenty of things to do and that they have no regrets.

As for patrons, do they recognize the difference? Some call everyone behind the reference desk a "librarian;" most don't realize that librarians have master's degrees. But what they're most interested in is getting an answer to their question, and if they're repeat customers, they'll learn to recognize a librarian when they see one - she'll be the one waiting expectantly for the opportunity to put all her knowledge, skills, professional values and talent to work for them.

Published in NewBreed Librarian, volume 2, number 2, April 2002 - archived at

© 2002, colleen bell about / words