Taking a Paraprofessional Position with an MLS

Savvy Career Move or Kiss of Death?

This article is reprinted with permission from LISCareer.com, November 2004.

What would you do in this situation? You have just received an MLS with the goal of quickly obtaining a librarian position after graduation. However, a wide range of circumstances could prevent this from happening. For example, the market for librarians could be very limited and you might not have the flexibility to relocate. In the absence of a librarian position, should you accept a paraprofessional position?

Or, after interviewing for one or more library vacancies, you have been told that someone more qualified or more experienced has been appointed to the position. However, there is an opportunity to accept a paraprofessional position at the library. Should you accept the paraprofessional position in order to get some pertinent library experience and to have the opportunity to become active in a library association?

Whether or not to accept a paraprofessional position is a decision that an increasing number of new library school graduates are facing. What are the short- and long-term ramifications of accepting a support staff position when one has a graduate degree in library and information science? Is it a savvy career move or a career kiss of death?

Pro: Taking a Paraprofessional Position with an MLS

Many feel that the image of the paraprofessional or library support staff has changed for the better in recent years, eliminating the stigma some have perceived in accepting this type of position with an MLS. Paraprofessionals have become more prominent within the field and are well-represented by advocacy groups such as the Council on Library/Media Technicians (COLT) and Library Support Staff Interests Round Table (LSSIRT) of the American Library Association. As a result of the 3rd Congress on Professional Education sponsored by ALA in 2003, a survey is currently underway to determine interest in a voluntary certification program for paraprofessionals. As further evidence of the heightened awareness and appreciation of library support staff, Library Journal annually awards a “Paraprofessional of the Year,” featuring the winner on the cover of the magazine.

Paraprofessionals are widely recognized as the backbone of any successful library and in fact are performing many of the tasks which were previously the exclusive domain of librarians: reference, copy cataloging, circulation, interlibrary loan, etc. Margeton (1999) maintains that a strong paraprofessional team is a characteristic of a good library. Many feel that librarians do not have exclusive rights to professionalism. Both librarians and support staff can demonstrate professionalism in their positions. Froelich (1998) discusses the complexity of the professionalism issue in this context and maintains that there are many different values and principles involved. In fact, there are a whole set of conditions and circumstances that help form these values and principles. One need not be working in a “professional” or “librarian” position to embody the concept of professionalism.

A key advantage of starting in a support position is learning the nuts and bolts of the organization’s operations as well as becoming familiar with the people, politics and inner workings of the organization. This experience can prove extremely valuable as one climbs the library career ladder. Spending some time in the trenches is definitely a worthwhile and “character-building” experience. Accepting a library support position can often be a foot in the door that can provide a major advantage when a librarian position becomes available. Sometimes it is just a matter of playing the waiting game. Those who make a mid-career switch to librarianship may benefit from having a library support position on a resume.

Con: Career Kiss-of-Death?

Others find taking a paraprofessional position with an MLS completely unacceptable. In their minds, after expending an enormous amount of time and money for this piece of paper, nothing but a librarian position will do. They may also be concerned that management will pigeonhole them as support staff and not consider them when librarian positions become available. Furthermore, it is possible that management will not give as much weight to the time spent in a paraprofessional position, even though many of the tasks performed as a paraprofessional are the same as those performed by librarians.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?

Some who apply for paraprofessional positions consider leaving their MLS degree off the resume for fear of being perceived as overqualified. Doing so is extremely problematic. Ethical questions would most likely be raised if and when the employer discovered that the candidate had withheld information.

Damage Control

If an MLS holder accepts a paraprofessional position, there are a number of tactics that can minimize some of the possible risks of this decision:

  1. Become involved in the state or local library association and/or an appropriate national organization, such as the American Library Association, the Special Library Association, or the Medical Library Association. Volunteer to be on a committee and take an active role in its activities.
  2. Seek ways in which you can share your knowledge within your library and its community. Express interest in working on library committees such as a staff development committee.
  3. Talk with your department head about ways you can expand your job duties and responsibilities to build on your library science knowledge. However, be aware that the tasks of many paraprofessional positions are limited by the classification or rank of that position. It is sad but true that management may want to take advantage of the higher-level skills, talents, and knowledge their paraprofessional staff members possess, but they are unable to do so because of state or city personnel rules governing civil service jobs.
  4. Plan and engage in a research agenda. Research and scholarly activity are not reserved for those in librarian positions. Possessing a well-rounded resume, complete with publications and other scholarly activity (such as presentations and poster sessions), can be especially helpful if you want to pursue an academic librarian position.
  5. Seek grant opportunities. Let librarian co-workers know that you are interested in participating in pertinent grant proposals.

Conclusion

The roles of librarians are changing, as are the roles of library paraprofessionals. Over the past ten years, many articles in the professional literature have discussed the redefinition of library workers’ roles as a whole. These discussions have initiated debate among library managers regarding the blurring of lines within the profession as well as the relative impact library paraprofessionals have on the organization.
Nonetheless, there is no simple answer to the question of whether one should or should not accept a paraprofessional position after receiving an MLS. Clearly, there are pros and cons to each side of the question. Furthermore, there are dozens of reasons why a holder of an MLS might consider accepting a paraprofessional position. Regardless of the reasons and the circumstances, each job seeker has to weigh the benefits and the risks and make a decision using his or her best judgment.

References

Froehlich, T. J. (1998). Ethical considerations regarding library nonprofessionals: Competing perspectives and values. Library Trends, 46. Retrieved October 8, 2004. www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi m1387/is n3v46/ai 20977937/print

Margeton, S. G. (1999). Paraprofessionals: Surpassing the grade. AALL Spectrum, April. Retrieved October 8, 2004.www.aallnet.org/chapter/coall/scuttle/fall99/paraprofessionals.htm


Robert R. Newlen is Head of the Legislative Relations Office, Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress. He has operational responsibility for congressional inquiry receipt and tracking; professional development and seminar programs for Members of Congress and congressional staff; and for CRS outreach efforts. He is currently serving as an Endowment Trustee for the American Library Association and served on the ALA Executive Board from 1996 to 2000. He received his MSLS degree from The Catholic University. He is the author of Writing Resumes That Work: A How-To-Do-It Manual for Librarians. Contact Robert at RNEWLEN@crs.loc.gov.

Teri Switzer is the Associate Dean for Research, Operations, and Document Delivery at Auraria Library, University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center in Denver, Colorado.