Further Questions: Would you hire someone with a MLIS for a paraprofessional position?

This week I asked people who hire librarians:

Would you hire someone with a MLIS for a paraprofessional position (e.g. assistant, clerk, page)? If so, under what circumstances? If not why not?

Emilie SmartI do this all the time.  We have a library school at our local university and our library system has a Student Librarian program.  Many of our student librarians want to stay in our system, but professional positions  don’t come up that often.  I have regularly hired former student librarians, as well as recent library school grads, as paraprofessionals.  After all, it’s usually easier to promote than get hired in.
That being said, I prefer to hire MLIS’s for professional positions — I just don’t always have that option.
– Emilie Smart, Division Coordinator of Reference Services & Computer Services at East Baton Rouge Parish Library

Marleah AugustineI would, if I felt like that person could take that position and possibly enhance it and grow it into something bigger and better. Also, promoting from within, when it is possible and when it is the best option, can be very beneficial. So if I felt like that person may have a chance in the future to be hired into a higher position, then I would give them even further consideration.

However, I would still give applicants without the MLIS a fair chance and look at their experience and take that into serious consideration.

– Marleah Augustine, Adult Department Librarian at Hays Public Library

Laurie PhillipsGenerally, no. I can’t legally exclude someone with an MLIS but I prefer to avoid it. I know that graduates are struggling to find jobs and just want to get a job, but honestly, they won’t be happy as an assistant. First, I have to say that a lot of people think they can get their foot in the door by working as staff at a library. This is absolutely not true. You’d be better off accepting a part-time or temporary librarian position to get your foot in the door. MLIS grads will look around at librarians with faculty status and be resentful after a short time. At this library, there is no way to be “promoted” to faculty from staff. The last time I hired a staff assistant, I had several recent MLIS grads apply. I called each of them to talk about what the job entailed and the pay and, after that conversation, each of them chose to drop out.
– Laurie Phillips, Associate Dean for Technical Services, J. Edgar & Louise S. Monroe Library, Loyola University New Orleans

Marge Loch-WoutersI would consider someone with an MLIS for a para-pro job (clerk, assistant, etc) – after all,  that’s how I got my start out of the gate as a new MLIS in a crushingly horrid job market (yes, the mid-70s libraries were FULL of those gray haired “Greatest Generation” librarians who refused to retire to make room for us smart young Turks!).  It can almost be an internship and helps young librarians, especially those with no real world library experience except as users, learn from seasoned staff.  Because it is at a fairly responsible level, it allows this person to demonstrate some professional chops and can be a path to promotion or a real resume builder for a job at a different library.  I usually only do this type of hiring, though, if I think the library will have an opening for a professional job and the candidate hired at an assistant or clerk level would easily be promoted into it within a year’s (or less) time. Any longer than that or with no hope of promotion makes me feel like the library is taking unfair advantage of someone who deserves more and better.

I am reluctant, though, to hire a MLIS for a non-professional position  – shelver, page – not only because of the low wage but the nature of the work doesn’t really allow that person to demonstrate any professional chops.  It really dead-ends their chances for advancement in the library they are hired in and doesn’t add to their resume for any other job.

– Marge Loch-Wouters, Youth Services Coordinator, La Crosse (WI) Public Library
Petra MauerhoffI absolutely would hire an MLIS graduate for a paraprofessional position. I know of a lot of librarians who have simply no interest in being part of management and prefer to be practitioners instead. In a lot of smaller public libraries in particular, often the only “real” librarian positions available are in management and if a librarian wants to work in those libraries but not be a manager, their only option often is to take on a paraprofessional position.
At one of the library regions I managed, our driver, which was the position that had the lowest educational requirements associated with it, ended up being staffed by a person who held a PhD. His educational background did not change the position at all, he received the same pay as any other driver would have received in that position and was evaluated against the same criteria as any other driver would have been.
The same would go for MLIS graduates in paraprofessional positions: as long as it is made clear that the pay range will stay at the paraprofessional level and the responsibilities for the position are outlined clearly, I don’t think it makes a difference if the position is staffed by a paraprofessional or an MLIS graduate.
 I know that within some union environments this can be a contentious point, with the argument being that the librarian is “taking away jobs” from the library technicians/assistants. However, if out of a batch of applicants a certain individual clearly stands out as the most qualified, then it is the obligation of the manager to hire the best person for the job. In the end, having the best person, no matter what their educational background, will end up benefiting the whole organization.
– Petra Mauerhoff, CEO, Shortgrass Library System
Colleen HarrisAt my library, MLS holders get the same shot as everyone else in the applicant pile (but I have worked at other libraries where unwritten policy was to never hire an MLS for a parapro slot). At my library, we would rather hire an enthusiastic and energetic team member that we know might move on quickly than someone who will stay forever but be less of an asset. (I will, however, ask during the interview if an MLS holder applying for a parapro position would be willing to commit to us for two years, since the search process is long and tedious, and we do like to have a bit of continuity.)Another thing to think about is that the duties of paraprofessionals can differ greatly from that of a professional librarian – I have had MLS applicants for staff positions go on at length about the work they wanted to be engaged in which was in no way related to the position they were applying for – much of the staff work at my library is process oriented, and comes with different expectations than a professional position. Be aware of the position and its responsibilities. Read the job description thoroughly, and know that there will probably be paraprofessionals on the search committee – treating staff positions as “less” and continually referring to the job duties as “mundane” or “something that would bore me quickly” will insult them and will do you no favors on the job hunt. (Don’t laugh – I’ve seen it done.)

Be ready to answer the question the committee will be most curious about – why are you interested in a (usually) low-paying position you are overqualified for? It doesn’t hurt you to be honest, and it addresses a question they are wondering about (even if they don’t ask it aloud). The assumption, fair or not, is that an MLS-holder is overqualified and may be using the job as a very short-term stopgap while they hunt for a “real job” since we know that the economy is tough and job searches are taking applicants longer than usual. You don’t have to commit to the job for life, but if you can find a way to let the library know that you are really interested in the position, and that while you are there you will give them your best, you can alleviate some of that concern and improve your chances.

In my recent paraprofessional searches, I was surprised to find that there were many applicants with significant years of paraprofessional experience in libraries, whereas the MLS applicants were generally new or soon-to-be grads without any library experience at all. I would not consider the MLS much of an asset for a paraprofessional position applicant – while we appreciate the broad knowledge of libraries, customer service experience across a broad spectrum of industries, deep library knowledge (particularly specialized knowledge like ILL work) and the communication in the cover letter are just as important. Holding the MLS often raises more questions than it solves in terms of a paraprofessional search.

As someone who hires paraprofessionals, and who has seen very strong applicant pools in recent searches, my recommendation would be that you make sure that the strength of your application does not depend solely on holding the MLS. (That advice would also apply to applying to a professional position.) Focus on why you are interested in the job, and what you think you can bring to that position that the library needs. My library does not consider staff positions less important than our librarian positions – we run lean, everyone is necessary and highly valued – so make sure you treat your interview for a paraprofessional spot with as much professionalism as you would an interview for a professional position.

– Colleen  S. Harris, Head of Access Services & Assistant Professor, Lupton Library,University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
The reverse is more likely.  We hire on the basis of ability to do the work.  We have no hard line between professional and paraprofessional. We have a person with an MA in music who revises cataloguers with an MLS.  Another’s background is automation.  We take test records from technician and MLS graduates alike.  Some techs are better trained as cataloguers than some MLS degree holders.  We don’t have “overqualified” as a consideration.
– J. McRee (Mac) Elrod, Special Libraries Catalouging
Yes, we do this frequently – they are a big part of our succession planning, and we usually are able to fill our professional positions from within their ranks.
– Stephen Lusk, Human Resources Director, Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library

My primary requirements for hiring are:

  • someone wants the job for which they are applying
  • will show up
  • will not share life drama inappropriately
  • will not complain

I would hire someone with a MLIS for a paraprofessional position if:

  • they were not aggressive about their intentions to take another professional staff member’s position
  •  if the MLIS was newly minted and they needed to figure out how a library runs, especially if they have no library experience. Working as a library assistant is a great way to understand the foundations of the library
  • they REALLY want to be a library assistant and aren’t continuing to look for a professional position. It isn’t worth my time to hire someone who won’t be there for at least a year.
  • the candidate is upfront with me about why they are applying
– Jaye Lapachet, Manager of Library Services, Coblentz, Patch, Duffy & Bass LLP
Toby Willis-CampThe only circumstance where it would be appropriate for a MLIS to be in a paraprofessional position would be one of work rehabilitation/accommodation plan with the ultimate goal of moving into a professional position.  Sometimes it’s necessary to take a few steps back in order to rebuild one’s physical and emotional health, and taking on a non-professional role can go a long way in assisting with this.  This is not a typical hire however, and would take special management of the situation.
Professionals with MLIS degrees and no special needs that apply for anything library that comes up are doing themselves a disservice.  Those who are reviewing the resumes will remember this shotgun approach and not take you seriously.
– Toby Willis-Camp, a former Director of Libraries for a professional association 
I think I might reframe the question a bit to: What should you be aware of when thinking about applying for library assistant jobs once you have your MLIS?

There are a lot of things to consider when applying for and accepting an LA job once you have your degree. If you have to get a job immediately and/or you need health insurance coverage, then by all means apply for whatever you think you are qualified for.
From the hiring librarian’s perspective it can be a difficult decision to hire someone who is overqualified in terms of education. Will the person stay? Will they be happy in that position? Will they get bored doing LA work? Will they get disillusioned if they are unable to use many of their newly acquired professional skills? If you try to give them some professional-level work, will they feel taken advantage of, or expect to be reclassified, or file a grievance for working out-of-classification? (Especially in a unionized environment, there are very clear distinctions between what the librarians do and what the LAs can do.)
Usually when someone has just completed the degree, they are excited about the profession and want to start applying their new knowledge in a professional capacity.  Make sure that is going to be possible if you are hired as a LA. Each library varies. Go into it with your eyes open.
Be aware that it is very difficult to move out of an LA position into a librarian position within the same library. Even if you are one of the very few who do, it can be hard to get the other librarians to see you as a true peer. It will be much easier to move into a professional position if you try other libraries.
If you are in an LA position and have the MLIS, use that time to build your professional credentials and skills however you can.  Apply for adjunct pools. Volunteer or intern in a place where you can use your professional skills. Work on a second masters or write some scholarly articles about a professional subject you know and care about. (especially if you want to work in academic libraries). Take advantage of professional development opportunities available at conferences, workshops, webinars, etc. Get involved in the profession by joining regional organizations, attending national and regional conferences, joining committees, etc. Work on developing a network of contacts.
If you use your time as an LA well to develop your skills, it can really help you overcome that problem of “How do I get experience if I have to have experience to get hired?”
Good luck!
– Anonymous
Thanks as always to our hiring librarians for answering this week’s question!

If you have an opinion to share, the comments are open.  If you are also someone who hires librarians and are interested in being a regular participant in this feature, please email me at hiringlibrariansATgmail.com.


Thanks for reading!


*edited 5/18/2012 7:20 pm pacific to add two responses.

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