Further Questions: Would You Hire Someone with an MLIS for a Paraprofessional Position?

Each week (or thereabouts) I ask a question to a group of people who hire library and LIS workers. If you have a question to ask or if you’d like to be part of the group that answers, shoot me an email at hiringlibrariansATgmail.

Would You Hire Someone with an MLIS for a Paraprofessional Position? (E.g. assistant, clerk, page)? If so, under what circumstances? If not, why not? Bonus: if you have *opinions* about the term paraprofessional, please feel free to air them here.

Amy Tureen (she/her/hers), Head, Library Liaison Program, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las Vegas: 

Of course I would hire someone with an MLIS for a paraprofessional position! People apply for jobs for all sorts of reasons, it’s not my role as a supervisor to gate keep or second guess why someone with an MLIS would want a paraprofessional role.

As for the term itself, I have no particular feelings about it one way or another. In the context of “professional” versus “paraprofessional” the term “paraprofessional” means the role does not require a professional licensure, whereas “professional” means that some form of industry-specific professional accreditation, whatever it may be in a given field, is required. Some people mistakenly assume that the use of the word “professional” implies a skill level, rather than an accreditation required for a role, so I certainly wouldn’t mind changing both “paraprofessional” and “professional” to terms that are less easily misunderstood and/or weaponized.

Gregg Currie, College Librarian, Selkirk College: I have hired candidates into paraprofessional positions.  My college is relatively rural, and for reasons I’m not entirely sure of it has always been a much greater struggle to attract library technicians.  If I post for a full time permanent librarian I get 30 or 40 applicants.  For a library technician position I’m lucky to get 3 or 4 people with a library technician diploma.  So often it is just out of necessity. 

While hiring someone overqualified does have the potential for problems, my experience has been very positive.  Sometimes it is giving a librarian actual experience in an academic library that will help them move up and on in a couple of years, another time it was librarian taking a part time paraprofessional position as a way to ease into retirement. 

As long as one is clear about job duties and boundaries, it can work out well.

Alison M. Armstrong, Collection Management Librarian, Radford University: Absolutely!

In general, a lot of people are overqualified for the positions they are in. Libraries are no different. The job market has shifted recently but your location and local library options may be limited since most libraries have more staff positions than librarian positions.

Our library has had several staff members who hold an MLIS, including me, over the years. I was in a staff position while I worked toward my MLIS and, for a time had my degree until I was hired in my current position. I would have had to move if this position wasn’t open when it was.

I personally prefer the term “staff” versus “paraprofessional”. While paraprofessional indicates a level of work that is assisting professional workers, to me, it sounds like the position is in relation to someone else, which bothers me. In reality, however, my staff member’s position is a fairly true “assistant” in that her work is assisting me in my work.

I have had a couple of staff members in that position who have had their MLIS and one who was working on his Master’s in IT. I knew that they likely wouldn’t be in the position long term, which was fine. While they worked for me, they were able to do some higher level work however, that is a fine line to walk. While staff members may be capable of doing higher level work, you want to make sure they are not doing what would be considered professional level work for staff level pay. So while I try hard to not exploit workers by labeling work as “experience” for them, I do have conversations with them about work and what they are interested in and whether there is higher level work that they would want to work on. While I don’t want to exploit them, I also want to make sure they are getting some job satisfaction if they have something they want to pursue. The one working on his Master’s in IT was able to use his Access database skills to create a usage statistics database for us. (Sadly, when he left, there wasn’t time/staff for it to continue to grow.)

A great example of this is with one of my staff members who had her MLIS and I saw a need to document library liaison training and we wrote a training handbook together. She was interested in training so she took on the role of introducing the handbook at a collection development retreat to library liaisons. It was shortly after that event that she was hired an instruction librarian. After she had moved onto a librarian position, we were able to collaborate on a book based on the work we did on our handbook, which was great.

Of course, there is potential for judgement and/or resentment. For the staff person I co-authored a book with, she and I had graduated together. She could have been frustrated about not having a librarian position and take it out in various ways, trying to undercut me, out-shine me, sabotage me, etc. but, thankfully, she didn’t.

In my experience, around two years is a good amount of time if the person is actively looking for a librarian position for them to find something and move up. After two years, it can feel frustrating and they may start feeling stuck. It might be useful to be aware of that and have some honest conversations. In the end, I want my staff members to do their best and if they want to move up (or, move on), I will do whatever I can to support them. Knowing the future goals of your staff is helpful so you can try to help them achieve them.

It is also important to recognize that some people have re-considered their positions in all kinds of careers. Some people willing to take a pay cut and a lower position that requires less responsibility and the opportunity to “leave work at work” and forgo some of the daily headaches that can come with upper management positions.

So, someone my look “overqualified” on paper, but they may be looking to get a foot in the door or just get in a position they will enjoy while they look for the right thing. Alternatively, they may be looking to scale back and want a better work-life balance.

If you have an MLIS and are hired in a staff position, I would encourage you to talk to your supervisor (maybe not on day one – but as you build rapport) about what you want to do in the future (assuming this information didn’t come through in the interview – if it did, build on it). After you have learned the position and are on top of everything, you might see areas in which you could contribute – maybe to a committee, or to a project that you would enjoy. Just make sure you don’t feel like you are being exploited because it is important to recognize those feelings early before it affects how you feel about your work.

Celia Rabinowitz, Dean of Mason Library, Keene State College: I currently have two staff members with an MLS in PAT positions. These are salaried Professional/Administrative/ Technical positions. They are Access Services Manager and Systems Manager. Neither requires the MLS and neither is a library faculty member or has the title “librarian”. I also had an MLS-holder in my ILL coordinator position which is an hourly-benefitted non-exempt position. That person was an alum (former library worker) and stayed in the position for about two years before finding a job that compensated her for her credentials.

In two cases the hire had an MLS before starting the job. In one case the person earned their MLS while working here and continues in the same position. The degree did provide the opportunity for the person’s salary to increase. In all cases we selected the right person for the job knowing they were over-qualified. We knew the ILL staff member needed a full-time job with benefits, she was familiar with the library, and campus, and we hoped that she would eventually find something else (which she did). The other two individuals in the more skilled positions may be here longer even though they are not recognized or compensated as library faculty.

I would consider hiring someone with an MLS again for any position for a number of reasons. Jobs are not easy to find, individuals may be re-entering the workforce, needing to say in the geographical area, or more interested in a staff position than in being library faculty with all of the work that entails. My biggest concern with almost any staff hire these days is that people do ask about opportunities for advancement and my staff has been reduced to the degree that there are even fewer opportunities than in the past for changing positions at least inside the library. And, I am also unable to send any staff off for professional development (budget was eliminated about five years ago). So I would like to get those two PATs to ACRL, ALA, or other conferences and would be happy to do that but have no resources. That has implications and consequences that go beyond just helping them stay connected to the profession.

I am not a fan of the term “paraprofessional.” I’m not sure I have a reasonable substitute other than just saying staff member. The college makes clear distinctions between the PAT staff and the Operating Staff (those hourly paid full-time folks). The status gap is really between faculty and staff. I am a staff member, not a faculty member. So we refer to library faculty and to staff. There are differences between expectations for PATs and Op Staff folks including level of education, workloads, etc. People are aware of those and we don’t refer to people as either PATs or Op Staff unless it’s necessary. So I don’t use the term paraprofessional at all. I think it would add confusion and isn’t necessary.

Anonymous: We have hired multiple staff with an MLIS for paraprofessional positions. In my department, they are all library assistants. Two have been at the university for decades, two are recent hires. For the latter, both want or need to stay in the area. I can’t promise promotions, but if they are interested in moving up, I will work with them to give them the opportunity to do so. I believe that, if someone with an MLIS wants a library job and decides to apply for a paraprofessional position, that’s their decision. But I have one librarian in my department who strongly disagrees. They regularly mentor MLIS students to only apply for librarian positions. I have told them that making such a pronouncement doesn’t account for an individual’s life situation.

I have worked as a page, a paraprofessional, and a professional in librarianship. I’m not sure that any of the wording for positions that don’t require an MLIS is adequate or fair. The responsibilities of these positions have changed SO much in the last decades that the title needs to change with it. Calling them an assistant or paraprofessional feels incomplete.

Donna Pierce, Library Director, Krum Public Library: I am currently considering doing this very thing! I have had part-time people with their MLS working in “paraprofessional positions” – though in a small library we wear so many hats the lines really blur! I would look for someone who is willing to gain experience in libraries even though the position doesn’t require a degree. In the case I am considering the person actually was a director at one time, took time off due to family health issues and is wanting to get back into library work but not necessarily as a director. My biggest factor, with all new hires, is how well they will work with current staff and are they willing to do anything that is needed.

I like the term “paraprofessional” as it lets people know that the person has experience but not necessarily the education. (And education does not mean they can do the job better than someone with experience!)

Jennie Garner, Library Director, North Liberty Library: We’ve hired candidates with MLS degrees to fill part-time support staff positions multiple times. As long as they are able/willing to work the required hours and interview well, we are happy to welcome them to our team. There is no guarantee, just because a candidate possesses an MLS, that they have practical knowledge of day-to-day library work or the skills that sometimes requires. Having new staff at various levels of education and experience can further bring new eyes to our operations. I ask new staff to bring forward questions about why we work the way we do and offer new approaches that may help further operational goals. Some of our best services have come from new staff with innovative ideas at all levels.

It is often a win-win situation when we hire an employee with formal library training and are able to offer someone the chance to hone their library experience. The reality is that working in a library and developing those soft skills often differs from the training we receive in grad school coursework. As part of onboarding, all new staff spend time with each full-time staff person to help them gain insight into the work we do and the services we provide. Additionally, I ask new staff members if they have particular areas of interest and encourage them to share that with us if they’d like cross train. If someone is interested in youth services, collection development, or other areas of librarianship, we try to offer them opportunities to perform tasks related to those positions. My goal as an administrator is to create a learning environment and give staff prospects for growth. Helping someone achieve new skills adds to a positive work culture.

We don’t use the term paraprofessional. All of our staff members are expected to deliver professional customer service and are able assist our patrons with their needs. Patrons care about receiving good service and I’d hazard a guess that they consider all of our staff to be librarians. In 25+ years of library work, I’ve never had a patron ask to speak only to someone with an MLS. We regularly receive compliments from patrons about our staff – part-time and full-time with various backgrounds and education levels.

Laurie Phillips, Associate Dean of Libraries, J. Edgar & Louise S. Monroe Library, Loyola University New Orleans: Well, we have both hourly positions and administrative (professional staff) positions that are not librarians (or library faculty). We have applicants with an MLIS for both. They often think that it’s a stepping stone to becoming library faculty. I can say that sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. We will consider someone with an MLIS for either type of staff position, but more likely for a professional staff position. In fact, we’ll soon have a position open for which we fully expect to receive applications from people with an MLIS. For hourly staff, it’s less likely that there is mobility within the organization and I think we’re pretty aware that someone with an MLIS wouldn’t stay long in one of these positions. If someone with an MLIS has no academic library experience, it’s possible, but I think we’d be more wary. For professional staff positions, it needs to be clear why the position is not library faculty. I don’t want someone to be angry or resentful about their status when they have the degree. 

Heather Backman, Assistant Director of Library Services, Weymouth (MA) Public Libraries: I would consider hiring someone with an MLIS for a paraprofessional position, but they would need to make a good case for their planned longevity in the role as part of their initial application (this is what cover letters are for!) and during the interview. I don’t feel great about that on one level, knowing that the job market for degreed people is often tight. But the unfortunate reality is that as a manager, I need to do my best to avoid frequent turnover, and I would expect that most MLIS holders would greatly prefer a higher-paid, degree-required position and would probably keep job searching. If my new hire leaves before or just as they are starting to hit their stride in the job, that’s a lot of time and energy we’ve invested in hiring and training someone – not to mention the burden on other team members who may have had to carry a heavier workload while the position was not filled or the person was still learning the job – that has now gone to waste. Unless it becomes clear that someone I hire is just not the right fit, I hope that new employees will stay with us for at least a couple of years, so an MLIS holder applying for a non-degree-required position would have to convince me that they would want to stay for that amount of time.

And yes, I *do* have opinions about the term “paraprofessional”! I do not like the divides that can exist in our profession between degreed and non-degreed workers, and I think the term is often used to emphasize the difference between people’s education in a negative way. The ability to pursue higher education is often a function of privilege and resources rather than talent, intelligence, or hard work. The people I’ve worked with, by and large, have done solid work, contributed meaningfully to their libraries, and demonstrated commitment to customer service and giving patrons a great experience regardless of whether they wanted or had been able to earn an MLIS. I prefer to refer to people who work at my libraries as “[department] staff” or “the team” rather than “librarians” and “paraprofessionals”, to emphasize that all have equal value as workers. If there’s a real, meaningful need to talk about people according to their educational level I’ll say something like “(non-)degreed positions/staff.”

Julie Todaro, Dean, Library Services, Austin Community College: 

Would You Hire Someone with an MLIS for a Paraprofessional Position? (E.g. assistant, clerk, page) If so, under what circumstances? If not, why not? Our goal is to find the best match for the job AND given the fact that there is no such thing as “overqualified” in HR terminology – we do not exclude applicants – given level of education. Interestingly, many people do not understand that a master’s in librarianship or information science, etc. does NOT prepare you for every job in the organization. For example – having worked on a circulation desk prepares you for circulation desk work NOT the master’s. And this applies to professional positions as well – that is, your systems personnel positions might require (given the software or hardware expertise needed or the level of knowledge needed) additional education or experience in technology rather than library and information science education or training.

(And I am adding the heading/question)…..Are there any examples of problems when someone with an expanded or additional or different degree has been hired in a position other than the one that is the best match for their credentials?

Sadly yes, I have seen examples where additional or different education can cause problems and – I should say it doesn’t always happen…but….besides the usual accreditation issues for academic libraries….

  • We are in a profession where many consider themselves for most of our positions – and understandably so – in a “helping” profession. It is difficult; therefore, when someone who has been educated or trained to be in that helpful mindset is then not allowed or supported for providing a specific service.
  • In the absence of well-defined public services desks, users not reading or understanding signage, single service or one-stop desks, no name tags OR “name only” name tags or a lack of distinguishing other clothing or designation, clients or patrons are upset when it isn’t clear what some can and can’t do at near or similar desks.
  • Understandable resentment builds up when someone ends up doing some or many parts of other people’s roles and responsibilities when they may well be being paid significantly less.
  • Administrators do not “see” vacancies or “need” as readily when multiple levels of people populate desks.
  • Users often identify everyone in a library they see behind a public service desk – a “librarian” and this might communicate people are NOT doing what they are supposed to be doing if people are having to wait for someone to come out to assist when it appears that someone is already there….
  • If managers let others – no matter the credentials – perform tasks that are not in their position description – issues of “keeping current,” “staff development,” “training,” etc. are problematic as not everyone can or should be trained on everything.
  • Tech issued to librarians (iPads, laptops, etc.) – for example – might not be available to all employees, therefore, staff – with credentials different from their position requirements – will not get issued technology to assist users.

And finally our HR department follows strict guidelines for placement on scales. If we hired someone – with a master’s – for a librarian position who had been in a classified position before at another location or even internally – because is they were not hired to work as a librarian before, their placement on the scales is not counted as “professional experience after the master’s degree.” So – for us – it doesn’t help the candidate get placed higher, thus get a salary bump.

Bonus: if you have opinions about the term paraprofessional, please feel free to air them here.

From the list above it’s clear why I don’t offer these experiences – but here are general thoughts as well. Although I have no specific control over my institution’s official titles, we do not use that term in my institution either formally or informally. But it isn’t enough to say “I don’t like it” or “my experiences have shown…” so the “why” of that isn’t as clearly explained…but here is a list with additional information focusing on terminology.

  • There are several definitions for “paraprofessional” so users, clients or patrons may very well see them in a wide variety of ways and – given people’s experiences – previous work with those considered paraprofessionals cause confusion.
  • Many people view “para” as a “lesser” term for a designation.
  • A number of definitions or phrases in definitions are not particularly complimentary. For example some include:
  • an unlicensed person
  • a person who can work in the field but is not a “fully qualified” professional
  • Many definitions as well as postings say assists a professional in “daily tasks” which most may see as boring, repetitive roles and responsibilities.
  • Basic templates for designing postings are lengthy and confusing with much ambiguity as to professional vs. paraprofessional.
  • Our profession has much ambiguity among professional roles and responsibilities, and having another category of uncertainty may cause confusion in compensation, etc.

So – I am not a fan of “too-generic” titles or two specific ones…functional titles should correspond to what HR “counts” as rational for making compensation decisions.

We’d love to hear your thoughts here in the comments, over at Mastodon @hiringlibrarians@glammr.uson Twitter @HiringLib, or left in the attic of your childhood home. If you have a question to ask people who hire library workers, or if you’d like to be part of the group that answers them, shoot me an email at hiringlibrariansATgmail.

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