Library staff: the paraprofessional

Not everyone who works in a library is a librarian. Librarians must have a masters degree in library science. Once upon a time, only librarians could perform certain tasks in a library, such as selecting materials for the collection, cataloging books, etc., and serving at the reference desk. Not any more. Increasingly, paraprofessional staff perform those tasks. Paraprofessionals may not have a library degree, but they have intensive on the job training and develop a high level of skill. Here is a brief overview of where you might be served in the library by a paraprofessional.


Professional librarians still select what gets added to the collection. Instead of choosing each title as they used to, however, they oversee automatic purchase plans from various vendors. In any case, the librarians’ role in collection development has always stopped with selection. Clerks used to handle the details of ordering books, etc., checking in shipments, paying invoices, and keeping up with all the details that involves. Nowadays, acquisitions staff must do everything on the computer. There probably aren’t many strictly clerical positions left in modern libraries.

Much of the library collection comes through automatic purchase plans. The librarians maintain a collection development policy, which determines which parts of the collection are most important, and therefore get the largest budget. They negotiate automatic purchase plans with vendors. Therefore, in addition to checking in materials and paying for them, the acquisitions staff must make sure that the vendors send whatever the plan covers, and nothing other than that.

Not all library materials come through these plans. Especially in academic libraries, where faculty request specific titles, the acquisitions staff must also handle that kind of ordering. That requires a somewhat different kind of communication and most likely different vendors.

By the time materials are ready to move on from the acquisitions department, the paraprofessionals on the staff have had to deal with a number of different computer systems: whatever the vendor uses, the acquisitions and catalog modules in the library’s library management system, and the accounting software of whatever larger entity the library serves. They have had to communicate with vendors, the collection management and cataloging departments in the library, and people in the accounting department.


Once the acquisitions staff has completed its work with a shipment, it is still not ready to go out on the shelves. It has to be cataloged before anyone will either know that the library has it or be able to find it. Nowadays, most libraries deal with a large utility called OCLC, which among other things, maintains WorldCat. Libraries from all over the world contribute their cataloging records to OCLC for other libraries to use. So do many of the major vendors.

It used to be that only librarians were qualified to perform cataloging. In this day of shared records, it became possible for paraprofessional staff to find records and add them to the library’s own catalog. That’s called copy cataloging. Unfortunately, not all cataloging records are of high quality. Fixing substandard records to make them worth using in the catalog is called complex copy cataloging. If no suitable record exists, someone must make an original record and contribute it to OCLC.

Paraprofessional staff used to perform only simple copy cataloging. Then some of them took over complex copy cataloging as well. I haven’t attempted to find a survey of what paraprofessionals do nationwide, but I do know that in many libraries, at least, paraprofessionals also perform original cataloging. What does that leave for professional catalogers? Plenty. Not only do they still do them most difficult cataloging, they supervise and train the paraprofessionals and help solve whatever puzzles and riddles turn up.

Once cataloging has been completed, the materials need labels, bookplates. and, unfortunately, anti-theft devices. That is one of the tasks still suitable for clerical staff, if the library has any. In that a case, paraprofessional probably supervises the clerks or student help and serves as the final quality control before the materials go out to the shelves where the public can find them.


Library circulation desk

Circulation desk at Newburyport Public Library

The general public probably never sees or much thinks about acquisitions and cataloging. Anyone who ever checks out library materials deals with the circulation staff–probably all paraprofessionals. The library management system includes a circulation module, which contains library card numbers and other necessary information for every patron.

Everyone sees library paraprofessionals in action when they check out materials, but that’s only part of the job. Eventually, borrowed materials have to come back to the library, where the circulation staff checks them back in. Not everyone who uses library materials takes them out. Maybe they just make photocopies or read them in the library and leave them on a table. Circulation staff collect these materials as well. Then it all has to go back on the shelves.

Those same call numbers that enable patrons to find things also tell the staff exactly where to put them back. Shelving library books requires knowledge of library shelving rules. Have you seen signs that request that you not put books back on the shelf? That’s one reason why. You’ll probably not put it back exactly right, making it hard for the next patron to find it. Also, many libraries want to know what materials have been used but not taken out. Staff can use a bar code reader to count materials left on tables or other designated areas. They can’t if someone has used something and then put it back.

Having everything in the right place is so important that someone (very likely but not necessarily paraprofessional circulation staff) has to read the shelves regularly to find whatever is in the wrong place. Circulation staff likewise keep the copiers filled with paper and otherwise take care of the various machinery.


Besides circulation staff, the next most familiar people in the library would be the reference librarians. Except that nowadays, paraprofessionals serve there, too. Formerly, answering reference questions depended so heavily on a collection of non-circulating reference works that it took a professional librarian to keep track of what was most suitable for each kind of question.

Nowadays, everything is online. Yes. The reference staff uses Google or some other search engine to answer questions, but what I mean is that much of what used to be in the reference collection is now on the computer. You can’t necessarily get to it from home, though. These databases cost an arm and a leg. Although there is probably more information in any given library’s databases than used to be available in all but the largest reference collections a generation ago, searching them has become easier–both because of the computer’s inherent search capabilities and the fact that half a dozen large companies offer the majority of databases. Anyone who becomes familiar with one company’s user interface will have little difficulty navigating all of its databases.

Once, anyone who had reference questions had to visit the library to speak with a librarian. It has long been possible to call the library on the phone to speak with someone. But today, reference service is also available by chat, texting, and various other new communications technologies. I know of one library where one paraprofessional’s entire job it to handle telephone and chat reference. After all, everything she would ever have to look up is available through the computer on her desk.

I have certainly not exhausted all of the different departments in a modern library. There are also interlibrary loan and special collections, not to mention taking care of all of the computers and software. But this overview should be enough to highlight the important and highly skilled work performed by paraprofessional library staff.

Photo credit: Some rights reserved by Newburyport Public Library


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