by Courtney Butler, Head Editor, INALJ Idaho
Support Staff Silos
There’s a lot of talk in job searching about cross-industry skills. Employees and job seekers with skills that can be used in a number of different ways are more marketable and ultimately more useful to employers. Sometimes, however, I think this idea gets a bit overlooked within the context of library support staff. For example, a person with an MLS may be able to work in a library, corporate office, non-profit organization, legal office, museum, historical society, or any other industry that deals with information management, and I know from personal experience that a librarian looking for a job can get pretty creative when it comes to applying library skills in out of the box ways. But what about library support staff members that are trained to perform very specialized duties? Can reference assistants catalog? Can genealogists perform readers advisory? Can ILL staff create interesting and effective displays? In the study “One Model for Creating a Career Ladder for Library Support Staff”, Jane Fama and Elaine Russo Martin of the University of Massachusetts Medical School Library realized that technological developments were forcing librarians from the physical space of the library to the academic space of patrons’ homes. As such, support staff members were taking on more and more duties within the physical space. These duties consisted of both those normally performed by librarians and some that were a result of the increasing complexity of services offered. In other words, as librarians have shifted their focus towards digital resources and online reference services support staff members have been forced to handle more responsibilities and patron interactions within the library that have only become more complex as libraries have embraced various types of new technology (think internet and e-readers, among others). This, combined with budget cuts and staff decreases, has meant that most library support staff members now have job descriptions that cross a number of departments.
So let’s say you work in a library that expects its employees to have this kind of cross-training. Despite (or maybe because of) the myriad of tasks each employee is responsible for, are employees in each department being evaluated in fair and consistent ways? According to Fama and Martin, paraprofessionals have historically been promoted somewhat randomly and received very specialized training. In response, they developed a career ladder model that provides an objective means for promotions based on education, cross-training and competency, and years of service. Theoretically, it is beneficial in allowing for a more efficient and objective method for advancing support staff members, in making sure support staff members are compensated appropriately, and in making sure the support staff members are trained to perform a larger variety of duties in the case that any staffing shifts need to occur. But they weren’t the first to realize this was an issue. Beginning all the way back in 1996 the ALA assigned a committee to examine issues facing library support staff. The final report published in 1997 identified three main concerns: career ladders, compensation appropriate to education, and access to continuing education and training opportunities. Over the next decade a combination of this report and library staff complaints prompted a number of institutions to begin implementing career ladder initiatives for support staff. Fama and Martin published their study in 2009, and in January of 2010 the ALA began the Library Support Staff Certification Program. This program allows support staff to demonstrate competencies and is obtained by either completing courses or creating a portfolio.
The benefits of having cross-trained employees are obvious, and such employees have become more necessary during recent budget struggles and technological advancements. The initiatives that have been taken thus far are good steps towards making sure the extra work being performed by support staff is realized and appreciated, and I truly hope libraries continue to offer support staff members opportunities for cross-training and fair evaluation.