Looking Up, Looking Down

What do job competencies and the 2010 Paraprofessional of the Year have to do with each other? Timing, mostly. I was reading with interest about Allison Sloan and her impact in Massachusetts, and the “paralibrarian” title. Then I was attending a session on competencies for senior library management at the Ontario Library Association’s 2010 conference. Both reflect the two ends of the seemingly-limitless fascination the librarian world has with who is a librarian.

The Library Journal article on Allison Sloan mentions that, in Massachusetts, paraprofessionals are often called paralibrarians.  I love that term!  Paralegal, paramedic, paramilitary.  Ms. Sloan sounds like a delight to work with and meet from the other side of a service desk.

A related editorial notes that we are Not Yet Equal.  Early in my career as a librarian, I received a copy of We ARE the Library:  Support Staff Speak Out – from my MOTHER, who also worked in libraries – about the friction between librarians and non-librarians.  As the editorial reiterates, there is still a lot of discussion about us and them, MLS/MLIS holders and everyone else.

Well, if your mother gives you an article, you read it, right?!  That article plus subsequent experience has shown me that there are no certainties with people based on their education.  As the Liminal Librarian says, “the outside world doesn’t know – or care – that librarians have an MLS.”  I work with staff at a variety of law libraries, and find that you generally cannot tell in an e-mail or phone call whether the other person has a library degree.  If someone who works in a library, providing library services, calls herself a librarian, I can’t see where I am one to complain.  Better that than have someone call themselves a librarian and treat customers rudely or sleep during office hours and shirk work, giving the rest of us a black eye.

This was juxtaposed with the discussion in today’s session at the 2010 Ontario Libraries Association Super Conference, which was essentially that (a) behavioral competencies for jobs in libraries don’t have very much (anything?) to do with the library degree and (b) public libraries are already hiring senior managers that do not have a library degree.

This shouldn’t have really been news for me, since there are lots of well-known non-library-degree library directors.  Dr. James Billington, Librarian of Congress.  John Palfrey, Vice-Dean for Library and Information Services at Harvard School of Law.   Dr. Daniel Caron, Library and Archives Canada.  These examples, and the larger urban libraries represented at the session, may suggest that size is a factor in determining whether a library system needs to reach beyond the degreed-librarian world.

But should it be?  I sat listening and wracking my brain to think why a law library is necessarily better run by a person with a Masters degree in Library Science?  Do they take innovation courses?  Are they examined for common sense?  As the speakers in the session pointed out multiple desirable qualities in library management, as well as staff, none of them were improved by having the degree.

It would almost make more sense for a special library to have a non-librarian in management roles, since the researchers in those libraries may already have a substantial specialized knowledge.  Libraries can enhance their ability to find and use information, but it’s noticeable, at least in the legal world, how many lawyers have no access to librarians, and yet without any noticeable negative impact to their practice.  If a law library has customer service-oriented, professional-acting staff, it may be that a lawyer is as good as a librarian, and even a lawyer may not be necessary.  I mean, if a non-lawyer librarian can learn about the law, why can’t a non-lawyer non-librarian?

I guess it confirms what I have already come to believe, which is that the MLS can be an enhancement to the right person.  A colleague of mine has a law degree but not a library degree and runs a large and complicated law library.  I don’t think there is anything an MLS can contribute to her success.  If senior management like human resource directors and chief financial officers for libraries do not need to be a librarian, why should the director, assuming they have the requisite knowledge, experience, and energy to be successful?

The other response is, who cares?  Librarians have been unable to define measurable qualifications for the profession other than the degree.  If a library hires non-librarians and the information needs of its customers are met, it doesn’t really matter.  If the MLS can be shown to actually be a plus factor in certain positions, that is great.  But it certainly sounds like the library degree may become increasingly optional for larger (and perhaps, in the future, smaller) libraries to remain competitive.