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Career Strategies for Librarians
Taking a Paraprofessional Position with an MLS: Savvy Career Move or Career Kiss of Death?
by Robert R. Newlen and Teri Switzer

What would you do in this situation?  You have just received an MLS with the goal of quickly obtaining a
librarian position after graduation.  However, a wide range of circumstances could prevent this from
happening.  For example, the market for librarians could be very limited and you might not have the
flexibility to relocate.  In the absence of a librarian position, should you accept a paraprofessional
position?    

Or, after interviewing for one or more library vacancies, you have been told that someone more qualified
or more experienced has been appointed to the position.  However, there is an opportunity to accept a
paraprofessional position at the library.  Should you accept the paraprofessional position in order to get
some pertinent library experience and to have the opportunity to become active in a library association?

Whether or not to accept a paraprofessional position is a decision that an increasing number of new
library school graduates are facing.  What are the short- and long-term ramifications of accepting a
support staff position when one has a graduate degree in library and information science?  Is it a savvy
career move or a career kiss of death?

Pro: Taking a Paraprofessional Position with an MLS

Many feel that the image of the paraprofessional or library support staff has changed for the better in
recent years, eliminating the stigma some have perceived in accepting this type of position with an MLS.  
Paraprofessionals have become more prominent within the field and are well-represented by advocacy
groups such as the Council on Library/Media Technicians (COLT) and Library Support Staff Interests
Round Table (LSSIRT) of the American Library Association.  As a result of the 3rd Congress on
Professional Education sponsored by ALA in 2003, a survey is currently underway to determine interest
in a voluntary certification program for paraprofessionals.   As further evidence of the heightened
awareness and appreciation of library support staff, Library Journal annually awards a "Paraprofessional
of the Year," featuring the winner on the cover of the magazine.

Paraprofessionals are widely recognized as the backbone of any successful library and in fact are
performing many of the tasks which were previously the exclusive domain of librarians: reference, copy
cataloging, circulation, interlibrary loan, etc.  Margeton (1999) maintains that a strong paraprofessional
team is a characteristic of a good library.  Many feel that librarians do not have exclusive rights to
professionalism.  Both librarians and support staff can demonstrate professionalism in their positions.  
Froelich (1998) discusses the complexity of the professionalism issue in this context and maintains that
there are many different values and principles involved.  In fact, there are a whole set of conditions and
circumstances that help form these values and principles.  One need not be working in a “professional”
or “librarian” position to embody the concept of professionalism.  

A key advantage of starting in a support position is learning the nuts and bolts of the organization’s
operations as well as becoming familiar with the people, politics and inner workings of the organization.
This experience can prove extremely valuable as one climbs the library career ladder.  Spending some
time in the trenches is definitely a worthwhile and “character-building” experience.  Accepting a library
support position can often be a foot in the door that can provide a major advantage when a librarian
position becomes available.  Sometimes it is just a matter of playing the waiting game.  Those who
make a mid-career switch to librarianship may benefit from having a library support position on a
resume.  

Con: Career Kiss-of-Death?

Others find taking a paraprofessional position with an MLS completely unacceptable.  In their minds,
after expending an enormous amount of time and money for this piece of paper, nothing but a librarian
position will do.  They may also be concerned that management will pigeonhole them as support staff
and not consider them when librarian positions become available.   Furthermore, it is possible that
management will not give as much weight to the time spent in a paraprofessional position, even though
many of the tasks performed as a paraprofessional are the same as those performed by librarians.   

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?

Some who apply for paraprofessional positions consider leaving their MLS degree off the resume for
fear of being perceived as overqualified.  Doing so is extremely problematic.  Ethical questions would
most likely be raised if and when the employer discovered that the candidate had withheld information.  

Damage Control

If an MLS holder accepts a paraprofessional position, there are a number of tactics that can minimize
some of the possible risks of this decision:   

Become involved in the state or local library association and/or an appropriate national organization,
such as the American Library Association, the Special Library Association, or the Medical Library
Association.  Volunteer to be on a committee and take an active role in its activities.  

Seek ways in which you can share your knowledge within your library and its community.  Express
interest in working on library committees such as a staff development committee.  

Talk with your department head about ways you can expand your job duties and responsibilities to build
on your library science knowledge.  However, be aware that the tasks of many paraprofessional
positions are limited by the classification or rank of that position.  It is sad but true that management may
want to take advantage of the higher-level skills, talents, and knowledge their paraprofessional staff
members possess, but they are unable to do so because of state or city personnel rules governing civil
service jobs.  

Plan and engage in a research agenda.  Research and scholarly activity are not reserved for those in
librarian positions.  Possessing a well-rounded resume, complete with publications and other scholarly
activity (such as presentations and poster sessions), can be especially helpful if you want to pursue an
academic librarian position.

Seek grant opportunities.  Let librarian co-workers know that you are interested in participating in
pertinent grant proposals.  

Conclusion

The roles of librarians are changing, as are the roles of library paraprofessionals.  Over the past ten
years, many articles in the professional literature have discussed the redefinition of library workers’ roles
as a whole.  These discussions have initiated debate among library managers regarding the blurring of
lines within the profession as well as the relative impact library paraprofessionals have on the
organization.  

Nonetheless, there is no simple answer to the question of whether one should or should not accept a
paraprofessional position after receiving an MLS.  Clearly, there are pros and cons to each side of the
question.  Furthermore, there are dozens of reasons why a holder of an MLS might consider accepting a
paraprofessional position.   Regardless of the reasons and the circumstances, each job seeker has to
weigh the benefits and the risks and make a decision using his or her best judgment.   

References

Froehlich, T. J. (1998). Ethical considerations regarding library nonprofessionals: Competing
perspectives and values.  Library Trends, 46.  Retrieved October 8, 2004.  http://www.findarticles.
com/p/articles/mi m1387/is n3v46/ai 20977937/print

Margeton, S. G. (1999). Paraprofessionals: Surpassing the grade.  AALL Spectrum, April.  Retrieved
October 8, 2004.  http://www.aallnet.org/chapter/coall/scuttle/fall99/paraprofessionals.htm

About the Author:

Robert R. Newlen is Head of the Legislative Relations Office, Congressional Research Service, Library
of Congress.  He has operational responsibility for congressional inquiry receipt and tracking;
professional development and seminar programs for Members of Congress and congressional staff;
and for CRS outreach efforts.   He is currently serving as an Endowment Trustee for the American Library
Association and served on the ALA Executive Board from 1996 to 2000.    He received his MSLS degree
from The Catholic University.  He is the author of Writing Resumes That Work: A How-To-Do-It Manual for
Librarians. Contact Robert at RNEWLEN@crs.loc.gov.  

Teri Switzer is the Associate Dean for Research, Operations, and Document Delivery at Auraria Library,
University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center in Denver, Colorado.

Article published November 2004

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