Paraprofessionals in reference service

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The American Library Association defines paraprofessionals as “library employees without professional certification [i.e. MLS/MLIS] or entrance-level educational requirements who are assigned supportive responsibilities at a high level and commonly perform their duties with some supervision by a professional staff member”(American Library Association, 1983, 164). The prefix para, meaning “beside; alongside of,” indicates that paraprofessionals in reference service are individuals who work at the reference desk with professional librarians or individually with the same purpose and goals as professional reference librarians (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary).


Evolution of Role

Genz provides a historical account of the librarian's role beginning with Samuel S. Green’s perception of a librarian “mingling” with readers in order to provide ample assistance to the ALA and other reference researchers' definition of the various roles of reference librarians (Genz, 1998). The ALA has redefined and attempted to delineate the librarian’s role compared to paraprofessionals and other library support staff, beginning with the 1927 Proposed Classification and Compensation Plans for Library Positions which attempts to define tasks completed by the various job classifications and then twelve years later, the ALA introduced a “three-tiered approach to staffing – professional, subprofessional {paraprofessional}, and clerical” (Oberg, 1995, paragraph 2). However, in the past thirty years, the prescence of paraprofessionals at the reference desk has increased due to budget constraints and more importantly the demand for reference librarians to be more involved in academic research and publication; teaching; electronic databases; supervision, collection development and committee work (Johnson, 1996; McDaniel and Ohles, 1993 and Oberg, 1995). As a result, libraries began staffing the reference desk with both professionals and paraprofessionals to meet the needs of the library users. Prior to this expansion, many “routine” tasks were assigned to support staff, leaving the interaction between the library user and reference librarian exclusive (Johnson, 1996). Johnson notes that the 1970 ALA policy addressed the librarian’s education and role to focus on “planning, organizing, communicating and administering successful service programs” (Johnson, 1996, p.80). In 1996, Stalker and Murfin (1996) report Brandeis University’s success in satisfying reference questions based on the Wisconsin-Ohio Reference Evaluation Program (WOREP). Brandeis University implemented the Brandeis Model that consisted of two reference desks. The desks were strategically placed so that the general reference desk, staffed by graduate students, is the first desk library users encounter. Library users were referred to reference librarians for further assistance (Stalker and Murfin, 1996). This model allows paraprofessionals to gain more experience at the reference desk and allows librarians to focus on other duties. In 1999, the ALA amended the 1970 policy which stated that educational requirements were necessary for certain library professions to include training and education for both professionals and paraprofessionals, and more importantly, paraprofessionals were recognized for “their pivotal roles in the library professions (ALA Support Staff Resource Center, paragraph 3).


The American Library Association's Library Support Staff Resource Center provides a chronological list of important events in paraprofessionalism.



Currently, there are discussions of whether paraprofessionals are adequately qualified to be at the reference desk. Proponents, such as McDaniel and Ohles (1993), argue that most questions can be easily answered by paraprofessionals so that librarians can focus their attention to their added responsibilities and focus their attention to more specialized requests. Rodgers describes paraprofessionals performing professional tasks effectively and should receive adequate training and thus recognition (1997).


Opponents feel that paraprofessionals are not specially trained to distinguish the needs of the users, such as when to conduct a reference interview or when to make appropriate referrals (McDaniel and Ohles, 1993). In the late 1980s Murfin and Bunge(1988) studied reference transactions at thirty-three academic libraries in the U.S. and discovered that although paraprofessionals provided sufficient information, library patrons felt that professional librarians supplied more “in-depth” information. In addition, they stated that those opposed to paraprofessionals at the reference desk feel that library users will not receive the best “quality” of service compared to professional librarians (Murfin and Bunge, 1988). There are more adamant opponents who feel that paraprofessionals at the reference desk “violates the Code of Ethics of the American Library Association” in providing the best assistance possible(McKinzie, 2002).


Regardless of the current discourse, it is important to note that properly trained library staff, paraprofessional and professional, is necessary to meet the growing information needs of library users. As such, there are several manuals and evaluations that assist libraries to successfully train paraprofessionals:


  • McDaniel and Ohles's (1993) Training Paraprofessionals for Reference Service
  • Hammond's (1992)initial report on designing Arizona State University West's new reference desk
  • Johnson's (1996) suggestions on managing paraprofessionals


Library Paraprofessional Organizations


American Library Association: National Directory of Paraprofessional Associations


American Library Association: Library Support Staff Interests Round Table



American Library Association, (2006), Library Education and Personnel Utilization. Retrieved November 16, 2006, from


American Library Association. (2006). Library Support Staff Resource Center. Retrieved November 16, 2006, from


American Library Association. (2004). Milestones of the Library Support Staff Movement. Retrieved November 16, 2006, from


Genz, M. D. (1998). Working the Reference Desk.Electronic version. Library Trends, 21, 505-526. Retrieved 10/24/06, from Expanded Academic ASAP database.


Hammond, C. (1992). Information and Research Support Services: The Reference Librarian and the Information Paraprofessional. Reference Librarian, 37, 91-107.


Johnson, P. (1996). Managing Changing Roles: Professional and Paraprofessional Staff in Libraries. The Journal of Library Administration, 22(2-3), 79-97.


McDaniel, Julie Ann and Judith K. Ohles. (1993). Training paraprofessionals for reference service : a how-to-do-it manual for librarians. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers.


McKinzie, S. (2002). For Ethical Reference, Pare the Paraprofessionals.Electronic version. American Libraries, 33(9), 42. Retrieved November 17, 2006, from Library Literature & Information Science database.


Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2006. Retrieved November 16, 2006 from


Murfin, Marjorie E. and Charles A. Bunge. (1988). Paraprofessionals at the Reference Desk. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 14(1), 10-14.


Oberg, L. R. (1995). Library Support Staff in an Age of Change: Utilization, Role Definition, and Status.Electronic version. ERIC Digest, Retrieved 11/17/06, from American Library Association database.


Rodgers, T. (1997). The Library Paraprofessional: Notes from the Underground. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc.


Stalker, J. C., & Murfin, M. E. (1996). Quality reference service: a preliminary case study. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 22, 423-429.


Young, H. (Ed.). (1983). The ALA Glossary of Library and Information Science. Chicago: Amerian Library Association.


Charmaine B. Sello