I graduated with my Library & Information Technology diploma in Spring 2013. I went to Red River College in Winnipeg, Manitoba, being the only library-related program in the province. I can remember, in a pre-interview to the program, one of the instructors asking me, “how come you don’t you get your MLIS instead?” Good question–I had thought about it, but there isn’t a graduate-level library school in my area, in my province even; I would’ve had to move.
I started in academic libraries as a library technician (‘library assistant’) in January 2015 at the University of Manitoba, and soon after began thinking about completing my Master’s degree. Two years prior, in 2013, the University of Alberta began an online, course-based MLIS program that students could complete entirely online. This program opened a door for me, where I could complete the degree part-time while continuing to work at the University of Manitoba full-time. I applied in Winter 2016 and started my Master’s program in Fall 2016. Of course, this was a busy time for me, working full-time, mainly evenings and weekends, going to grad school part-time, and with the birth of my son in 2017, my plate was full, but it was worth it—as after I graduated, I was doing the work I wanted to be doing.
Why had I been thinking of getting my MLIS so soon after starting work as an academic library tech? Immediately I saw the separation in job responsibilities of library assistants and librarians, and I knew I wanted to be a librarian to do the work of a librarian, things like library instruction and working on my own research.
There’s a major difference in the assigned duties to library technicians versus librarians. One of the major differences was technician duties were focused on day-to-day tasks, like staffing the public service desk, book pickup requests, and managing the reserves collection. As a tech, I would spend time making analytics reports in our ILS, Ex Libris’ Alma or contacting patrons with overdue fines. I also spent a lot of time troubleshooting and solving patron questions, either during shifts at the public service desk, on virtual reference, or helping a coworker. Sometimes these questions weren’t library-related, but I would do my best to find the right campus service or department that the patron needed; I don’t get those types of questions nearly as often as a librarian.
Librarians have day-to-day duties, of course, but in contrast, there’s a lot more long-term planning and project work; you’re removed, in a lot of ways, from the on-the-ground functioning of the library. There’s a lot more meetings, a lot more opportunities to plan or change how the library works, and a lot less of ‘keeping the lights on.’
There’s increased decision-making throughout my role as a librarian. I would often as a technician defer challenging or difficult questions to my supervisor. Now, I have the latitude to make judgement calls on my own. When I was working as a public-facing technician, there was a real team aspect to the work. We would debrief about challenging reference questions or give background to something we anticipated in the coming days or weeks, things like popular reserve items or students needing to complete an assignment by speaking with a particular librarian.
Although I work as part of a team of science librarians, there’s much more independence in how you structure your week/month/year as a librarian—not to mention the lack of shift work. Independence makes it natural to look ahead to advancing throughout your career, with my professional performance, professional development, research, and service as a major function of this. I have more of a growth mindset as a librarian, compared to my work as a technician.
I can remember helping to put together our health sciences’ library newsletter, with several librarians. After a year or so of this work, one of the librarians thanked me profusely for my help, and asked if she could write me a formal thank you letter if that would be useful. As a library technician, I declined as I didn’t think it would be useful. As a librarian, I look for those physical acknowledgements of volunteerism and accomplishment, to use in future performance reviews and promotion packages. As a technician, I didn’t have that mindset since those formal processes of career advancement weren’t a part of the job. But thinking back on that offer, a physical recognition of dutiful and intentional work, even as a technician, should’ve been a priority of mine. Technicians can have growth mindsets as well, and advance through their career, even if there aren’t the same institutional markers, like promotion in rank, available.
I wanted to become a librarian not only because of the differences in duties and type of work, but I wanted to challenge myself. Like most people in our profession, I’m a lifelong learner, always wanting to learn something new and to challenge myself. And because I’m challenged more often, I have increased job satisfaction as a librarian, in addition to the differences I outlined above: independence, decision-making in my work and the work of my library system, and career advancement.
Claire Hill (2014), in her study exploring work relationships between library technicians and librarians, found 77% of survey respondents mention a need to improve relationships between the two groups. Examples from respondents include a need for mutual respect (regardless of educational qualification), more library technician professional development, and modern reworking of library technician scope-of-work and career advancement. Based on my experience, I never felt a lack of mutual respect—in fact I felt recognized by my librarian peers for my work as a technician, such as the librarian offering to write me a thank you letter for my work. I do think there could be more technician-focused professional development, but it’s out there if you look for it (and if you have the time and/or funding).
But there certainly could be more done in rethinking technician work and career advancement. Personally, I think along with rethinking technician scope-of-work, there needs to be a shift from seeing library technicians as “paraprofessionals,” only useful to assist librarians. I’m a big fan of the phrase “library worker,” to encompass technicians and librarians alike.
New models of academic librarianship, such as the functional specialist model, threaten to sideline library technicians, disrupting their work as the academic library shifts to prioritize and restructure librarian work, and putting aside library technicians. This is an area where technicians can be involved in decision-making, and by extension, demonstrate mutual respect. Technicians can bring their professional interests and expertise to the forefront of functional work. As argued by Hoffmann and Carlisle-Johnston (2021) who write about librarians, but certainly can encompass technicians as well, in current or future reorganization, we can keep in mind foundations of liaison library work by “building relationships, anticipating and meeting needs, and drawing on specialized expertise” (Conclusion section, para. 1).
While it has now been some time since I worked as a technician, I still draw upon those experiences as a librarian; and of course, I remember the dull and gruelling shift work in the late evening and over the weekend. I certainly won’t forget the work or those I worked closely with any time soon.
How many of you are library technicians? Once were library technicians? It’s a surprisingly common career trajectory for librarians to have been library techs. Leave a comment, I’d be happy to hear from you. If you’re a library tech thinking about getting your MLIS and want to talk more, get in touch!
Hill, C. (2014). The professional divide: Examining workplace relationships between librarians and library technicians. The Australian Library Journal, 63(1), 23-34. https://doi.org/10.1080/00049670.2014.890020
Hoffmann, K. & Carlisle-Johnston, E. (2021, March 26). “Just like when i was a liaison”: Applying a liaison approach to functional library models. The Journal of Creative Library Practice. https://creativelibrarypractice.org/2021/03/26/just-like-when-i-was-a-liaison-applying-a-liaison-approach-to-functional-library-models/