What’s in a name?

By Elizabeth Graham

As it turns out, Shakespeare was wrong. Names do matter, especially when they are used to dismiss, denigrate, or de-professionalize an entire segment of the library profession. For more than three decades, we’ve struggled to agree on a term that best represents those working in libraries without an MLIS degree. Phrases like paraprofessional, support staff, and non-librarian have proven insufficient in capturing the diverse and invaluable work performed by these staff members while simultaneously suggesting they are somehow less than their librarian colleagues. And while it’s clear the profession generally agrees these terms should be retired. What is less clear is how we go about finding a better and more inclusive phrase moving forward.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

More recently, the name “allied professional” has been floated as a possible alternative. When I first encountered this phrase over this past summer at the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) annual conference, I immediately tried to incorporate it into my vocabulary both at work and in larger professional settings. As me and others have easily adapted to the new title, the results have been largely positive. I suspect this is the case for two reasons. First, the outdated phrases are so divisive that embracing something new and less negative was an easy and welcome change. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the dialogue about a better name presents an opportunity many in the profession are eager for – the chance to have meaningful discussions about the challenges facing allied professionals. On a sidenote, to the person responsible for the phrase “allied professional,” I’d love to know who you are and credit you accordingly.

My interest in this issue is largely motivated by my own professional journey through libraries. During my junior year of undergrad, I worked part-time as a student library assistant. By senior year, I’d managed to land a full-time job at the law library working evenings and weekends. It did not take long for me to realize that I wanted a future in libraries, however, this was not a realization I arrived at on my own. Instead, it was the encouragement of those above me assuring me that if I decided to pursue an MLIS, I would be supported. This basic assurance was all I needed to transition into a librarian role. Nearly ten years later, I’ve not only worked my way into leadership roles, I also find myself poised to take the next step as I complete my JD as an evening student. While I take deep pride in the path I’ve forged, I also recognize I benefit from a system designed for me to succeed. I am a white presenting member of the Latinx community. This means I’ve navigated this profession with a degree of privilege other members of marginalized communities do not benefit from. And while admitting that fact is important, it means nothing if I am not actively working against the very systems oppressing my colleagues.

For several years following my transition from allied professional to librarian, I proudly publicized my experience as a paraprofessional because I believed it made me a more well-rounded librarian. As I took on more prominent leadership roles, it became clear that I had a responsibility to encourage and develop the next generation of allied professionals. While this advocacy has taken many forms, the one thing I have been very careful to avoid is trying to force others to replicate my exact journey. Not every library employee dreams of becoming a librarian and it is certainly not my job as a leader to compel others down a path they do not want to travel. Instead, my responsibility is to provide my team with the resources they need to thrive in their chosen roles.

This post in no way presumes that abandoning negative terms like “paraprofessional” will magically erase the challenges facing allied professionals. In fact, I am fully aware this is the least we as a profession can do on this matter. Rather my hope is this change can serve as a starting point for deeper conversations about how to better develop and integrate allied professionals into the larger profession. We have an obligation to ensure that we are both fostering the pipeline to librarianship, while at the same time finding meaningful opportunities to develop those who choose to remain in allied professional roles. Both paths are equally important. If the last two years of taught us anything, it should be supporting those in our community who are most vulnerable regardless of their title.


Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. Their essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.