On becoming the change we want to see…

During our new employee orientation the following question is asked, “How many of you are librarians?” A handful of people will raise their hands. The rest will squirm in their seats waiting, wondering what’s coming next. “To our customers we are all librarians” is the next thing new staff hear.With that statement you see a smile emerge and tension melt away.

When a customer walks through the door he or she does not care what initials you have behind your name. The customer wants service or information and all staff should be ready to provide it.

This is not meant to devalue or disrespect the MLS. But working in a library is kind of like working in a hospital (yep I’ve done both). When you work in a hospital whether you are an MD, RN, EMT, or CNA everyone is going to ask you for medical advice. In the library everyone is going to ask you for information. The key to both situations is knowing the basics and when to refer to someone else.

As an EMT I can administer and advise you on basic first aid. If you need an opinion about which medication to take for insomnia I’m going to refer you to a doctor or pharmacist.

As a library employee I can help you find the restrooms, help you with the Internet, and show you where the cookbooks are. But if you need to know the best resource for obtaining your great-great-grandfather’s Civil War records I’m going to refer you to a librarian.

All customers of any business or organization have two basic expectations:

  1. Be greeted in a friendly, polite manner and offered basic assistance and triage.
  2. Assisted referral* to the appropriate person for specific information. *Assisted referral is very different from a “blind transfer” or just sending someone to the 3rd floor. Assisted referral means remaining with that customer until you can explain the need to the person who can help so the customer does not have to repeat his request 3 times.

Like it or not a library is a business. We have budgets. We have strategic planning. Some of us have our own finance, IT and HR departments.

In a business you need a variety of experts with broad educational backgrounds. I went through a listing of graduate degrees at my university and selected some that could easily fit within the mission and goals of libraries. I hope that you can see how the diversity and wealth of information from all of these fields could benefit a library and libraries in general.

While many library staff do not hold an MLS their contributions are essential to making libraries a success. When I first began working in libraries 9-years-ago I was put off by the terminology used to designate between MLS/non MLS, professional/paraprofessional, librarians/support staff. Coming from the business world I was not accustomed to this segregation. In the business world employees are valued for their unique abilities and contributions to the team. No one ever asked me what my degree was or if I even had one.

Without an MLS, do I love the library any less? Do I work less hard? Do I advocate any less for intellectual freedom? No.

In fact I have always wanted to work in a library. At one point I wanted to be a librarian. But I’ve discovered that my passion is in learning, helping other people learn, and connecting people with technology. With that in mind which would benefit me, the library, and my customers more–a library science degree or an instructional technology or education degree?

I hope that someday soon we do not even make the distinction and have to come up with words do describe MLS/non MLS. I know in my own training curriculum I’ve considered offering more advanced training for librarians and more basic training for other staff. In the end I decided the best way to handle this was to be clear in the program descriptions and objectives who the training is for and what is going to be covered. Staff can decide for themselves which level of training to attend. It’s worked great so far. Free learning for everyone. Isn’t that what libraries are all about?

An update regarding my last post. I have it from good authority that the Emerging Leaders Taskforce is going take another look at their requirements for the ALA Emerging Leaders Program. I hope they will also consider Sarah’s views.

Meredith suggested I formally contact ALA. I plan to.

Paul provided some very encouraging words about working together for change. I just recently renewed my ALA membership and joined the CLENE roundtable. I’m hoping to find a place with that group where I can contribute to ALA.

Jeff again reminded me that quitting ALA is not the answer, and after much thought I agree. As a wise man once said, We must become the change we want to see.”

About Lori Reed

Lori Reed, coauthor of Workplace Learning & Leadership: A Handbook for Library and Non-Profit Trainers, is a learning and communication strategist with more than twenty years experience in learning and development. A 2009 Library Journal Mover & Shaker and a 2010 "One to Watch" for paralibrarians, Lori graduated cum laude from East Carolina University with a Bachelor of Science in Communication. Lori is a certified Synchronous Learning Expert and a North Carolina Master Trainer and has traveled across North America speaking about libraries and training.


  1. Lori, both you and another more local trainer friend of mine Tech from the Non-techie have both touched upon a thing that has been sticking in my internal inbox for the greater part of a month.

    When I do our first day and our full day customer service orientation, I emphasize to all staff that their friends and family do not care that they are a page, circulation specialist, librarian, manager or anything else. The job designations only matter inside of our doors. To them, they are librarians. Period. I also set up my training programs that way, giving weight do skills needed to work in the library not just as a librarian.

    So why, when there are many branches and entire systems nationwide that do not have MLS librarians leading them on a daily basis, are opportunities for professional development, such as the ALA leadership limited to only some leaders?

    Personally, I am not an MLS library staff person, but in Maryland, our Maryland Library Leadership Institute does not specify that you have to be a MLS holder but by my observation, it seems to help A LOT in the decision making process.

    I hope that ALA and state library systems review and revisit guidelines that limit library professional development to MLS holders, since there are many non-MLS holders leading from many different positions in library land.

  2. Chris B. says:

    I agree with you whole heartedly Lori. I am proud to have an MLS but increasingly see it as only one of many paths. When I got my MLS I knew I wanted a career in libraries and that was the only path I could foresee. While the MLS is the easiest to explain to non-library folk, it represents only one of the skill sets needed by libraries. I had a brief conversation last week with someone finishing a MPA and asked her to consider libraries as one of many possible career paths. She seemed shocked until we spent a few minutes talking about the growing importance of research and strategy to our library as well as many other public libraries the world over. By the time we ended our conversation, she could at least imagine non-librarians having a significant leadership role in libraries, although it is a new idea for her. I hope others can imagine it and make a difference like so many like you are already doing.


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  2. […] Bell made an apropos, user-centered insight into this topic in her follow-up post yesterday: During our new employee orientation the following question is asked, “How many of you […]

  3. […] also links to Lori Reed’s On becoming the change we want to see, which, among many other wonderful points, notes that: While many library staff do not hold an MLS […]

  4. […] Emerging Leaders Update January 26th, 2009 7 Comments Last year I wrote a few posts about the Emerging Leaders program in ALA and my frustration with the requirement that applicants […]

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