Technology Brings Challenges and Opportunities for Support Staff

Article excerpt

The growth of technology in both academic and public libraries has created a new and unexpected set of challenges for all library personnel. Initially there was concern over how library personnel would adapt to the technology itself. Questions arose over staff members' ability to learn and use new technology. However, the transition from card catalogs and P-slips to computers and printers appears to have been simpler than most libraries expected.

Library personnel, contrary to popular belief, handle change in the same way all humans do. Initially there may be mild tremors of discontent, but eventually we simply adapt. It is not the technology that has had such a strong effect on us; it is how that technology has changed our independent roles in the library environment. These changes are challenging tradition and eliminating some old standards.

One short decade ago library computers were usually found only in cataloging departments or on secretaries' desks. Smaller libraries may have had one librarian and perhaps one support-staff member working with those computers. Remaining support-staff responsibilities ranged from working circulation desks to shelving books or sorting the daily mail. Librarians devoted their time to collection development, cataloging, research, professional development, and reference duties. Support staff rarely attended round-table discussions, held retreats or in-service days, or traveled to library conventions. Librarians were the library professionals, and support staff members were, simply put, support staff. Tradition often barred support personnel from learning and performing duties normally reserved for librarians.

A vigorous revolution

A simple look back over the past 10 years reveals a vigorous revolution in the relationship between library professionals and their support staff. Technology has had a tremendous impact on all aspects of the library working environment. I have a fond memory of a television news story about a government report on stress in the workplace that aired in the late 1980s. According to the study, the least-stressful job in America was working in a library.

I seriously doubt the results would be the same today. Libraries are providing patrons with access to a virtual ocean of new information. Electronic information on CD-ROM and over the Internet is in high demand and is expanding at an astonishing rate. Academic librarians are learning new ways of instructing students, and all librarians must learn new ways to prepare and present library materials.

Many libraries have been unable to hire additional librarians to deal with this new technology; as an alternative they have increased the responsibilities of existing personnel. Librarians are spending more time working with new technology and are passing along some of their former duties to support staff.

Public and academic libraries are witnessing an influx of new library support positions - positions with such new titles as library technical assistant (LTA), computer specialist, and library technician. These new titles are replacing those of the library aides, media specialists, and administrative assistants.

Libraries have a growing need for expertise in computer hardware and software, and in many institutions support personnel are providing such expertise. Librarians with little or no time for computer training outside the library are already receiving that training from their own support staff.

LTAs and library technicians are now in charge of many library departments. In some situations they may do nearly all the cataloging of books, manage serial and circulation departments, or direct interlibrary loan operations. These "new professionals" are attending faculty meetings, chairing conferences, and serving as committee heads. They are being elected to lead membership organizations and organizing round-table discussions.

A new standard

The changes taking place in today's libraries are setting new standards for all support personnel. …