THE ROLE OF THE PARAPROFESSIONAL IN TECHNICAL SERVICES IN LIBRARIES
By Lynnec Howar
Historically, one of two major operational units within the organizational structure of all but small or one-person libraries, technical services has been defined as “services involving the operations and techniques for acquiring, recording, and preserving materials”. The administrative organization of technical services-as opposed to the administrative organization of public or readers’ services-integrates related operations and techniques which may include several or all of the functional units of selection, acquisitions, cataloging and classification, physical processing, binding and repairs, and circulation. While operations associated with technical services have existed since the systematic acquisition and recording of collections, more formalized approaches have been documented only since the mid-nineteenth century. The concept of a separate administrative unit identified as technical services or technical processing was first proposed in 1939. By the mid-l950s, with the establishment of the Resources and Technical Services Division of the American Library Association and the publication of Tauber’s definitive text, Technical Services in Libraries, the concept of a divisional unit incorporating the former acquisitions and cataloging departments had gained wide acceptance. Over the next few decades, the bifurcation of technical and public services was operationalized and ultimately institutionalized in a number of medium- to large-sized academic, public, and other library settings. With the rise of automated library systems-first circulation control systems in the mid-1970s, then fully integrated systems with online public access catalogs through the 1980s-the distinctions between bibliographic files created, controlled, and accessible only by technical services personnel and those of public services became blurred. Rather than, for example, maintaining a manual card-based Master Shelf List or “official catalog” or union catalog within technical services, and another shelf list within the public services branch or unit, there was one master file of bibliographic records in machine-readable format readily available to anyone with access to a computer on the library’s local or wide-area network. The same record that was created for an item at the acquisitions stage would form the basis for the catalog record which, in turn, would support such public services functions as circulation, reference, interlibrary loan, and user inquiry. This “blurring of files” is even more obvious today with Web-based catalogs and ubiquitous access to Internet resources from remote sites.
While the 1980swere a time when “the walls came a-tumbling down” between public and technical services, the 1990s have been characterized by a fundamental questioning of the need for, and viability of, technical services in libraries. With a downturn in national economies, significant budget reductions to libraries/information services in both the private and public sector, management emphasis on rethinking, reengineering, and restructuring whole organizations and their internal component work processes and activities, a greater focus on the delivery of services, increasing efficiencies in productivity to be gained through emerging new technologies, and ever-growing access to shared operational resources and effective partnerships, some library administrators have turned to outsourcing parts or all of technical services as a means of reducing costs, maximizing dwindling resources, and reallocating staff expertise to service-focused areas within the library. Some libraries have reorganized and reoriented some technical services activities, renaming their administrative units to reflect this shift. Bibliographic services, collections access services, support services, or bibliographic access services are some examples of unit names which reflect less of a “technical” focus and more of a “service” orientation beyond the traditional backrooms of acquisitions, catalogmg, and physical processing. This “rethinking” of technical services has not yet solidified and, for the foreseeable future, administrative approaches and structures remain in flux.
What has been the role of the paraprofessional in this more or less half-century of history of technical services? To answer this question, it is necessary to consider the parts of the whole-the component functional units within the technical services entity. Having engaged in that deconstruction, it will then be possible to revisit the original question and to continue with some speculations concerning the role of the paraprofessional in technical services of the future.
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