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J Med Libr Assoc. 2009 October; 97(4): 322–323.
PMCID: PMC2759154

Training Paraprofessionals for Reference Service: A How-To-Do-It Manual for Librarians. 2nd ed

Reviewed by Virginia F. Bender, AHIP

Pamela J. Morgan 
Training Paraprofessionals for Reference Service: A How-To-Do-It Manual for Librarians. 2nd ed.New York, NY: Neal-Schuman Publishers. 2009. 201 p. $65.00.  ISBN: 978-1-55570-643-2.

Despite the controversy that surrounds the practice of utilizing paraprofessionals at the reference desk and the question of the necessity of staffing the desk with professional librarians at all, many libraries could not function without the work of paraprofessionals on their staffs. Pamela Morgan has revised the first edition of her best-selling work, a revision and update that was needed because of changes in librarianship brought on by the Internet (virtual reference, new technologies, etc.). The book points out the necessity of hiring well-qualified individuals for these jobs and emphasizes training them to provide good, not just acceptable, reference service. Reasons given for hiring paraprofessionals include the need to save money but not sacrifice top-notch service, thus showing the importance of well thought-out training.

Paraprofessionals are seen as complementing the professionals, not supplanting them. In the discussion of why and why not to hire paraprofessionals, Morgan points out that they are also used by libraries that wish to redirect the expertise of their professionals to other tasks, which may involve sending librarians to other office areas for consultations with patrons, for example. The other side of the argument gives reasons why not to use them, such as the amount of time needed to train them and their lack of subject knowledge that could be a drawback in certain situations.

The book covers the staff training cycle in depth. Morgan emphasizes the need to lay adequate groundwork that includes performance standards reflecting expectations of the staff member and tasks to be completed and assessment measuring outcomes in an objective way. Creating training plans that establish goals and objectives is suggested. These plans should include a list of training priorities and training methods that may include modules specifically designed for the training. Of equal importance in establishing priorities for training is deciding who should do the training and what training methods are to be used. The book stresses that training methods depend on the time and cost involved and a person's learning style. The choice of who should do the training usually depends on who is the person on staff with the best subject expertise. Part of the training can include role-playing to give the paraprofessional the chance to practice reference interview skills and use of established guidelines for referring questions to the professional librarians. Orientation for new employees is discussed as an essential part of their job training, and a checklist to use for what should be covered is a helpful item.

Several chapters are devoted to in-depth discussions of the many tasks needed by the paraprofessional to perform well on the job. Again, the book's practical approach gives modules and checklists for basic skills, covering everything from online catalog training to evaluating Internet resources. Advanced skills such as training on databases and understanding link resolvers and SuDoc numbers are examples of the diverse knowledge all staff working a reference desk need. One noteworthy feature of the chapter on ready reference skills is that it covers how to use specific sources: a very useful approach for busy staff who handle heavy traffic at the reference desk. This chapter also includes exercises and practice questions for use in training modules.

Morgan provides a chapter discussing performance management from which any supervisor could benefit. Topics covered include standards and how to assure they are being met, importance of feedback for employees and how to provide it, benefits of coaching and what is involved, and basic tips on performance appraisals. Supervisors will also appreciate the appendix to the book, which is the “American Library Association (ALA) Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service Providers.” These guidelines were established in 1996 to be used for training library professionals and staff, and they are widely accepted as the standards for measuring the effectiveness of reference transactions.

The clear, concise format of this work adds to its value as a book offering a great deal of very practical and useful information. Many libraries that face today's issues of staffing reference desks, including the changing information needs of patrons, would benefit from having this volume in their collections. Suitable for larger public and academic libraries, it serves not only as a practical guide for training paraprofessionals, but also as a resource that can be consulted again and again by professional librarians.


Articles from Journal of the Medical Library Association : JMLA are provided here courtesy of Medical Library Association