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View the documentLibrary technicians in Australia: past, present and future
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Library technicians in Australia: past, present and future

Helen Smeaton
Footscray College of Technical and Further Education

Received February 1983

Abstract The history of library technicians in the workforce in Australia is described. Some of the problems confronting technicians and their employers now, and in the future, are outlined. Library technicians should be seen as equals in the workforce but it is necessary to better define what technicians do and what librarians do. Industrial conflict in libraries is otherwise inevitable.

‘The Library Technician has now entered the Australian library world and is consolidating his or her position.’1 The editorial of the Australian library journal in March 1975, from which this comment was taken, saw the emergence of the technician in the workforce as an indication of trends developing in librarianship. In considering the current and future situation of technicians in Australian libraries it is useful to summarise the history of the emergence of the paraprofessional as a recognised and accepted category of library worker.


Activities directed towards the setting up of a course to train library technicians originated with the Victorian Branch of the Library Association of Australia (LAA) in the late 1960's. These activities culminated in the establishment of the first course at the then Box Hill Girls' Technical School (now Whitehorse College of Technical and Further Education), in Victoria, with Wes Young as head of the course. The pilot course began with 'twenty full time, and thirty-seven part time students on 23 February 1970'.2 The success of this course is now history.

The subsequent development of similar courses in other states is documented in the professional literature. It is sufficient to say that in 1983 all states and the Australian Capital Territory have operational courses. With only one exception the courses are all conducted by Colleges of Technical and Further Education (Tafe). The involvement of Tafe in these programs has been supported by the LAA, officially because 'technical colleges have an established role in the training of technicians in all fields and a clear distinction should be made between these courses and those at professional level taught at universities and colleges of advanced education.'3

The intent of the courses and the nature of the training offered to students has also been documented in detail in the professional literature. The training was intended to produce paraprofessional staff who support professional librarians in the provision of information services. It was to be generalist, vocational, and terminal, rather than a preprofessional program. The introduction of these courses, then, was based on the assumption that a level in the staffing structures in libraries existed, or ought to be created, between the professional and clerical assistant levels. The LAA Task List for Library Technicians was a reflection of both the assumption and the training programs.

Early in the history of the establishment of courses throughout Australia there was concern on the part of employers and educators about variations in such aspects of the programs as entry requirements, work experience and course content. These regional differences made difficult reciprocal acceptance of qualifications between states, and reduced technician mobility. They were also an impediment to standardisation of salary scales and awards across the nation. Two national seminars were held, one in Melbourne in 1976 and the other in Sydney in 1979. These involved educators, employers and students. Out of these seminars the existing guidelines for courses and the LAA Task List evolved.

Accreditation of technician courses by the LAA Board of Education has been another vital factor in obtaining portability of qualifications between states, and the maintenance of common standards. The current status of accreditation for each course is listed in the LAA Handbook.


In 1983 library technicians constitute an established category of library worker. Accredited technician courses are operating across Australia. Entry levels and work experience requirements still vary considerably from state to state, though course content is very similar. The observations in Margery Ramsay's excellent paper on the 1976 seminar regarding standardisation of entry level and work experience still apply:

Standard of duration and entry level seemed out of the question. In any case, standardisation on this basis conflicts with the emphasis which Tafe and other educational authorities are now placing on flexibility. For these reasons course requirements were defined in the Guidelines in terms of exit level and performance, and ‘an exit level at least equivalent to that of a final year exit level high school student' is specified4.

Technicians are more evident, across the various types of libraries, in some states than others, but the concept of the trained paraprofessional worker is recognised and accepted nationwide. What is arguably less well recognised and accepted is what a library technician should do and how he or she can best be employed. There is still great divergence of opinion among professional librarians about the division of labour between professional, paraprofessional and clerical staff. This is particularly evident in areas like reference work at one end of the spectrum and covering books at the other.

Factors such as the size and scope of a library, the clientele it server, and constraints of funding, all influence what the technician does in practice, as indeed they influence what the librarian does. Nonetheless, the young professional graduate is likely to have much more clearly defined ideas about his or her future role than the new technician graduate. One of the most difficult tasks for the technician educator is to satisfactorily define the respective roles of professional and paraprofessional in 'grey' areas like reference work.

There are also difficulties for technician educators in deciding on levels of complexity taught in areas like classification and cataloguing. One sure method of stimulating a flagging conversation between librarians is the introduction of this topic. You can be certain of any number of passionate responses. This is more than a personal grievance from a teacher. The divergence of opinion is a reflection of the lack of a sharp definition of professional and paraprofessional areas of responsibility in work. It is a problem fraught with difficulty. There are all sorts of conflicting interests involved, but it is a problem that needs to be solved in the interests of efficient and economic library service.

The author would argue, perhaps wrongly, that the problem of definition of appropriate areas of work reflects confusion about the role of the librarian. Bourne, Hill and Mitcheson observe:

In recent years there have been significant changes in the role of professional librarians in the workplace. This development is not solely due to the greater sophistication of library and information services but also the increasing utilisation of paraprofessional library technicians. As in the case of technological change, this has freed professional librarians from many of the unskilled duties associated with library operations, to allow them to concentrate on the more professional aspects of librarianship5.

In a profession which is relatively new, and subject to such rapid change as librarianship, the skills which are required of the professional need to be constantly reviewed and updated, both in general and in specific areas of information work.

A problem which is everpresent is that of the place of the technician in the staffing structure of libraries. Flowers referred to this as long ago as 1978. He said then:

In a paper given 16 years ago, 'Objectives of training for library service', I harped on the same theme:

'The library tasks must be sorted out, rearranged and staff trained to do them efficiently’.

'As there are variations in the level of service expected from librarians, there will be variations in the training required.'

'I have argued for a two-level staff, each with its own objectives of training for library service, each section with its own training systems. As the library service required of each will be different, the training system for each will be different' and so on.

Although there must have been considerable agreement with that we did not do anything about it, even though each succeeding year accentuated the need for a thorough overhaul of library staffing structures. The elimination of the LAA Registration Certificate and the emergence of library education in the colleges and universities clearly meant the disappearance of our middle staffing, standby professional librarians in training.

If, as I believe, it is true to say that librarians increasingly are concerned not so much with books as with the records of books, the introduction of the computer to library operation made massive staff restructuring not only inevitable but imminent6.

We currently have reached the objectives of different training systems for professional and paraprofessional workers, but in most instances the staffing restructures have not taken place. Library technicians have been grafted on to existing staffing structures, and this has led to the variations in their salary, levels and titles which exist presently across institutions in Australia. It also means that defined career paths in various types of libraries barely exist for technicians. This must have a detrimental effect, for many technicians, on motivation and identification with the employing institution.

It is a particularly difficult problem to address at a time when employment and promotion prospects for all library staff are shrinking. It is, nonetheless, a pressing problem since it is in just such a time of economic constraint that the best possible value needs to be obtained from staff, and the most economic use of skills employed. At present many technicians are underutilised, while some instances exist where they are employed in areas of work which, while they may not be beyond the capacities of individual technicians, are beyond what they are trained, as a group, to do. A recognised place in the staffing structure based on the recognition of differential training and skills, would go a long way to sorting out the current discrepancies in employment, salaries and promotion opportunities.


Bourne, Hill and Mitcheson comment in their report on the future possibility of competition between technicians and librarians for work if the current number of librarians graduating each year is maintained. If this oversupply continues, as quantitative evidence available at present seems to indicate, it is likely that professional librarians will begin to compete for paraprofessional positions. This will possibly lead to a deterioration in the employment prospects for paraprofessionals.7

This is one interpretation of the possible outcome of such competition, and the reverse is equally possible.

The implications of the Bourne, Hill and Mitcheson study for future employment in the profession have yet to be fully analysed and considered by librarians and library educators. It does, however, seem clear that technicians face the same constricting employment market as other categories of library workers, and employers and educators must plan for the future accordingly.

The Library Workforce National Conference, Melbourne 22-24 November 1982, highlighted the need to come to grips with the present problems mentioned, in order to ensure a reasonable future for employment in libraries. One of the recommendations of the Conference to the LAA was that a Library Workforce Committee be established which would, among other things, regularly monitor the supply of and demand for library technicians in Australia. This would seem to be a step in the right direction.

The problems of job classification and the need to reorganise staffing structures in order to ensure the appropriate employment of technicians was discussed. When the keynote speaker, Nick Moore, presented his masterly summation of the issues discussed, he made some points about technicians in the workforce which are worth considering as major issues for the future.

Library technicians should be seen as equals in the workforce. Their training equips them with skills which are as valid at the middle level of library work, as the skills of the professional librarians at their level. We need to better define what the technicians do and what the professional librarians do. We need to ensure that role differentiation is marked by pay differentials. Employers need to have a more flexible approach to organisational structures.

It is difficult to make predictions about the effect of technological change in libraries on the technician role. There are two conflicting schools of thought. One sees the upgrading of technician courses, and the movement of technicians into areas formerly occupied by librarians, as an economic inevitability. The other sees the gradual phasing out of the technician level of work as a consequence of technological innovation, and the eventual demise of the technician. It is difficult, without extensive research data, to make an educated guess one way or the other.

What is inevitable, however, is industrial conflict in libraries, unless the current problems mentioned, are solved. This would be detrimental, not only to working relationships between categories of staff, but also to the service libraries offer the community.


1 DATAR, C and SCOTT, P Editorial comment Australian library journal 24 (2) March 1975 p43

2 PIVEC, C Middle-level library education in Victoria Australian library journal 24 (2) March 1975 pp 48-53

3 FLOWERS, E The library technician in the workforce: the educational framework Australian library journal 28 (20) December 7, 1979, p372

4 RAMSAY, M Education of library technicians in Australia Australian library journal 24 (9) June 1978 pp 134-138

5 BOURNE, V; HILL, M and MITCHESON, B Library and information work: the employment market. Vol. 1 Sydney, Library Association of Australia 1982 p1

6 FLOWERS The library technician in the workforce p372

7 BOURNE, HILL and MITCHESON Library and information work p1

Helen Smeaton BA, ALAA, TSTC is Head of the Library Studies Department at Footcray College of Technical and Further Education. Before taking up this position she had worked in special libraries, a public library and a variety of school and college libraries. Her professional interests include children's literature, education for librarianship and the study of Australian literature. Address: 6 Wattle Grove HAWTHORN VIC 3122