All-purpose librarian: when does it become exploitative?

In a recent College & Research Library News article, Cori Wilhem discusses the benefits and, at times, necessity of cross-training in academic libraries.  She concludes:

Cross-training saves money while helping employees build their skill sets, and creates cohesion and collaboration between otherwise separate departments. In an outward-facing library, it is often necessary for the front end of operations to perform a variety of services, and knowledge of most library procedures can be instrumental in providing positive customer service at such service points.

Clearly, there are benefits to librarians cross-training with other departments in an academic library.  But this push for all-purpose librarians raises some concerning issues that should be discussed before cross-training becomes the norm.

Who really benefits?

The library.  Despite mentions of expanded skill sets and greater camaraderie for librarians, cross-training is primarily for libraries to run more smoothly.  If cross-training is so beneficial to staff, why is there a natural resistance? Why does the article address the response of “it’s not my job”?  Because while there are some benefits, there are also clear (and perhaps more) drawbacks for librarians. Making the library better is certainly a good thing, but it’s disingenuous in this case to also suggest that its for the good of the staff.


Librarians are being asked to do more without being paid more.  Not only that, but they are asked to work beyond what they were initially hired to do.  I know when it comes to professional positions you can’t really refuse to do anything that’s not spelled out in your contract, but libraries don’t get carte blanche over what they ask of librarians, do they?  Where’s the line?  Working more hours usually leads to more compensation (especially now that the rules for non-exempt employees are more inclusive) so why doesn’t increased responsibility?  Actually, the wikipedia page for business cross-training says that it’s not uncommon for employers to adopt skill-based pay in order to compensate employees who learn new skills in new areas.  Why isn’t this a consideration for librarians?  Part of the reason is that cross-training is more typical of front-line staff, not professionals. The professional equivalent is dubbed “cross-careering”. Which leads to my next issue…

Devaluing the profession

What does it say about librarians and the profession when its suggested that any librarian can simply sit down with a specialty librarian and learn a new area in just a few sessions?  To me, it suggests that “the profession” is no more than a handful of limited and repeatable technical skills.  What purpose does a master’s degree serve in this kind of system?  Why does any librarian need a master’s degree when any library position is no more than a few hours of on-the-job-training?  The blurring between front-line and professional staff in libraries is no new thing, but this nearly gets rid of the delineation altogether.


As a librarian in a small library I understand the value and necessity of wearing many hats.  But I knew what I signed up for when applying for this position, and I accepted a salary that I thought was fair for the work involved.  And any expansion of my responsibilities have been my decision.  But do you know what I would say if I were approached by my superior and asked to train as the registrar in case they needed someone to fill in?  “That’s not my job”.

It’s not that I think cross-training shouldn’t be considered or implemented.  But, we should think about how such a system affects librarians (in both good and bad ways) and whether or not its fair.


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