Now Is the Time

Advocating for Better Salaries & Pay Equity for All Library Workers

Adapted from the 2002 Nasser Sharify Lecture, presented by Maurice J. Freedman, October 19, 2002, School of Library & Information Science, Pratt Institute

Last year, a columnist for USA Today applauded a New Hampshire librarian for loving her work so much that she retired, but then came in everyday to do her old job as a volunteer. Why? She did it to save enough money for her small town library to buy new books.

Having enjoyed the rewards of being a librarian myself for more than thirty years, I can’t say I’m entirely surprised. Like most librarians—and like the newspaper columnist who sang my colleague’s praises—I love being in a profession that I don’t just value for the paycheck.

What troubles me—and should trouble everyone in our profession—is that too often libraries are forced to choose between paying their most valuable resource—the staff—and, the other choice, adding to their collections, hours and online capacity. The post 9/11 downturn in the economy has reminded us yet again how vulnerable libraries are. At a time when their services are more in demand than ever, many libraries across the nation are experiencing budget cuts.

To their credit, many communities across the country made major reinvestments in libraries during those last five years of prosperity. They remodeled or built beautiful new libraries with state-of-the-art technology. But even during the good times, most libraries do not pay state-of-the-art salaries.

Building on my 2002-2003 presidential initiative and ALA’s very successful Campaign for America’s Libraries, the Campaign for America’s Librarians has continued to position libraries as vital to civil society—but with a sharper focus on greater support, higher salaries and pay equity for the library workers who deliver the service. The ALA Presidential Task Force on Better Salaries and Pay Equity developed an excellent toolkit, now available on the ALA-APA Web site:

In the past, too many in our profession have been hesitant to speak out on these issues; they were afraid to appear “self-serving.” The continuing ALA-APA salaries initiative is based on the premise that it is OK to speak out. It is not OK to allow inequities to go unchallenged. Personally and collectively, we must say “No more!” The ALA-APA aims to deliver this message in person, in print and on the airways: America’s libraries don’t just happen. They are run by highly educated librarians and skilled library workers—unsung heroines and heroes who far too frequently are underpaid and under-recognized.

This effort is already beginning to pay dividends. An essay I wrote about librarians’ salaries was carried on National Public Radio’s Marketplace, heard by millions, in June 2002. An editorial I wrote during 2002 was carried by two newspaper chains and appeared, I have been told, on library bulletin boards across the country. A New York librarian told me her board president decided to use it as ammunition in her budget submission to the town.

The salaries issue is bigger than libraries, of course. Librarians know too well that they are not paid fairly because they work in a profession that is predominantly women. The most recent update of the U.S. Census figures Earnings By Occupation and Education, last revised September 22, 2003, based on the 2000 U.S. Census— show that the median earnings for men with an advanced degree is $66,328—compared with a median figure of $45,577 for women with an advanced degree. That’s almost a third less. ALA’s 2002 salary survey shows librarians to be in line with the median pay for women, at $46,600. (Note: ALA’s 2003 report, published in September 2003, shows an increase to $47,914.) The good news is that there was an increase in librarians’ salaries—4.7% from 2001 to 2002, 3.6% from 2002 to 2003.

The looming shortage of librarians adds yet another incentive—and urgency—to our efforts. Look not at median salaries but at starting salaries. In 2001, the average starting salary for a beginning librarian—with a master’s degree—was less than $33,000. In 2002, the average starting salary was $35,051. In 2003, it was $36,198. Within just seven years, nearly one in four librarians will be of retirement age. Sure, it’s a great career, but who—at this rate—will be able to afford it to take the place of those who retire?

The pay equity issue has finally hit critical mass. There are initiatives across the country—from California to New Jersey. These efforts are cruciaL—and we’re not talking just for future generations. We are talking about fairness—NOW. Individually and as a profession, we can no longer afford to give complicit approval to the implicit statement: “Your lack of money is a valid reason to discriminate against me.” We have to stop routinely donating our work to our employers. Barbara Ehrenreich calls this involuntary philanthropy. We must dispel the myth perpetuated in many of our lives—that we chose librarianship INSTEAD of choosing to be fairly compensated. My friends, we chose librarianship AND we want equitable compensation!

The Campaign for America’s Librarians and the ALA-APA will take on new myths as well as old. We have all heard the question: “Why should we pay more for librarians anyway? Hasn’t the Internet made libraries and librarians obsolete?” My answer: Libraries are 21st century centers for information, education, literacy and culture—and librarians are the ultimate search engine, the knowledge navigators. We save time, money—and aggravation—by helping our users find the best, most accurate and complete information whether it’s in print, online, video or any other format.

In the last few years, we have transformed public, school, academic and special libraries. But by and large we have done a better job of implementing new technology than telling people what it can do for them and what a valuable role we play in helping them use that technology to get the information they need. Our challenge now is to transform how we communicate about libraries and ourselves.

Surveys have found that while people value the speed and convenience of the Internet and the comfort of bookstores, they turn to libraries for information they can trust and help in finding it. If bookstores and the Internet are our main competition, the expertise of librarians is the library’s unique selling point. We need to advertise that. Telling “the librarian” story must be a key strategy in seeking salaries that reflect higher esteem for what we do.

Ultimately, pay equity must be pursued at the institution or community level. There is no one proven strategy—but the ALA-APA’s nationwide campaign provides critical support. We need your elbow grease, your creativity, and your willingness to work.

What can you do?

  • Use the Advocating Better Salaries Toolkit. It’s full of statistics, examples, talking points and strategies to help you build your case.

  • Tell us about your local efforts to collect data and improve salaries—your successes and your “lessons learned.”

  • Join me and ALA-APA in being an outspoken and passionate advocate for libraries and library workers—wherever and whenever you can.

It won’t be easy, and it’s not going to happen overnight. So long as pay inequity continues, our advocacy must continue.