Monday, July 08, 2002

More people needed behind library checkout desks

Grads not returning to libraries

By Darlene Superville
The Associated Press

        ARLINGTON, Va. — Jennifer Stacy never thought about becoming a librarian until she stopped by the library to visit a former professor who worked there.

        “All of a sudden, before I knew it, I was interviewing,” she recalled.

        Almost six months later, Ms. Stacy loves the work and plans to make it a career — a bit of good news for a profession with a shortage of qualified applicants.

        More than 30,000 of the roughly 125,000 school, public and college and university librarians in the country — about one-fourth of the total — are expected to reach retirement age by 2009, according to the American Library Association.

    Some facts about the nation's libraries and librarians:

    • The country contains more than 122,000 public and private libraries.

    • About 79 percent of public librarians are women, compared with 92 percent of school librarians and 68 percent of college and university librarians.

    • About 95 percent of public libraries offer public Internet access and computer classes.

    • Annual federal spending on libraries is about 54 cents per person.

    • Americans check out an average of seven books per year.

    • College and university librarians answer 97 million reference questions yearly — almost three times the attendance at college football games.

    Source: American Library Association

        Already librarians are in short supply, especially in urban and rural areas. President Bush, weighing in on a problem of concern to his wife, a former librarian, has proposed spending $10 million to help recruit them.

        Officials blame relatively low pay for the thinning ranks.

        Salaries start at about $32,000, and a master's degree in library science is required. By comparison, the entry-level salary for a speech pathologist, another profession that requires an advanced degree, is about $46,800, according to

        The library association is putting new emphasis on recruiting, with a special focus on men, minorities and people pondering career changes.

        While the number of library science degrees awarded annually has held steady at more than 4,000, graduates increasingly are taking better-paying jobs outside of traditional libraries, such as with dot-com and other high-tech firms seeking their database and research skills.

        “The knowledge and skill that they acquire prepare them well for a range of other careers,” said Robert Martin, director of the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services.

        And many who start in traditional library jobs end up closing the book on that career later on.

        But the Lane Library in Butler County is going against this national trend. Eugenia Beecher, head of public relations for the library, said the library's board approved three people for help in getting the master of library science degree.

        “We have a lot of young new MLS's in place right now,” Ms. Beecher said. “We feel very fortunate.”

        Ms. Beecher said the library gets applications from all over the country, and the job is good for people who want technology experience.

        “It's a wide-open field,” Ms. Beecher said. “The libarians in place get a lot of experience using technology.”

        Thanks to trust funds, there are also enough librarians at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, said Richard Ryan, the library's service manager for the central region. The trust funds are used to advance cuurent employees who want to go back to school for their MLS.

        Mr. Ryan made a presentation recently at a library conference in Atlanta about the library's success in keeping its 225 professional librarians. He started his presentation with a Mark Twain quote about how everything in Cincinnati happens 10 years after it has occurred in the rest of the world.

        “There are not many vacancies,” Mr. Ryan said. “When we do have them, we have people applying for them.”

        In New York City, with its sky-high cost of living, half of all new hires leave the public library system within three years. Many join suburban libraries or the city public schools, both of which pay better, said Ray Markey, president of the local library union.

        Andrea Copeland, 32, lived five years in New York City on a public librarian's salary.

        “It was impossible,” she said. “I had to have roommates. I went without food. It was horrible.” She's making more money now as a librarian at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York system.

        In an effort to slow the exodus, the city last year gave its librarians a 16 percent pay raise.

        The shortage is nationwide.

        “I think people stopped looking at the library profession as a viable profession,” said Ann Cousineau, director of the Solano County Library in California, who spent almost three years looking for the children's librarian she recently hired.

        Then there's the image of librarians as, well, boring.

        “Many people still think that all we do is stand behind a desk and stamp books in and out,” said Claudia Sumler, chairwoman of the library association's recruitment and diversity task force and director of the Camden County Library in New Jersey.

        In fact, librarians plan reading, bilingual and other programs, manage staff and help patrons find information.

        They've become masters of the Internet, a form of communication that both serves libraries by adding immeasurably to the information at their fingertips and competes with them by letting some researchers get what they need from their own desks.

        They also oversee vast collections that have grown beyond words on paper to include online databases, videos, CDs, audio-books and, now, DVDs.

        “They don't just get the stuff and stick it on a shelf,” Mr. Martin said.

        They are “the ultimate search engine,” added John Berry, president of the library association.

        Mr. Bush's recruitment plan, if approved by Congress, would provide scholarships to graduate students in library science, support use of the Internet for training programs in underserved areas and help encourage foreign-language speakers to become librarians.

        Mrs. Bush separately has raised $5 million so far for her foundation, set up to help stock the shelves of inner-city and rural libraries.

        But along with books, libraries need people to run them.

        As part of its recruitment drive, the library association hopes to attract younger librarians like Ms. Stacy, 27.

        A typical day in the children's room at the central library in Arlington County, Va., is spent getting new children's books ready for circulation, tidying up bulletin boards and play areas, staffing the “help” desk and planning for her weekly story hour with young readers.

        She gets familiar with the collection by reading it in her spare time.

        Ms. Stacy, who is taking courses online toward her master's in library science, says she's happy with the work and doesn't expect to change careers. She already has a bachelor's degree in elementary education and has taught in Virginia's public schools and overseas in Namibia.

        “Money's nice,” she acknowledged, “but I don't think I could handle not interacting with people and serving the public. I like working with children.”

       Enquirer reporter Brett Corbin contributed to this report.


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