It’s Time We Talk About Librarians and Money
Kristen Arnett on Working Long Hours for Low Pay
What’s that thing they always say about if you do something you love you’ll never work a day in your life? I mean that’s true and all—when you love something, it can feel less like work and more like passion—but I’m also here to tell you that tenderness gets a little strained when you try to use it to pay your overdue power bill.
That’s right, I’m talking about a library paycheck! That tiny little figure that gets added to your bank account after you work a 40-hour plus work week. It’s not fun to talk about money (it’s truly a nightmare), but it’s something we all understand. We need to make a salary so we can afford to live. We need to get paid.
Like many other important professions in the learning field (hello, teachers!) librarians are paid very little while they are expected to do a gargantuan amount of work. Many of us are not only doing our own jobs, we’re doing several at once. We have to know how to perform circulation tasks, reference duties, run a Storytime program, clean up a massive spill, and even understand some technical service components in case we are needed to help out with tasks or god forbid take over after someone’s been laid off.
Library work means that you’re expected to do things like cover shifts when your employees don’t show up even if you’ve already worked a ten-hour day, fight with administration on tiny matters that somehow blow up into huge ordeals, and answer reply-all emails from people who decide they need an answer to something immediately (even if it’s the weekend, even if it’s your cousin’s wedding, even if it has nothing to do with your job or your department, or maybe they’re just sending everyone a joke forward again). I’ve been told that working over 40 hours is just part of being a professional. While I know that’s not right, it’s something many of us are forced to deal with. Is it worth it to fight over the hours if you’re worried you might be fired? A paycheck is sometimes better than no paycheck at all.
It becomes nearly impossible to maintain an acceptable standard of living when you’re forced to do a tremendous amount of work for nearly no compensation. I’ve known several co-workers during my time in libraries that have either had to quit their job because they couldn’t come up with enough to pay bills, or they were forced to take on a secondary job. The idea that any person would have to work over 60 hours a week to make just enough to scrape by is an unfortunate reality when it comes to library work.
For instance, the Bureau of Labor Statistics clocks the median degreed librarian’s salary at around $58,000 (this is waaaaaaaay more than I make as a manager, by the way, hot damn I wish I made that salary), but it also tells us that non-degreed library techs and assistants only make a median of $29,000 a year (and I know when I was in that position I made a whole lot less).
When I got my Master’s in Library Science, a big factor in that decision came down to the idea of pay. I had already been working in libraries for eight years and knew that if I got my degree, I could possibly double my salary. I mean, there were other factors involved in this decision. I knew that I wanted to be a librarian, that I was passionate about it, but I also knew that taking on a degree like that meant putting myself in debt (students loans for goddamn days). It would also mean sacrificing my free time to go to classes, because I knew with one hundred percent certainty that I’d still have to work full-time in order to make grad school happen.It’s easy to get frustrated when you think about how important your work is and know that you’re not ever gonna be compensated fairly for it.
There was also this worry: what if I got out of grad school with my degree and I still wasn’t able to find a job?
It’s already stressful enough to work in a profession where you know that crazy things are going to happen on a daily basis. There are high expectations that come along with working in a library. You know that you are there to help people, to allow others to succeed and to grow. Librarianship means ensuring people get the information they need. To do that, it’s important that we’re able to be our best selves. Sleep, eat, drink some water (hahahaha yeah right). It’s tough to do that when you’re pressed about money or working more than one job in a single week.
There’s also the matter of where our paycheck sometimes goes. I know that when I worked at the public library, there were many times that I spent from my own bank account just so I could have what I needed for Storytime. Out of markers? Guess I’ll grab some. Need more felt from Michaels so we can have better puppets? That’s gonna cost me. When your library is on a shoestring budget, so are you. You learn to skulk around the Goodwill and catch sales for BOGO items (not wine, although that helps). You learn to budget the hard way.
There are so many conferences that happen around the country every year for libraries, and it would be incredible if everyone could go. But again, these things all cost wild money, too. Airfare, lodging, even conference fees—many of us are priced out, even if we’re the ones who should absolutely be attending!
It’s easy to get frustrated when you think about how important your work is and know that you’re not ever gonna be compensated fairly for it. To know that you’ll have to work long hours, longer than anyone should work, just so you can buy dog food and afford to pay the bare minimum interest on your student loans.
I have to tell myself: this is a job that’s important. I do it because I care. At the end of the day, that matters more than anything else. So I will scramble to make a paycheck and I will advocate for higher wages, but I will continue to do this work because it’s what I know I should be doing. It’s what gives me a good reason to get up and get going in the morning. And hey, that won’t pay my grocery bill, but it will make me feel okay about myself. And that’s worth it to me.