Recently, a columnist in a major daily newspaper applauded a New Hampshire librarian for loving her work so much that after she retired, she came in every day to do her old job as a volunteer. She did this to save enough money so her small-town library could afford to buy new books.
Having enjoyed the rewards of being a librarian myself for more than 30 years, I can't say I'm entirely surprised. Like most librarians, I love being in a profession that I don't just value for the paycheck.
But what increasingly troubles my colleagues - and should concern everyone who loves libraries - is that too often these days, we are forced to choose between paying seasoned and knowledgeable professionals the salaries that will retain them and adding enough to our collections, hours and online capacity to keep up with growing public demand for 21st-century information services.
For the better part of the past decade, most of our nation's 140,000 librarians have reinvented ourselves to become highly skilled human search engines. We've mastered the sophisticated knowledge management skills that library users need us to know to help them keep up with the vast cornucopia of information now available in print and in real time online.
Most professional degrees push the average annual American household's income to $100,000. Households headed by someone with a bachelor's degree, on average, enjoy annual incomes of $71,400. Yet a 2002 American Library Association survey of librarians' salaries found that in medium and large public and academic libraries, overall average starting salaries for beginning librarians with master's degrees was a slim $35,051. Compare that with starting salaries for systems analysts or database administrators, who are predominantly men with master's degrees. At $61,000, they command almost double what librarians, the majority of whom are female, do.
What's more, within just seven years, nearly one in four librarians will reach retirement age. In these turbulent times, when librarianship is an appealing career option on many levels (including as a second career), who, at these rates, will be able to afford to take their place?
Everyone loves libraries. Unfortunately, however, librarians cannot continue to live on love alone. Just ask our landlords, physicians and families. Or ask Nancy Moore, a librarian in Parsons, W.Va., who recently considered leaving her full-time, rewarding position as a librarian for higher pay as a sales associate at her local Wal-Mart.
In a world that's information rich, librarians are information smart. We proudly serve bookworms and hobbyists, toddlers and graduate students, medical researchers and entrepreneurs, immigrants and senior citizens, in short, anyone who brings their questions, problems and dreams to our front desks or e-mail accounts.
As a society, we cannot continue to profess to value libraries without valuing librarians. Today's librarian is a highly trained information specialist providing essential services in the information age, who deserves respect, admiration and fair compensation.
Rather than inspire us, I hope my New Hampshire, West Virginia and countless other colleagues' desperate acts become a wake-up call to our elected officials, corporate and civic leaders alike.
Libraries are the cornerstones of our democracy. They offer everyone access to the information and know-how to pursue his or her work, health and passions. They should not have to choose between paying 21st century salaries and providing 21st-century services.
Maurice "Mitch" J. Freedman is the president of the American Library Association, 50 E. Huron St., Chicago, Ill. 60611.