Library professionals: fighting for comparable pay

HOW much would you be willing to pay for a professional with a master's degree who was familiar with a variety of information retrieval systems -- including computer-based data banks? Someone who could supervise a large staff, develop and implement a budget, and actively market the service you sell in the community -- and handle building maintenance questions? This person, by the way, is accustomed to dealing with a clientele that includes local scholars, businessmen, teen-age gangs, and street people recently released from mental institutions. Chances are, the employee is willing to work nights and weekends.

Does this sound like a high, five-figure job? How much do you think you could get away with paying that person?

Would you believe $15,000?

During this National Library Week, it may be well to consider the gap between these two figures. It forms the basis of a continuing fight by many library professionals to redress what they see as systematic sexual discrimination in their field -- an undervaluing of their education, skills, and responsibilities by personnel officials responsible for setting pay scales.

``The library community is at the center of the fight for comparable worth,'' writes Kathleen Heim, library professor at Louisiana State University. In the past 10 years, a host of library groups have been making their complaints known:

In California a half-dozen city and academic librarian associations are negotiating pay increases based on comparable worth.

In 1978, librarians at Philadelphia's Temple University negotiated a pay raise and eight weeks yearly leave, dropping their class-action suit at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) which charged sexual discrimination. (A spokesman for the university says the leave and pay raise were not tied to their dropping the suit.)

In Canada, federal government librarians have won $2.3 million in salary equity adjustments and back pay since filing a 1979 grievance based on the Canadian Human Rights Act.

In Fairfax, Va., librarians have filed a complaint with EEOC claiming the county illegally discriminates in wages paid to librarians employed by the county on the basis of sex.

Library work has been a female-dominated profession since John Dewey, father of modern library science, recruited college women as a cheap source of literate labor. An 1877 quote from Justin Windsor, early leader in the profession, states this rationale:

``In American libraries we set a high value on women's work. They soften our atmosphere,'' he wrote, ``they lighten our labour, they are equal to our work and for the money they cost -- they are infinitely better than equivalent salaries will produce of the opposite sex.''

Lower salaries have stayed the rule in a profession that is still 75 to 80 percent female, according to Margaret Myers of the American Library Association (ALA). And although some top librarians may make as much as $70,000 in private firms, says the ALA, the average entry-level librarian -- a job that typically requires a master's degree -- starts at less than $20,000 per year.

With the market for librarians as a whole expected to grow by only 1 percent by 1990, according to a Library Human Resources Study, the possibility of improvement seems slim.

That may be part of the impetus behind efforts in the last five years by librarians to bring to national attention what they claim to be a 20 to 40 percent gap between the salaries of librarians and other classifications requiring equivalent or less skill, effort, and responsibility.

The gap exists, says Michele Leber, spokeswoman for the Fairfax, Va., group, because ``it's a female-dominated profession, plain and simple.'' She compares herself with planners and budget analysts hired by the county with less or equal education and experience, who ``automatically go up six grades at the end of the first year.

``With librarians, there are no automatic raises, and a woman may stay at Librarian I classification for 10 years.'' The difference amounts to $7,000 per year, she says.

In other complaints registered with EEOC, county officials, and in courts around the country, librarians have noted that government systems which put them on the same grade level as electricians as electricians or gardeners pay those male-dominated jobs more -- and require less education.

Comparing any two jobs by whatever criteria is, both sides concede, subjective at best. Opponents to comparable worth often question the criteria used to make these judgments, saying that they leave out essential market factors.

``Suppose you somehow satisfied yourself that two particular jobs were truly comparable,'' writes Daniel Seligman in a recent issue of Fortune. ``What good would that conclusion do you if it then turned out that one of the jobs was hard to fill while the other had endless applicants competing for it?'' -- a situation he believes occurred after the 1981 San Jose, Calif., settlement which determined, among other things, that librarians should be paid on the same scale as electricians.

``By that criteria,'' argues Jan Feye-Stukas of the Office of Library Development and Services in Minneapolis-St. Paul, ``one of the lowest-paying jobs should be highway patrolmen. They have hundreds of applicants for every opening.''

Critics of comparable worth, while conceding that market forces apply unevenly and not always fairly, worry that any governmental attempts to redress inequities will cause far more damage.

One writer illustrates this, tongue in cheek: ``As the president of a small business,'' he writes, ``it occurred to me that presidents of small business firms make more critical decisions affecting their firms' success or failure than presidents of large firms.'' They should therefore, he postulates, be paid at rates ``as high or higher than those for presidents of such giants as General Motors,'' but he's willing to settle for $1 million.

``Since small firms cannot afford such levels of compensation, why not set up federal or state funds to pay the difference?''

Linda Chavez, a staff director on the United States Commission on Civil Rights, believes that efforts to change the marketplace forces that ensure low wages for librarians, nurses, teachers, and other female-dominated jobs, are misplaced. ``My view is that you remedy [the problem] by . . . making sure that employers don't pay women less for doing the same jobs as men, and by making sure that women have access to whatever jobs they are qualified for, regardless of their gender,'' she said in a recent Washington Post article.

But ``that doesn't do much for those of us who are already heavily invested in our career,'' Ms. Leber points out.

``These [low-paying, female-dominated] jobs still need to be done,'' says Ms. Feye-Stukas. ``What are we supposed to do then, retrain men to be secretaries at lower pay? Just because certain jobs appeal to women doesn't mean they are lower in value.''

Encouraging women to look beyond libraries to other, higher-paying fields also has the effect of draining the pool of talent available to libraries. Library schools have experienced a shrinking enrollment over the last 10 years, says Margaret Myers, spokesman for the ALA. And some librarians interviewed for this article spoke privately of newcomers to their field being ``just not as sharp,'' says one.

``The people you want are those who can be very successful in other fields,'' says Louise Berry, spokesman for a librarian's group which recently negotiated a 15 percent pay equity raise in Darien, Conn. ``In the past, we could recruit extraordinary women because of the limited number of fields available to women. Now I hear of good people who simply can't afford to stay in library work.''

Others, such as Elaine Cox Clever, special collections librarian at Temple University in Philadelphia, believe that an increasing need for librarians with computer expertise will increase the value employers place on these workers.

``Perhaps the salaries won't be so awful if we get into high-tech,'' she says. ``I've noticed that the information science specialties, all connected with computers, are attracting really smart people.''

``The irony here,'' says Fairfax County's Ms. Leber, ``is that it's much easier to get information out of a computer than it is out of normal library resources, where the librarian's mind has to serve as a kind of giant data file. And yet, people may be willing to pay more because she can use a computer.''

Some see public perceptions of ``Marion the librarian'' as a timid, overeducated, inexpensive bastion of culture and quiet as the real force behind pay inequities. ``People have no idea what a librarian really does -- the cataloging, the book selection, the range of expertise necessary,'' says Fran Millhouser, a branch librarian in Arlington, Va., who is active in comparable worth efforts in the county.

``They come into the library and think that any female there -- the person checking out books, the teen-age volunteer shelving them -- is a librarian.'' ``Any time you have a comparable worth issue,'' says Darien's Ms. Berry, ``people are going to ask, Why? What does a librarian do that makes it worth more money? And old stereotypes die hard.''

Real change, according to many of those interviewed, needs to come not just in how others see librarians, but in the way librarians see themselves. ``We need to be more assertive,'' says Temple University's Ms. Clever.''

Assertiveness, if it was ever really missing, seems to be closer to the forefront now. ``We can look to the '80s as a time when the seeds of determination sown in the '70s will result in a harvest of informed and politically astute women ready to change librarianship,'' says Louisiana State's Kathleen Heim.

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