By JASON SOKOLOFF
(April 5, 2022) — When most people think about the library, they likely think about the books — so many books! Or maybe they recall the quiet spots that allow for focus and concentration, studying for exams, or simply reading. Avid library users may also associate them with online databases that unlock volumes of journal articles, reams of scientific data. Other researchers are likely familiar with the library collections of the world’s literature and treasured historic objects.
When I think of the library, however, I reflect on the people who work there: research experts at public-service desks; technology specialists ensuring information discoverability; planners developing engaging public spaces; academics who build the library collection to meet current and future research needs. These are my colleagues, the librarians and professional staff of the University of Washington Libraries, essential university employees whose dedication, knowledge, and savvy provide unique and valuable expertise in support of students, faculty, staff, and the UW’s institutional mission to preserve, advance, and disseminate knowledge.
Upon further reflection, my thoughts are more conflicted. For all of the accolades the UW receives as a top research institution, the UW Libraries — and the librarians and library professionals who personify the library’s mission-critical endeavors — are appallingly undervalued.
With billions of dollars in funding, UW routinely touts its position among the world’s leading research institutions and its library as the “heart” of the university. Probing past the rhetoric, though, it is clear that we are laboring under cardiac arrest. While the UW may be in the top 10 for research, the librarians and library professionals who keep the heart pumping don’t fare as well.
● Among median salaries across U.S. research institutions, UW library professionals rank at 46th among 100, well behind public-school peers like Rutgers (#1), UCLA (#7), Penn State (#27), and Michigan State (#32).
● Accounting for the Puget Sound’s high cost of living compared to the rest of the U.S., UW Libraries professional salaries drop to 96th among 100. (When weighted for cost of living, Rutgers ranks at #12, Michigan State at #16).
● Compared to other Washington public institutions, UW Libraries professional salaries are similarly misaligned. Eastern Washington, Evergreen, Central Washington, and Western Washington professional library salaries all outrank the UW Libraries.
Beyond the inherent shamefulness of saddling employees with the challenge of living paycheck to paycheck, the UW should be concerned with how low salaries have a real impact on the Libraries service to the university.
● Low pay impedes the Libraries’ ability to recruit top candidates. Vacancies do not necessarily attract the most competitive pools, and top-choice candidates have turned down UW offers based on insufficient salaries.
● High turnover among early and mid-career professionals prevents the Libraries from effectively building and sustaining the innovative programs and services that top research universities require.
● UW Libraries struggles to compete for talent in comparison to other universities and private-sector employers.
● Perhaps most concerning, the UW Libraries compensation model impedes diversity, equity, and inclusion aspirations. In just the last few years, for example, the University Libraries lost several Black professionals to other employers.
To reverse some of these trends, the librarians and professional staff of the UW Libraries, the Gallagher Law Library, and the UW Press recently established the UW Libraries Union. As we bargain for our first-ever union contract, we appeal to the UW students, faculty, staff, and researchers we serve to support our efforts.
When I chose librarianship as a profession, I never envisioned becoming wealthy. But I did expect a sound career path that would afford me the chance to embrace my livelihood with at least a livable wage. Books and spaces notwithstanding, librarians and professional staff hold the keys to research excellence, and we should be compensated for our integral role in the life and pursuits of UW researchers.
Jason Sokoloff is Head of the Foster Business Library, University Libraries, and a member of the UW Libraries Union Bargaining Action Team. This column originally appeared in the UW Daily and is posted here with the author’s permission.