James H. Sweetland

Throughout most of the world, regardless of local pay scales, librarians tend to be underpaid compared with other people with the same or equivalent responsibilities and educational requirements. This has been remarked upon before; in fact, I have found a brief reference to a late 19th century British recommendation that women should be hired rather than men, since they can be hired for much less than the general rate for male clerks, and Melvil Dewey seems sometimes to have argued the same for the (female) graduates of his library schools. And, since the late 19th century, with a few notable exceptions librarians, whether male or female, have remained underpaid.

Now, this is interesting. In many countries fully qualified librarians are expected to have at least a degree, often either a master’s or other postgraduate training, merely to begin their professional careers; yet they typically earn less than jobs which do not necessarily require any university education at all. For example in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (USA) at present the recommended starting salary for a librarian, based on the state’s library association, is actually less than the required starting salary for a municipal bus driver. Certainly it would seem that the work done by a librarian is at least as important as that done by a bus driver, would it not?

I suggest that there are two reasons for this continuing state of affairs. First, historically librarians have tended to be women and women have historically been paid less than men for the same jobs. Then, also historically, the role of the librarian seems to have been considered to be primarily the “keeper of books”, or at least “the person who lends books”. These jobs, to be frank, do not require much in the way of professional training. And, in the United States at least, historically there were few if any educational or experience qualifications for the jobs. Once a salary level has been institutionalised, it is very difficult to make significant changes in that level.

However, the second reason for the pay scale is librarians. After all we do apply for and accept positions which do not pay well, and in many cases we remain in those positions for years. Part of this may relate to a perception over the last couple of decades that there were few jobs for librarians, and in part may relate to the tendency of librarians to be professionally dedicated people. As such, we tend to try to do our best, with considerations for personal wealth and power taking a back seat. However, we are now in a different environment. In many parts of the world there is a substantial shortage of librarians. And, in nearly all the world, the value of information (or at least information as it relates to computers) is rapidly becoming accepted. Thus, “information professionals” have become a desirable class of employee, while the existence of this class has also meant other job options besides working in libraries.

Thus I recommend that we, as a professional group, become just a little more practical, just a little more self-interested. In short, refuse to apply for the low-paying jobs, and consider the pay levels when applying. And learn how to negotiate more strongly for pay rises!

If our skills are valuable, they we should be paid for them. And, since other organisations besides libraries seem to think our skills are worth paying for, then maybe it’s time we start taking those better-paying positions. Besides, if there is a shortage of librarian applicants, this shortage may well cause even the lower-paying bosses to have to raise their pay. In the long run we will all benefit.