Children and LibrariesI’m moving on soon (I promise) from this story, but it has upset me – and other librarians I’ve discussed it with – enough that I feel as if I need to link to one more story from Wisconsin. It’s a column from, natch, the Wausau Daily Herald, written by Gina Cornell, president of the Marathon County Public Library Board. Evidently MCPL has felt under fire from librarians, particularly Wisconsin librarians, who are letting everyone know online that they’re upset about the four Librarian I positions (one vacant) that were devalued from salaries of $46,000 to “customer services librarians” paid $36,000 annually.

Cornell attempts to blame what happened at the library primarily on the MCPL’s budget problems, and she doesn’t seem to realize that it’s a hurtful devaluation of the profession:

For example, the reduced amount of work requiring a master’s degree is a direct result of increased electronic access to information they previously provided. In 2007, only about 57 percent of the reference (complex) questions from the past year were handled at the Adult Reference Desk. This seems to be a trend based on increasing access to the Internet.

This movement is taking place all over the country, causing many libraries to re-examine and restructure how information services are being provided by library staff.

But here’s the kicker:

While the education and experience of our three existing MLS employees is valued and appreciated, the reorganization plan will put the library in a better position to appropriately serve our customer base as the trends in information services recognize that many people have a significant skill level and can obtain their own information to a great extent.

Yeah, the Board is telling the librarians, you’re valued and appreciated; you’re just valued and appreciated less.

This doesn’t make logical sense to me. If as many librarians aren’t needed because people are finding their own information, why not simply eliminate the professional term “librarian” from their job titles, not require an MLS degree from applicants, and call them “customer services specialists” or something? I suspect that the director and board chickened out from this obvious choice, since they would have had to lay off three people with degrees.

This situation leads me to ask us all a question: What, exactly, do public library professionals who aren’t managers do in the Internet Era that makes them professionals? Can we describe to the general public any longer why we need graduate degrees to hold our jobs? Sometimes I wonder whether we can. I know that there are plenty of “reference librarians” who now are spending far more time helping people with balky public-access PCs and printers than they do answering reference questions or doing reader’s advisory tasks. Very few of us are selecting books and media any more.

I, of course, believe that children’s librarians should have the least to fear from this kind of devaluation, since our jobs are the least technology-intensive, particularly our work with children under 8 and their caregivers and teachers. The more active we are in our work promoting pre-literacy skills and modeling how to share them with young children, the clearer our role becomes to the public. But I know that many people in the world of libraries don’t see things the way I do.

How should we be changing our jobs and explaining our jobs so that we’re clearly professionals in the eyes of the general public again?