Libraries are the heart of UC Berkeley

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William Bennett/Staff

Before there were faculty, before there were students, before there were courses, before there were degrees, there was a library.

As we celebrate the sesquicentennial of the University of California, let us not forget that the University of California was literally chartered with a library called the College of California collection. The state Legislature gave the UC Board of Regents constitutional autonomy, provided they establish, maintain and build a library.

As stated in Section 12 of the charter, “The said Board of Regents … shall have the custody of the books, records, buildings, and all other property of the University.” And Section 16 spells out that the secretary of the UC Board of Regents would serve as the librarian and “have the custody of all books, papers, documents, and other property which may be deposited in his office.”

Without a library, there would be no University of California.

The role of librarian was critical with one Californian, Alexander Taylor, writing in 1870:

“Understanding that it is the intention of the Board of Regents to found and build up a Library for the University of California and to elect after due canvassing a person capable of filling the responsible office of Librarian of such Library, I respectfully offer myself as a Candidate for that necessary if not very lucrative office.”

Alas, even then, Taylor recognized the low salary of this position. (He did not take the job.)

Fast-forward 150 years. The UC Berkeley Library is now a 12-million volume collection housed in 25 libraries. It is the flagship of the world’s largest academic library system — a system of 100 libraries spanning 10 campuses with nearly 40 million print books and 31 million digitized items. Our libraries are more than just buildings and collections. It takes people to make the library — 387 full-time employees in the UC Berkeley libraries alone, including librarians, library assistants, analysts and other professional staff. Across the 10 campuses, 2,000 library staff serve 330,000 students and faculty.

But some things — notably Taylor’s lament — stay the same. As librarians we are the first to declare that we have dream jobs. We select materials to build world-class collections; we catalog scholarly resources so that researchers can find them; we uncover the hidden treasures in our collections and beyond; and we teach students information and digital literacy skills to not only help them with their coursework but to also become information-literate citizens and lifelong learners; and we serve the university community with our expertise in scholarly communication, copyright and data curation.

Every department and academic program on campus has a library liaison with an advanced degree in library studies and often a second, subject-relevant graduate degree. We have backgrounds and expertise in academic disciplines that we use a to continuously improve how scholars access resources. In addition to Librarians (with a capital L), the library is staffed by dedicated library assistants and library professional personnel who, among other responsibilities, manage access services, process materials, supervise student workers, oversee digitization projects, keep IT running and perform all the tasks that keep our knowledge resources available.

Yet, our compensation doesn’t reflect the value we provide to the university and to society. Despite our expertise and the university’s prestige, UC librarians make 20 percent less than our counterparts in the California State University and California Community Colleges systems.

Many UC librarians can’t afford to buy homes in the communities where we work, commuting more than an hour each way to get to our jobs. Few library employees can afford UC childcare, even in two-income households. And many of us struggle to pay off our student loans. To get by, some of us moonlight, even as our campus workload increases. To maintain a world-class library, we need world-class librarians. To attract and retain us, the university must provide competitive salaries.

We know that the UC Berkeley Library is facing a $2.4 million budget cut but, now more than ever, we urge the university to reaffirm its commitment to the public good and the institutions that advocate for democracy, equity and sustainability.

The university needs to remember the values of the original charter: “to provide instruction and thorough and complete education in all departments.” It is essential that the university reinvest in its libraries — the heart of the university and the very definition of a shared good. The UC should honor the stewards of that common good: librarians and other library employees. And it must give librarians a fair contract and the competitive salaries we deserve. Among other things, librarians are advocating for improved salary and professional development support and for a reaffirmation of academic status. The library works because we do.

Librarian Organizing Committee, University Council – American Federation of Teachers (UC-AFT), Unit 17, Local 1474 is part of the University Council – American Federation of Teacher (UC-AFT), a union representing 363 librarians at the University of California.