Hardly living on a UC librarian salary

Beini Liu/Staff

Nobel laureates. Groundbreaking research. Stellar faculty. Top-tier students. UC Berkeley has been recognized as one of the best universities — public or private — in the world. Fiat lux, indeed. And at the center, at the heart of this university, are its libraries.

If you are a librarian, especially one new to the profession, you aspire to work here. It’s a dream come true. But recruitment and retention of UC Berkeley’s librarians has become problematic, as librarian salaries have not kept pace with the cost of living in the Bay Area.

Most librarians come burdened with student loans, as a master’s degree is a prerequisite. Recruited nationally and internationally, many also have second graduate degrees in their areas of subject expertise. No entry-level professional expects to make a lot of money, but one does expect to make a living wage. At Berkeley, this is not happening. Working at this prestigious institution comes at a cost few can pay, and this is proving unsustainable.

Today, the librarians’ union, UC-AFT, and the university are resuming contract negotiations at UC San Diego. We hope to demonstrate why the university should meet our demands for higher salaries and better housing options.

We asked our fellow librarians to tell us about the hardships they’ve undergone and the struggles they continue to endure.

Some described the years of persistence that brought them to this campus and how they are now working for a salary that is 20 percent less than that of their counterparts at California community colleges and state universities. “I don’t have any extra income to save or build a stable life,” said one UC Berkeley librarian, who requested to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation. “The financial stress and pressure is immense.”

The library expects its librarians to pursue professional development at the local, state, national and international levels, which typically includes attending conferences where they often present posters and papers. These are often requirements for promotion. But current professional development funding falls far short of covering these expenses. Another UC Berkeley librarian, who has also requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation, explained that their spouse “has paid the difference to cover my conference expenses. … I know other colleagues who are unable to pursue professional development or have to temporarily borrow money from family and friends until they are reimbursed by the library.”

Housing is another critical issue. One UC Berkeley librarian, who has requested to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, has lived in rent-controlled housing for 15 years but is now facing an owner-move-in eviction. “This means that I will be starting over to find a place to live at current market rates, and it feels impossible on my current salary,” this librarian said. “Despite bringing more experience and value to my position at Berkeley every year, my standard of living is actually decreasing … to the point that I’m not sure I will be able to continue to live and work in the Bay Area.”

Other experiences that newer and mid-career librarians have shared with us include having to move three times in the last four years to find a livable situation, living in another county and commuting three to five hours every work day to Berkeley, spending 70 percent of take-home pay on rent, seeing childcare costs quadruple from those in another state, and even working part-time at Macy’s, Walmart and McDonald’s and driving for Lyft to earn extra income.

Every time a colleague leaves or retires, or a hiring search fails, the library suffers. While a great deal of attention is paid to flat budgets for scholarly materials, less is understood or articulated about the erosion in professional expertise and collective knowledge taking place in our libraries.

We librarians dedicate ourselves to finding ways to innovate, improve and lead the UC libraries for our students, faculty and communities. We can’t do this if we are continually in a state of instability, wondering where we can live, how we can take care of family, raise children and, frankly, put food on the table. We shouldn’t have to moonlight to supplement our salaries at one of the world’s finest universities. The university should support its world-class libraries by raising librarian salaries, providing adequate funding for the professional development activities librarians need and ending the exclusion of librarians from housing benefits that are offered to faculty.

UC-AFT, Unit 17, Local 1474, is a union representing 363 librarians at the University of California.