UC Berkeley struggles to retain library staff due to funding, COVID-19

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Hsi-Min Chan/Staff
Issues surrounding funding and COVID-19 have forced campus libraries to operate with fewer staff than normal.

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Staffing shortages are prompting UC Berkeley libraries to make difficult decisions amid budget cuts and sudden worker absences due to COVID-19.

According to campus librarian Jeff MacKie-Mason, campus library staff has decreased by 26% since 2009.

“We’re really overstretched,” said qualitative research librarian Celia Emmelhainz in an email. “Staff across our libraries have been doing two or three jobs each, and it’s not sustainable.”

Senior associate campus librarian Elizabeth Dupuis noted staffing vacancies inhibit the campus libraries’ ability to bounce back from sudden absences or departures.

For example, Anthropology Library was scheduled to permanently close Feb. 28 due to staffing shortages, prior to student and faculty sit-in Feb. 25.

Out of four understaffed social sciences libraries, Anthropology Library’s proposed emergency closure was “least disruptive” because of its fewer hours open to the public, according to Emmelhainz.

Dupuis added COVID-19 has prompted the campus libraries to develop guidelines for unexpected service and schedule changes. Relevant factors include staff mobility, collection accessibility, student demand and usage for classroom spaces.

“All our campus libraries are thinly staffed, making service and schedule changes more likely throughout this year as new staffing gaps arise,” Dupuis said in an email.

Before the pandemic, the Anthropology Library lost one staff member and never rehired, leaving the remaining staff member to bear the weight, Emmelhainz noted. Outreach and collections were difficult to maintain as electronic reserves took priority.

Although student employees, librarians and administrative staff are essential, Emmelhainz noted a successful library cannot function without career staff, who manage book return desks and train and manage new employees.

“Our career staff are moving on to better opportunities, and we’re not replacing them,” Emmelhainz said in the email.

Filling evening and weekend work leader positions holding shifts from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. is a top priority for the campus libraries, according to Dupuis.

However, additional staff requires funding. According to MacKie-Mason, the campus libraries currently receive 40% fewer funds per enrolled student than in 2014. The budget reduction requires the campus libraries to cut crucial scholarly materials used for research, teaching and learning.

“We can’t provide the same level of service if our readers and their needs increase but staffing does not,” Emmelhainz said in the email. “More permanent funds for UC Berkeley’s Libraries would mean we can do more for our readers.”

Looking forward, sustainable alternatives may include unmonitored study spaces accessible to students with UC IDs, according to Dupuis.

Dupuis noted striking a balance between support for library staff and patrons is critical.

“We want the campus community to understand that we are balancing many needs and making the operational decisions we feel are necessary to minimize disruption amid very challenging circumstances,” Dupuis said in the email.

Contact Lily Button at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @lilybutton27.