When librarians get mad 

On Aug. 8, in a third-floor meeting room of the downtown Orlando library, a throng of librarians and librarian supporters staged a protest. It was a quiet protest, of course, but the message was clear: Orange County is cheating library patrons by hiring clerks to do a professional's job.

The librarians appeared at the regular meeting of the county library board. And though they were not on the agenda, board president Ronald Harbert acquiesced and let them speak. He really had no choice. "I'm vastly outnumbered," Harbert correctly noted, adding that, "In the future, I don't intend to have this as a place for demonstration."

Nonetheless, a dozen people spoke in favor of libraries in general, and librarians in particular. Some were louder than others. Many accused the library board of wasting money on sprucing up buildings while the quality of the service steadily deteriorated.

Meanwhile, a dozen or so people stood at the perimeter of the room silently displaying Service Employees International Union signs. Orange County librarians are members of the SEIU Local 1220. The air was thick with something like anger, because librarians think they are being downsized right out of the picture.

The fault, they say, lies with library managers, who began replacing librarians with clerks several years ago. According to Van Church, head of the local SEIU, there are 17 fewer librarians employed by the Orange County system than three years ago. As librarians retire or quit, Church says, they're replaced by clerks whose salaries are lower. Meanwhile, circulation in the Orange County system has increased from 4.08 million in 1998 to 4.56 million last year.

"It's the dumbing down of the library, and the library is counting on you not to notice," says Church, who has been an Orange County librarian for 26 years.

No it's not, says library director Mary Anne Hodel, who says she is simply spending money on what patrons want: more computer classes, remote access from home and assistance with digital products. "Our staffing reflects that," she says. "The public doesn't ask me for more librarians. They ask for Internet classes and more programs."

There's reason to believe that Hodel knows what she is talking about. She came to Orange County in January from the Ann Arbor, Mich., public library system, which won the 1997 National Library of the Year award under her leadership.

Hodel's motto for the Orange County system -- faster, stronger, higher -- is coming to fruition via a planned $1.5 million renovation of the lobby and west wing of the downtown library.

She calls the remodeling job "wow" space because library patrons are supposed to say exactly that when they walk in the door. Then maybe they'll stick around for poetry readings and concerts. She'd also like to see a few more of them get a library card. Only 25 percent of Orange County residents have one, she says; in Ann Arbor, the figure was 78 percent.

Orange County librarians became unionized since April 1999, after an ugly campaign. Anti-union forces posted fliers calling Church and other pro-union employees "elitist" and "communist."

When the vote was tallied and the pro-union side declared victorious, librarians hugged each other while two managers burst into tears.

Still, Church maintains that the attrition issue is not retaliation on the part of management. "We see this as a library patron problem," he says.

It's a problem library board member Phyllis Hudson wants to look into. She wants Hodel to document whether librarians are being phased out or not. "If we have a recruiting plan, the board needs to see it."

If there is librarian downsizing going on -- and Hodel disputes the idea because Orange County added three librarians in the past year -- it's not because of economics. Orange County Public Libraries, one of the few library systems in the nation with the power to levy taxes, will have a budget of $27 million to operate 14 branches.

By comparison, Jacksonville's 15 libraries have a proposed budget of $20 million. Jacksonville employs 65 clerks, 60 librarians, 28 senior librarians (who have more responsibility than regular librarians) and 12 library supervisors.

Orange County, on the other hand, employs 217 clerks and 64 librarians.

Hodel could not say how many of the library's 51 managers have librarian credentials. Adding more librarians might mean taxes will increase, Hodel says. "The public may want these things but the real rub is whether they'll pay for them."

All those clerks in Orange County libraries means that there are times when patrons won't find a librarian in a library, union officials say. Other times customers will find branches understaffed, or find people who aren't trained as librarians manning the desks.

Supervisors at the Southwest and Windermere branches don't even have four-year degrees, according to Church.

Maurice J. Freedman is president of the American Library Association, and heads a library system in upstate New York. He said he can think of only two library districts -- Los Angeles and Boston -- where administrators have cutback on librarians. In both cases the library districts were forced to make the cuts because they were short on funds.

Librarians are, in fact, in demand. Judith Robinson of the University of Buffalo estimates that 25,000 librarian job vacancies will come open by 2005.

"There's a huge wave of retirement from librarians working in the '60s and '70s," Robinson says.

But in Orange County libraries, the word is Hodel would rather invest in technology than new employees. "Technology is cheaper to maintain," says Bonnie Church, Van Church's wife, who has worked at the Orange County library for 11 years.

Morale is bad at the library, says Bonnie, and turnover is high. Forty librarians have left in the last five years, she says, and many more are contemplating early retirement. Losing seasoned employees hurts, she notes, because once their expertise is gone, it's gone for good.

"The thing that is so sad is that some of these people worked as mentors. Their wisdom is not being passed on. That's a tremendous loss."

Crystal Sullivan would agree.

Sullivan has seen the future of the Orange County Library System, and to her it looks pretty grim.

A library storyteller, she has witnessed, with alarming frequency, what happens when patrons can't find anyone to help them: They whip out their cell phones and start jabbering away in the middle of the library, calling the downtown help line.

Sometimes that doesn't work either. George Curcio, who has used the downtown library for 30 years, says the lines are often jammed.

"When I call on the phone I get put on hold," says Curcio. "Half the time I hang up. It's frustrating."


More by William Dean Hinton


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