A decade after Los Angeles slashed spending amid a recession, libraries seem to be back at the top of the city's bestseller list.
The proposed budget would boost library spending to a record $68 million to help pay for expanded hours and thousands of new books. The city undertook a major construction program, building five libraries and renovating 30 branches. But beneath this bibliophilic boom is a disturbing trend that grates like a stray whisper in a hushed room: Los Angeles is facing a vexing shortage of public librarians. Building more libraries and increasing hours of operation only worsens the crunch.
Driving the librarian shortage are enough overlapping subplots to fill a novella. Nationally, the supply of librarians is falling far short of the rising demand. At one end of the pipeline, the ranks of library school graduates have increased only slightly over the past decade; at the other, legions of gray-haired librarians are ready to retire.
And in an information age, graduates trained in library science often command fat salaries at World Wide Web design companies or other businesses hungry for info-savvy workers. The competition for new hires has become so fierce that once-sedate library job conferences have morphed into virtual "meat markets," in the words of one young librarian. Last June, employers posted more than 1,000 openings at the annual conference of the American Library Assn., but only 481 job-seekers showed up.
The shortfall is most glaring at large urban libraries like the 67-branch system in Los Angeles, which serves 3.8 million people. The Los Angeles Public Library suffers from high attrition and a 17% vacancy rate among entry-level librarians--not to mention that more than a third of its 340 librarians are near retirement.
"It's a nationwide problem," said Alonzo Clark, who leads recruitment for the Los Angeles Public Library. "I don't really see any relief to the problems the city is facing for the next three to five years."
The city can barely keep up with the turnover in its stacks. Los Angeles hired 93 entry-level librarians over a recent two-year period--but lost 92 to retirement and other forms of attrition during the same stretch, according to a City Council report. There are more than 40 vacancies for rank-and-file librarians.
"We're trying to keep our heads above water," said Roy Stone, head of the Librarians' Guild, the union representing city librarians.
The situation is similar at the Los Angeles County Public Library, where 30 of 280 librarian positions are vacant. The high cost of living in Southern California hampers recruiting efforts, said county library spokeswoman Nancy Mahr.
On a recent night at the city's Fairfax branch library, patrons hovered around the reference desk, waiting for help. One girl wanted to print out an image of a sharecropper for a school assignment. A man was trying to reserve books online, but the computer wouldn't cooperate. "Could I get your help over here?" he called to a librarian.
There were two librarians working behind the desk, Stone and his co-worker Jack Zafran. Their shifts had already ended, but both were still on duty.
Zafran had someone on the telephone, a high-school kid looking for the CliffsNotes version of "The Pearl," plus an elderly man standing beside his desk, waiting for help tracking down a book on Cuba. Two schoolgirls in pleated skirts leaned against a bookcase, not sure where to find information on diabetes. A young woman who wanted to use the Internet--a popular request at city libraries--joined the crowd.
It's been six weeks since the Fairfax branch expanded its service from 40 to 52 hours per week. The branch added an extra part-time librarian, but has yet to fill an opening for a part-time clerk. The proposed city budget would expand hours at 16 more libraries, restoring cuts made in the early 1990s amid a recession.
"We're open all these extra hours, but it comes at a price," said children's librarian Laurie Reese. "We're being stretched very thin."
Susan Kent, the head librarian at the Los Angeles Public Library, said the city is working hard to hire more librarians. The library added a recruiter to its team of two and plans to set aside $50,000 to help pay moving expenses for new hires.
"You can build a really terrific career here as a new librarian," Kent said.
The starting pay for Los Angeles librarians--$38,460 a year--is comparable to other libraries, according to a statewide survey. The city's entry-level salaries ranked fifth out of 13 large library systems in California, and after five and a half years of service, Kent said, pay can jump to $53,500 a year.
But many trained librarians aren't drawn to work in public libraries. To hear some librarians tell it, either you have that inborn zest for public service or you don't. The library-literate may be wizards of data management, but not everyone wants to help fifth-graders dig up material on the American Revolution.