Lately, New York City’s public librarians have been making a ruckus about job conditions. They said they weren’t getting enough money–nobody listened. They said they’d leave for better paying jobs–in other cities, in the suburbs, in public schools. Still, no change. Now, so many of them have left their jobs that four Bronx branches had to stay shuttered one Saturday last month. At the Edenwald, Clason’s Point, Jerome Park and Sedgwick branches, there simply wasn’t enough staff to keep the doors open.
The city won’t permanently close any of these Bronx branches, said librarian union president Ray Markey of DC 37’s Local 1930. But even closing for a single day is a major inconvenience for the people who depend on libraries for computer access, books, guidance and day care.
The New York Public Library has lost 10 percent of its librarians in the past five years. With only 522 employees left to operate all the libraries of Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island–down from a high of 586–branches are operating with skeletal staffs much of the time.
Most blame the low pay: Librarians are hired at an average salary of $31,000. “Management just doesn’t realize how important these salaries are,” said Sophie Obertance, a trainee at Jerome Park Public Library off of Kingsbridge Road. She points out that the Board of Education offers librarians a good deal more: “The public libraries just can’t compete.”
Frustrated and disappointed, Obertance submitted her resignation two weeks ago. “I was so excited about becoming a librarian before. The New York Public Library seemed so prestigious, and in reality, it’s just awful,” said Obertance, who came to Jerome Park expecting training from a mentor, and instead assumed all the responsibilities of a children’s librarian. Nobody has applied to replace her, leaving her supervisor–the only librarian on staff–to handle three jobs.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, the Jerome Park branch was jam-packed with 50 to 60 children. The one librarian, a temporary staffer transferred from another library for the day, had to juggle phone calls, parents’ questions and children’s squabbles over reference materials. Nearly every seat was filled.
“It’s going to have to get a lot worse before it gets better. I think the branches are actually going to have to close before anything will change,” Obertance said. A little boy ran up to her and asked plaintively: “Miss O, are you leaving?” She nodded, and he hugged her before he left. “I don’t care about the money,” she said. “I’m more upset about leaving the kids. But eventually, the money will matter.”