Mar 01 2003

Why I Can’t Afford ALA Dues After Fifteen Years in the Profession

Published by rachel at 8:19 pm under associations

by Kathy Enger

The path of the library professional can be long and circuitous, especially since the profession draws many people from a variety of areas and disciplines. In the next few paragraphs, I will provide a short overview of my experience in the library profession, and leave you to consider if my experience has been one of discrimination - or not.

Background and Beginnings

Early in my career, with a degree in social work in hand, I had the opportunity to work at an information and referral agency in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area called First-Call-for-Help. At that time (1981), the East Metro Area (St. Paul region) did not have an information system that was reliable. It was my job to learn the system in Minneapolis (West Metro) and implement it in St. Paul. The previous information and referral agencies in St. Paul didn’t last long, because they gave callers wrong phone numbers. Imagine someone calling, desperately needing assistance - only to be referred to a disconnected phone number. Well, the project was successful, and now the First Call for Help, East Metro Area, is organizationally a part of the United Way.

While working as an “Information Referral Specialist,” I did a little reading. I learned that information referral is really a part of “reference,” a function of library and information science. Curious, I inquired about the graduate program at the University of Minnesota, only to learn that the academic environments surrounding library and information programs can be somewhat political: shortly following my inquiries, the program closed.

(I guess they are expensive to run. Later, while I was a graduate student at the University of Iowa, I learned that several programs at a university in a neighboring state were targeted for closure. They “happened” to be primarily programs admitting and educating women. I began to wonder about the correlation between academic programs that closed and the sex of the majority of students in those programs.)

Because of my interest in reference work, I enrolled in the program in Library and Information Science at the University of Iowa. I can honestly say that my experiences in Iowa City were some of the best of my life. It was a blissful naivete, really. Little did I know that my degree would later afford me little to live on.

Reality Sets In

Once I graduated from the University of Iowa, I took a job as regional reference coordinator at the East Central Regional Library in Cambridge, Minnesota - for barely $17,000 a year. During my tenure at the library, observing the economic needs of the region, I wrote and received a sizeable grant that funded training and materials for supporting new business ventures in the region. Also at that time I published my first article, in Library and Information Science Research. Not too shabby for a recent graduate!

I enjoyed the work (immensely), but, needless to say, my hard work never paid off. My salary increases were barely perceptible. At one point, an ad in the local paper printed a job opening for a bookkeeper at the courthouse that was physically connected to the library where I worked. While both positions were funded by the county, the bookkeeper position paid $22,000/yr. It only “preferred” (and didn’t require) a two-year associate’s degree. I had the master’s degree “required” by my employer, but made $5,000 less than the bookkeeping position advertised. Earlier, I had picked up courses toward an M.B.A. and could easily have qualified for the bookkeeping position. This was my first palatable taste of discrimination.

Eventually, I had a lovely family (a boy and a girl) and ended up here in Fargo, North Dakota. (We moved to the Great Plains for a job my spouse took at a four-year teacher’s college in the region). When we first moved here, I worked in a fixed-term position as the Reference Librarian at my spouse’s college. However, through a series of budget cuts, the position was eliminated. Being laid off is a humiliating experience, and one I wish never to repeat.

Professional Penury

My spouse now is a tenured professor at the college, and his salary is two times larger than mine. I have worked at North Dakota State University as a social science librarian for nearly six years, now am paid $31,000/year, and have completed all of the course work toward my doctorate from the University of North Dakota. I have devoted all of my spare time this last academic year to writing my dissertation - which comes at a cost to me, since I do most of my work when everyone else in my family is in bed. Recently, I have taken an online teaching job to supplement my wages. If I were to support my family of four alone, we would fall within federal poverty guidelines.

Today I learned in an e-mail message that the most recent news from the state legislature is that there will be no salary increase for state employees over the next two years, in addition to employee increases for our own health-care costs. At the same time, the university just received monies from a $450,000 grant I wrote, and I recently published an article in Reference Services Review, a peer-reviewed journal in library and information science.

Obviously, I must enjoy my work in order to continue pursuing it, but at what cost to my integrity and to my own sense of self esteem? I haven’t the space to cover the theory behind my experience, except to suggest some of my favorite reading. Right now: Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed - I haven’t gotten to his Pedagogy of Hope, yet.

Kathy B. Enger is Social Science Librarian at North Dakota State University. She holds a B.A. from the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, an M.L.S. from the University of Iowa, and has almost completed her doctorate at the University of North Dakota.

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