Carrots and Salary

I had the strangest job interview last week.

The Peekham Public Library seemed peaches-and-cream nice as I walked through it before my interview. Comfy chairs, oak circulation desk, happy children on pillows reading books, you name it. I had done my homework, too: I knew its circulation level was pretty high, it had received a couple of interesting outreach grants, its online catalog was the first in the county, and it had five professionals on staff--not bad for a town of 15,000.

The job sounded like just what I wanted to start out my career, too. Entry-level half-time reference/half-time serials. I thought it sounded like a good mix. It was odd that they didn't post a salary level, just "excellent benefits". Hmmm...well, classified ad rates are going up, I hear, and I figured they had to pay per-word.

Gina Stockhill, the library director, met me in the reading room outside the staff offices. She was a slim blonde woman, well-dressed, perhaps in her forties, with a bright, welcoming smile. "Hi there! You must be Gary. It's great to meet you. Why don't you come on back to my office?"

Impressed, I followed her to her office. Not baaaad--she had a corner office with a desk to one side and a conference table on the other. I didn't figure all the offices were like this, but if they were half as nice...!

Seated around the table were three other staff members, who rose when I walked in and introduced themselves. I shook their hands, then we sat down. Everyone had Gina's smile. I felt oddly as though I were about to be sold something.

Turned out I was right. "Well, Gary," began Gina, "I don't want to mince words here. We're very impressed by your resume. And for some reason, the applicant pool is quite small for this position. I hope we can interest you in moving to Peekham."

I was suprised by her directness. "I--uh--thank you. That's very flattering. I don't know why the pool would have been small. This library is well-known around here."

The four interviewers exchanged what I can only describe as a significant look. I wondered what I'd said. Honestly I hadn't heard much, just what I'd read in the state library newsletter about the grants and such, and what was in the ALA Library Directory...

"We have acquired a bit of a reputation, it's true," admitted Marge, the head of reference. "We had hoped you'd heard about us."

"Oh, yes," I said brightly, hoping I was saying the right thing. Did it really matter that I didn't know what she was talking about?

"Then you are probably aware of the type of offer we're about to make you."

Puzzled, I furrowed my brow. ", I'm not, really."

Gina slid a piece of paper towards me. "I hope you'll find this to be attractive."

I took it, expecting to see a list of figures: salary, benefits, the like. Instead, I saw a long legal contract, with type so small a microscope might have rendered it readable.

"What--what's this?" I asked.

"Gary, we have a new entry-level recruitment program here at the Peekham Public Library. We're awfully proud of it. It was devised by a consultant who had just recently retired from the Army when we hired him.

"Basically, we here at the Peekham Public Library feel we have more to teach you than you have to offer us. Oh, no offense, you're a bright and capable young man. But let's face it, if we hire you, we are investing an incredible amount of time, money, and effort in someone who might take their experience and run after a year or two. This is just not feasible for us if we want to keep offering top-notch service and stay within budget. So here are the particulars:

"We'd like to sign you up as a soldier, so to speak, and put you through your paces. Boot camp, if you will. Eleven-hour days on the reference desk. Then, practice dealing with our toughest serials vendors. The next day, filling in for the children's librarian at the last minute, for a full day of puppet shows and story hours. And so on. You get the picture. Two years on contract. If you leave early, you forfeit half your received salary."

I looked slightly doubtful. "Uh...yes, I see." Was she kidding? The faces around me were unwaveringly cheerful.

"You're probably wondering about salary and benefits," Gina continued. "Well, the benefits of this program are in the valuable experience you will receive and the physical and mental stamina you will cultivate in yourself. We believe that you'll be so healthy after even just a few weeks in our program, you won't need health insurance or sick days. You'll save so much money by never having time to go shopping or pay for movies or other entertainment, you'll never miss the retirement benefits. Really, the library can give you everything you need."

"It's true," said Tim, the circulation supervisor. "You haven't seen our break room with the great new vending machine, or the camp cots."

"I make pillows for them on my breaks," said Denise, the head of tech services, smiling beatifically at me. "I think it's important to have a creative outlet."

I felt as though I'd fallen down Alice's rabbit hole. "So what you're saying is, your staff members live here in the library?"

"Oh, no," said Gina. "Not all of them. Only our new hires. And only for two years. We feel it builds character, and you must admit, it will save on rent and commuting costs."

"And the benefits...vacation days...sick days...retirement" Was I on Candid Camera or something?

"None," said Gina efficiently. "Zip. Zero. Not for the two years of the contract."

Were these people nuts? Taking a deep breath, I decided it was time to ask some serious questions. "Did you know that that's illegal?"

"Illegal?" said Denise, her eyebrows rising. "Noooo, dear, it's a little quirky, but the library board has approved it, so it's fine."

"All right, all right," I said, wanting to get to the nitty-gritty. "Suppose I were to take a position here. What kind of salary would we be looking at?"

The silence was so thunderous, I thought I had suddenly gone deaf. Gina, Denise, Tim, and Marge looked at each other with apprehension.

"I told you he'd ask," said Marge to Gina, slightly reprovingly.

"Don't worry, Marge, I'm sure he'll understand. Gary..."

Gina was obviously summoning forth all her managerial charm. She actually took my hand as she said what I had suspected all along:

"We can't offer you more than $18,650."

Aghast, I shook off her hand and stood up, willing myself not to say any of the several different impolite words that came to mind.

"Now Gary, just think of the savings, what with living here at the library--just think of all the great experience--" here Gina's voice began to rise in desperation as I turned to leave the room-- "it's truly the chance of a lifetime!"

I turned around and looked at the four anxious, hopeful interviewers, and I gave the only appropriate reply to such an offer:

"No thanks--I make more at my job at the sewage plant."

And I strode out of the library.

They say that when you turn down a job offer, you have lingering feelings of doubt. Me, I only had lingering feelings of surrealism, like I'd spent an hour on another planet.

The next day, I told my friend Patty about what had happened, and I was suprised to learn that she was originally from Peekham.

"Maybe you haven't heard what happened there," she said conspiratorially, looking around at the several students who were eating lunch with us in the library school commons. "The mayor lost the library in a bet, and the library's being run by appointees of the mob-controlled board. Gina's probably Sammy the Hand's girlfriend or something."

I laughed. "That explains a lot! I mean, the boot camp thing suprised me, and the idea of living in the library is ludicrous, but what really got me was the salary. $18,650? I mean, come on, get real."

Patty and the others looked at me, puzzled. "They offered you $18,650?" said Patty, astonished. "And--and you didn't take it?"

The folks on the newlib-l listserv have been chewing up the bandwidth lately, debating issues of professional status, of staff turnover and its benefits and drawbacks, of the cost of living and its deleterious effect on the lifestyle of the urban librarian, and (above all) about salaries. The consensus seems to be that things are bad everywhere and none of us knows quite what to do. Suggested solutions include: It sounds contradictory, and it is. But this discussion was by far the best I have participated in on the subject, because those who were involved in it are largely in the middle of the problem themselves: they are less than three years out of library school, and many are trying to finance a car, pay back college loans, and survive on piddling salaries. No one can deny what a crunch this can be. One person even wrote to say that she is moving back in with her folks because she can't make ends meet paying for an apartment.

This is especially tough in urban areas--$18,675 might have kept me warm and clothed in Bismarck, ND (I wasn't saving, but I wasn't starving either) but even $25,000 is unconscionably low in New York City. National averages are meaningless; state library association minimums are a little more helpful, but don't take into account the sometimes large gap between rural and urban areas ($425 in rent gets you three QUITE different apartments in Rice Lake, Marshfield, and Madison, WI). And when libraries flat-out ignore minimums (there are half-a-dozen directorships of small public libraries being posted this month in WI that are offering $6,000-$10,000 below the WLA entry-level minimum), well, you might as well spit into the air, as my mom would say.

I don't offer a solution. I offer "Carrots and Salary" by way of contributing to the discussion by sketching a caricature of how things are going. And I offer sincere thanks to whatever deity/deities are looking after my sorry butt, that I have a salary, that it's not bad at all, and that I will still have it at this time next year if I want it. Hallelujah.

©Jennifer Friedman, 8/3/99