Its 10 a.m. on a recent Friday at the Berkeley public library. The computers are humming as elderly residents try to learn the skills their grandchildren already know: how to move a mouse and click, how to send an e-mail and search for information.
Nearby, Supervising Librarian Barbara Alesandrini, is happy to answer any question, but when it comes to computers, she said, she keeps her hands behind her back. She wants her patrons to learn how to do it themselves.
“It takes the right kind of people who are themselves eager to learn, to work in a library,” said Alesandrini, who has worked as a librarian for 35 years.
“We all believe we are making a difference for people. My job is constantly public service.”
It’s precisely this kind of librarian that’s getting harder and harder to find because of the Internet, said Audrey Powers, the branch services manager, who hires librarians for the Berkeley Public Library system. Just as the Internet has broadened the possibilities of library resources, it has also had a profound impact on the very people who have long sustained it: librarians
“Dot.coms are hiring library students because they are all too aware how important it is to get information and knowledge,” Powers said. “And the people who know how to find that information are a valuable commodity.”
And dot.coms, such as Ask Jeeves, are willing to pay big bucks for that commodity. The signing bonus alone at a dot.com can average between $2,000 to $20,000, according to InfoWorld's 2000 compensation survey. The starting salary of a librarian in the Berkeley system is about $17.80 per hour or less than $35,000 a year. Librarians with more than five years experience can earn $40,000-$50,000.
The Berkeley system is currently advertising for one opening. The upside for the Berkeley library system is the Bay Area. Despite the high cost of living, many librarians want to stay and it’s not unusual to find Berkeley librarians who’ve been in the libraries for 20 to 40 years. Go to Los Angeles, however, and it’s a different story. Powers said that Los Angeles public library system cannot fill some 200 positions because of dot.coms.
“This trend is definitely a concern in the profession,” said Alesandrini. “It used to be a woman could become a teacher, nurse or librarian. Now there are so many more opportunities for women. And these professions aren’t keeping pace with the others.”
Alesandrini says she doesn’t do it for the money. She was able to raise two children with the help of her husband who is a research engineer. “I think it’s necessary to have a second income to survive,” she said. “But I know some librarians who have raised their children on this salary.”
As Alesandrini put a Harry Potter book back on the shelf she explained the satisfaction she gets from her job. “We open up a whole new world to people,” she said. “You should see the way people light up when we help them.”