Friday, December 18, 2009

Librarians and library assistants, part 2

I mentioned in one of my opening entries how I became employed in my position in the U.C. Berkeley library. I began working for the university in August 1983 at the Indochina Archive, under the supervision of Douglas Pike, a retired foreign service officer who had moved with his large collection of Indochina (particular Vietnam) materials. I was hired not because of any training related to archival or library work, but because I had come to know Mr. Pike through my use of his collection in research for a report on human rights in Vietnam; also because I had sent him my newsletter on the same subject in recent years. In the subsequent 26 years, I have worked at the University of California under the job title of "library assistant".

Those who apply for positions or are employed as library assistants are probably aware that the job title library assistant will generally have several levels of classification, with higher pay and more complicated duties as one advances upwards. Here at UC Berkeley, there are five levels, Library Assistant I through V. At the Indochina Archive, where I worked until 2002, the last several years part time, I was alway a Library Assistant I, my classification never changed. This despite the fact that my job duties were much more wide ranging than now -- in some respects more cerebral activity required, in other respects less. Compared to my present workplace, the Indochina Archive was more like a mom and pop grocery store. I was the only full-time university paid employee, other than Mr. Pike himself, but we also had help from other people, some work-study students, and at least one Vietnamese working under different funding sources. My work ranged from cutting and pasting news clippings to helping visiting researchers to assisting in all aspects of writing, editing, printing and mailing our quarterly Indochina Chronology.

The reason why my classification never changed was partly my fault -- I did not pursue a reclassification despite encouragement from some at the parent institute to do so -- and partly because our funding was "soft", i.e. relied entirely on foundation support, which eventually ran out. In August 1997, Mr. Pike left with much of the collection for the Vietnam Center of Texas Tech, while I stayed behind, working part-time at the archive, until 2002, when I left to work full-time in the library.

I was hired to work at the UC Berkeley library in 1999 copy cataloging Vietnamese books (despite my limited knowledge of the language). Upon hiring I was immediately reclassified to a Library Assistant II and not too long afterwards was reclassified to a Library Assistant IV. The reason for this is that the supervisor noticed I was cataloging many new, previously uncatalogued items. At that time, unlike now, our department did not create partial records in OCLC, we either copied full records, put a "reject" flag in the book and put it back on the shelves to check later; gave it to the original catalogers; or we would catalog it ourselves as a full record. Since no one else catalogued Vietnamese books at the time, it was left to me to create new records for the previously uncatalogued items.

In retrospect, I was fortunate. If I were to do the same now as a Library Assistant II (or III) I would be reprimended rather than rewarded, as I would be working above my job level description. Because of serious funding problems, our library has imposed a hiring freeze, with a few exceptions. Along with that reclassification has also become virtually impossible.

Most of the copy catalogers here are either Library Assistant IIIs Library Assistant IVs. The LA IIIs are much more constrained in the nature of their cataloging, in truth, not because they are any less capable of performing the same work as an LA IV, but because if they did so, and recorded it as such in their weekly statistics sheet, then they would be in a position to demand reclassification. As for me, while I still create new records, it is preferred that I create "level 2" records (records with call numbers but no subject headings). If I do create a full record, technically it is still considered copy cataloging, not original cataloging, as I am deriving from another record.

I credit our library director for managing to steer our library through a difficult state fiscal crisis without any layoffs up to now, but this position against reclassification does not make sense, especially given that many of our co-workers have retired in recent months due to incentives, and now the rest of us are left with more work. The pay difference between an LA III and an LA IV is not significant enough to warrant the current anti-reclassification policy. Keeping some of us at an artificially low level imposes greater burdens on all of us and hampers the overall workflow. It is my hope that our library can remove these job classification ceilings on the nature of our cataloging and allow for more upward mobility in the workplace.

I may discuss this more in a future entry.


  1. Stephen, are you on the AUTOCAT listserv for catalogers? Someone posted a question about cataloging a Vietnamese item, and I thought of you. If you send me your email address, I'll forward you the message.

  2. Lizzie, you can send it to me in care of my work address,
    I look forward to receiving the message.