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The Dartmouth
March 3, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Wolfe: Dartmouth Library Staff Need a Union

Library staff members work hard for this community, but College administration has taken them for granted far too long.

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear “Dartmouth Library?” Is it Baker tower? Books in the stacks? Studying? Grabbing a bite at Novack? All good answers: The library provides a lot of resources, from social spaces to research consultations with librarians. When I was asked this recently, my answer was “people” — specifically, the people who work in the library. As someone who works there myself, that probably comes as no surprise. Nor would it surprise me if that wasn’t the first thought for most people, since a lot of what we do is more or less invisible by design. 

Unfortunately, the downside to being invisible is that it’s too easy to be taken for granted. Library staff are now organizing to form a union not because we want public accolades, but because we see firsthand how Dartmouth budget policy is eroding our institution, and we want to help it — and ourselves — to make the library everything it can and should be.

We’re here to make sure you get the resources and support you need, and we work hard to make it as easy as possible. When you look up an article on your phone or laptop, you never need to think about a librarian making a budget decision to purchase that access, or the many other people who  negotiated a license for it, made sure it was paid for, renewed it on time every year, cataloged it well so you could find it and made sure that specific link would work when you finally clicked it. 

The truth is, the library is not primarily a building, or a bunch of collections or services. It’s people. It’s a whole community of people who work to make this place possible and special. From technical staff to librarians in your classroom, from folks at the Circulation desk to web programmers, the library staff creates the information infrastructure that Dartmouth’s academic life runs on. And speaking just for myself, I don’t mind that most of the work my community does is as invisible as it is invaluable — it’s reward enough to walk through the library on any given day and see how important what we do is to you, and how it has made the library the vigorous heart of the Dartmouth community as a whole.

But that brings us back to the downside of invisibility and being taken for granted, because that is exactly what has happened to us among Dartmouth’s executives. Even as Dartmouth’s endowment has grown, the library’s slice of the pie has waned. In the last five years, we’ve actually sustained $2 million in budget cuts. In that time, we have lost the equivalent of 30 full-time staff positions, and salaries for those of us who are left have not remotely kept up with the cost of living. A promotion structure for librarians was abruptly terminated in 2020, leaving all library staff without a path for professional advancement other than to take a job elsewhere. Two of our locations — Kresge Physical Sciences Library and Paddock Music Library were abruptly shuttered in 2021 without warning or community input. 

The library is not treated as a priority, and this has taken its toll. A workplace once known for its people staying for full 40-year careers has suddenly become a place of rapid and constant turnover, as new recruits discover our working conditions and poor morale and soon make for the exits. 

Compensation became such a pressing problem that library administration made a valiant effort last year to address wage compression due to inflation, after which I saw a sudden, nearly 50% increase in my hourly rate. Imagine the conflicting emotions this produced for me — both elation I could pay off some of my debts, and outrage that I had been so severely underappreciated for so long. Yet, what has Dartmouth’s response been to this effort? In the coming year’s library budget, there is no increase for staff compensation, which not only leaves library leaders to manage a significant structural deficit as their reward for trying to advocate for staff, but indicates that a new cycle of wage compression is already underway.

It would be nice to say that this came as a shock, but by the time that news broke we’d long since had enough. For well over a year, a movement has been underway among library staff to come together to form a union to advocate for ourselves, for our library community and for Dartmouth as a whole. Instead of giving in to cynicism, we recognized that we needed to provide greater leverage to ensure Dartmouth’s leadership no longer took us for granted. On April 18, the Dartmouth College Library Workers’ Union made a public announcement that we were affiliating with AFSCME Local 93 and filing for an election with the National Labor Relations Board. We are now in the midst of that vote. On May 19, the NLRB sent out ballots, which must be returned by June 12.

Yes, as library staff, we have personal stakes in the success of this vote, as well as a desire to help our community of colleagues as a whole, but we also take a fierce pride in everything we do for you to make the library what it is. We know a better library is possible, one that can evolve to meet new challenges and do even more for the whole Dartmouth community, without compromising the welfare and futures of the people who compose the real library behind the tower, the stacks and the website.

We hope you feel the same way. We hope that you recognize that everything the library is and does for you is because somebody put in the work, and they deserve to feel proud and appreciated for what they do. If you do, I’d ask that you let us know! Tell someone who works here that you support our union effort. Go to our website, and sign on to our statement of community support. And thank you — I’ll see you in Novack!

Timothy Wolfe is an Acquisitions Supervisor at the Dartmouth Library. Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.

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