Public Comment

Commentary: Library Service, Prestige Has Deteriorated

Tuesday May 23, 2006

Four years ago, thanks to the generosity of the Berkeley community, the beautifully renovated Central Library opened its doors to great celebration. The local and national press praised the project and library workers were justifiably proud of our involvement.  

To enter the Central Library and its four branches today is to enter an altered and much-diminished facility. In this once world class and prestigious organization, service has deteriorated and library staff has no confidence that it is safe to speak openly about problems.  

What has the community lost?  

Hours of operations have been reduced by 20 percent. Remember when every branch was open until 9 p.m. on weekdays? No more.  

Once library users found books and CDs quickly reshelved and available for checkout. No more.  

Now library materials are frequently unavailable because of shelving backlogs created by a reduced workforce. Library users are regularly advised that the books they need won’t be available for several days, and carts of unshelved DVDs languish in work areas. 

Library employees once felt respected in their workplace. No more. Now staff morale is at an all-time low.  

Until two years ago, 30 part-time library aides were assigned to shelve at the Central Library. Now there are only 18 aides to do the work.  

Three librarians were assigned to each branch. Now there are only two.  

The Reference Department was nationally known for its skillful handling of inquiries. Alas, no more. The Reference Department has lost four positions in the past two years and now relies on substitutes and library school interns much of the time.  

Vivian Pisano, the recently hired deputy director, quit after just three months on the job, striking another blow to staff hopes for restoring the library to its former levels.  

Several other highly valued managers have resigned or retired early in the past few years as well. Once Berkeley library was led by a respectful and dedicated group of leaders willing to consult and compromise. Alas, no more.  

A system of radio frequency tags (RFID) was implemented by library management, supposedly to reduce repetitive stress injuries among staff, and therefore saving the library money. However, the truth is repetitive stress injuries were actually reduced prior to the RFID program. Ironically, repetitive stress injuries have increased due to the RFID program.  

SEIU Local 535, the union for city workers including most library staff, is proud of our efforts to use proper channels to advocate for the public and to protect our members. A facilitated Organizational Diagnosis last year (costing the library $50,000) found that the library organization was in crisis and that management and the director were responsible for handling changes poorly. Remedies were implied, but have been neglected.  

In November 2005, City Council stepped in and mandated that a labor/management committee be formed to create a meaningful dialog between all concerned parties. Library union members participated with the understanding that retaliatory actions against outspoken workers would cease. Unfortunately, the retaliations have continued and SEIU 535 was forced to discontinue meeting until management gives assurance that workers who speak up will be protected from unfair treatment in the workplace. Staff frustration grew to the point that last month a majority of library workers signed a petition of no confidence in Library Director Jackie Griffin.  

There is a crisis in leadership at Berkeley Public Library. It is being discussed in the local and national press. This is not the public library the citizens of Berkeley deserve. However, SEIU 535 is ready to sit at the table and seek agreements with Library management. For starters, let’s agree on fair and respectful ways to lead and guide employees. Then let’s talk about the work we all want to do and how to do it best.  


Ayaan Gates-Williams  

Ad Hoc Committee Member 


Lisa Hesselgesser 

Ad Hoc Committee Member and SEIU 535 Secretary  


Ray Jefferson 

SEIU 535 President  


John Mathews 

SEIU 535 Library Steward 


Anne-Marie Miller 

Ad Hoc Committee Member  


Claudia Morrow 

SEIU 535 Library Steward  


Andrea Moss 

SEIU 535 Library Steward  


Jane Scantlebury 

SEIU 535 Library Steward  


Andrea Segall 

Ad Hoc Committee Member and SEIU 535 Vice President  


Vivian Vigil 

SEIU 535 Library Steward