Landing at the Library, Again

The job of “library page” is tailor-made for a few distinct groups of people. First and foremost, the housewife page. The four-day-a-week, four-hour-per-day schedule is an easy thing to do while the kiddos are off at school, plus it leaves ample time for cooking, cleaning and chauffeur duties. Women are of course capable of doing more than that which appears in 1950s guides to being a good wife. But the missus can tend to tradition, and supplement hubby’s income, by learning the art of paging.

The job is also conducive to the old lady demographic. It is a way for them to satiate their love of books and get out of the house, all while tacking a little something on to social security. The seniors work slowly and diligently, and always take every second – but no more – of their allotted break time. They are, to my knowledge, the only people who ever use the stools strewn about the stacks of books.

The final usual suspect for the page position is the high schooler. That 5:15 to 9:15 shift is just about perfect for someone who gets out of school at 3:00. And while $9.00 an hour is lackluster compared to working adults, it isn’t half-bad for a teenager. That’s four- or five-hundred bucks a month for traipsing around with a cart, slipping books here and there, surrounded by absolute quiet. If money is a concern, the schedule allows for an additional part-time job; if money isn’t a concern, then a library is one of the most stress-free venues in the world to accrue a couple grand for college.

And I would know: I was a library page during high school. It was great. I didn’t have to dabble in customer service if I didn’t want to – the desolate audio-book section was a common retreat – and when boredom intervened, I would simply post up in those high-traffic aisles of adult fiction and ask everyone I came across, “Is there anything I can help you with?” For the fickle disposition of the seventeen-year-old male, it was an idyllic post.

One group, however, that is largely incompatible with paging is recent college graduates. As good as the pay may have been for high school students readying for college, it wasn’t quite what one hopes for in the wake of getting a degree. There is no health insurance for part-timers (and all page positions are part-time), and whatever opportunity there is for career advancement – not much, as it happens – is tainted by the fact that said advancement is in the arena of public libraries. Moreover, that which is fulfilling to a sixty-six-year-old is woefully drab to a twenty-three-year-old.

All of which makes it that much more painful that on October 28, 2008, I applied for a job at my hometown Johnson County Library.

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I got the job, and it wasn’t long before stagnation set in. There was no chance for a raise because, as a government employee, my pay was dictated by some obscure mathematical formula devised by the State of Kansas. Plus, a promotion was out of the question because (a) a page job is a page job; there are no tiers with different pay and better hours, and (b) immediately after I was hired, the county imposed a hiring freeze, which locked me into the exact spot that I had.

Indeed, it wasn’t just newspapers that were frozen. The recession was like mold on the county’s balance sheets, devouring the money required to be fully staffed. To wit, there was another page hired at the same time as me – of the middle-aged housewife variety – and she quit after about a month. Because of the hiring freeze her spot was never filled, leaving increasingly daunting piles of books in back.

One of my friends, who himself had worked at a library during high school, also applied for a page opening that November. After nailing his token interview, he was notified a week later that, Whoops!, the library was actually going to leave that spot open. This left him juggling the dual feelings of, “Oh well, I didn’t want to work at a library anyway,” and, “Oh crap, there is absolutely nowhere to work.”

This freeze was happening all over the country. In November 2008, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities at the Rockefeller Institute, at least thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia were facing budget gaps totaling $66 billion in the 2009 fiscal year. It didn’t help that the 2009 fiscal year had officially begun on October 1 and lawmakers were banking on revenue projections that, post-Lehman and post-AIG and post-everything else, simply weren’t going to pan out.

The shortfall, said The New York Times, left states “scrambling to find ways to get through the rest of the year without hacking apart vital services or raising taxes.”

The Times went on to quote Scott D. Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers, who said, “Frankly, I thought 2001 was really awful. It is even worse now.”

He added, “This fiscal year will be really bad, and what is unfortunate is that I can’t see how 2010 won’t be bad too.”

Cities, counties and states started burning that which they couldn’t afford. In Massachusetts, for instance, governor Deveal Patrick said he would eliminate 1,000 jobs from state government – he had added 2,000 jobs the previous year – and trim more than $1 billion off the budget. It was, according to his administration, the worst single round of midyear budget rollbacks in state history. In Virginia, where a $2.5 billion shortfall was expected, Governor Tim Kaine ordered 575 layoffs, reduced college funding by about 5 percent and postponed state employee pay raises until the summer of 2009. The same squeeze that prompted these moves hit libraries.

The lackluster pay and absence of benefits, combined with the impossibility of career advancement, had an erosive effect. Half-a-decade earlier – before I had earned an honors degree from an expensive university – I had had this Exact Same Job. I had taken the path of a boomerang when I was supposed to take the path of a balloon. The result was sedating – knowing that I should be doing something else, that this couldn’t possibly be my professional destiny. And that’s to say nothing of living at home.