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Budget Axe Eliminates iSchool Students
By Steve McCann
October 28, 2002

"We were fat that was easily trimmed" was how Amanda Hirst put it. Just as fall quarter was beginning, several iSchool students experienced the grim reality of a recession in Seattle by losing their student librarian jobs at Seattle Public Library.

Earlier this year, in August, SPL closed for a week to save money. That, and a second closure scheduled for December, will prevent the library system from having to lay off "30 employees" (Seattle PI) next year. The two week-long furloughs will be repeated in 2003. But all of these measures will not be enough to save the student librarian program. SPL spokeswoman, Andra Addison, had this to say: "It was a very tough decision for everyone, including the city librarian, who teaches at the iSchool and hears firsthand from students on how valuable a program it is. The program cut was made to avoid further impacts to regular staff (librarians and other positions)."

Affected iSchool students reacted to the news with surprise and disappointment. "It had been a great job. I actually looked forward to going to work. It added a hands-on element to my course-work," said student librarian Jenn Carter. She and more than a dozen other student librarians will lose her job at the end of the year.

Student librarian positions offer a source of real-world experience to iSchool students. Participants provide citywide reference desk coverage at SPL's branches and the main library while gaining direct experience with genuine information seekers. Students also work the circulation desk and participate in weeding, read-alouds, computer literacy training, and other projects.

Notification of the layoffs was "fumbled a little," as Rachael Bohn put it. At issue was how the news was handed out. Many students found out directly from their branch managers. Many others found out beforehand through a student librarian listserv. Once the information was available, it quickly spread. Human Resources started informing students on a Monday; and the news "was up on the listserv that day," said Bohn.

Professional SPL librarians were also upset by the news. Many librarians enjoy hearing what's going on at the iSchool and with the curriculum. "The librarians are always asking me what I do in school. It gives them a feel for what people in the field are learning," related Carter. Librarians will now be required to work the reference desks more than previously.

One SPL branch manager, who spoke with the Silverfish on condition of anonymity, commented that the student librarian program is mutually beneficial to the students and the institution: "The library has hired several student librarians on as professional staff after completing their schooling. This allows us to 'test out' someone, so to speak, and hire quality employees. This program also gives the students priceless employment opportunities after graduation, not just [at SPL], but anywhere."

Union rules require that professional librarians be scheduled with student librarians on each of their shifts as a backup. This relationship ensures that student librarians always have a resource to turn to. It also ensures that a less expensive student doesn't take the place of a more expensive professional. In the current budget crisis, this was apparently targeted as a duplication of effort.

The budget picture is still dire at SPL. Five union and seven nonunion staff members had until November 1 to find "alternative positions." In other words, if they couldn't find new work within SPL, the library and union would begin the "layoff/bumping" process during the month of November. This means that, depending on seniority, more employees may find out that they've been laid off. Student librarians are not part of the union, and therefore had no voice when it came to protecting their jobs.

"[The layoffs were] something we did reluctantly," Addison said. "Just as reluctantly as we proposed a $1 million cut to the book budget, as well as other significant cuts (reducing operating hours, shutting down another two-weeks with staff not being paid, among other cuts)." When asked about the future of the student librarian program, Addison said: "The student librarian program is not being eliminated at SPL … student librarian positions will be made available when funding is available (situation is still unknown for 2004) … We encourage students to continue to stay in contact with Human
Resources at SPL."

When asked about how they regarded Seattle Public Library now, the verdict was mixed among the students interviewed. Overwhelmingly, the work experience was judged to be very valuable. (Roughly the same experience is available to students through the iSchool's Directed Fieldwork Program, but without the salary.) "We're not bitter," said Bohn. Other students expressed reservations about returning to SPL upon graduation. "It hurts," said Hirst. "I loved the job, everything about it."

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