“We no longer have a visible reference desk in our two main libraries,” reports Miki Goral, a UCLA librarian of 43 years. “Students first have to go to the circulation desk. If the student working there thinks they need to talk to a reference librarian, they often refer them to a 24/7 online chat, which is staffed by a UC librarian only during certain hours.

Otherwise they could be chatting with a librarian in New York, or even Australia. Plus chatting can take 40 minutes to do what you can do in 5 if you’re actually talking.”

At UC Davis the story is much the same. “We used to have four public service points, with eight or nine reference librarians,” according to Adam Siegel. “Now we have fewer librarians, fewer desks, and fewer hours when the desks are open.”

Ken Lyons, a 13-year librarian at UC Santa Cruz, reports similar degradation. “We used to be open 99-100 hours a week, and now it’s down to 20.” He elaborates, “When I started there was a reference department, with seven of us. Then we were down to two, with a supervisor. Now the department doesn’t exist. Librarians on the desk work two hours a week, when before it was eight. If someone asks to see a reference librarian, there’s usually no one on duty, so they’re sent to an online chat room.”

Reference librarians perform a highly skilled service, yet they are becoming rare in the UC system. Librarians say the attitude among administrators is that students really don’t need professional reference services anymore.

Serious information expertise is required to serve students and faculty — and you have 
to pay for that.

“There’s a lot of talk about the digital generation that’s used to doing things on the Internet,” says UC Riverside librarian Steve Mitchell. “That doesn’t make them good at finding scholarly information, however. Serious information expertise is required to serve students and faculty — and you have to pay for that,” he emphasizes. 

Goral says that administrators want to save money by not filling positions, “so they say students are ‘digital natives,’ and that students know how to do research. But UC is paying millions of dollars every year to provide access to databases,” she explains, “which students don’t know how to use, or even that they exist.”

“Students come to us as a last resort,” Siegel adds. “That makes their questions even more challenging. They’re used to online research, but often can’t distinguish between peer-reviewed research and other sources. We have to help them get through firewalls.” 

Yet UC administrators often put students in charge of the reference desk. “A graduate student on the reference desk can deal with mundane questions, but not with complex information queries,” says Mitchell. 

Putting students in charge of the desk, he says, “leads to a kind of devolution spiral. We lose full-time positions, which means there’s not enough time when the desk is open 
to ensure the service is visible. That in turn lowers usage.”

Lyons charges administrators with playing politics over the service. “There’s a change in emphasis away from undergrads. Administrators see us as a high-cost service, and want us to concentrate on work with faculty because they have the most political power on campus. Undergrads have none. But we can’t leave behind our major constituency. So I question whether we’re now helping those who really need it the most.” 

Librarians ward off threats in new contract

At UCLA, the union filed a grievance when the use of temps grew to 25 percent of the bargaining unit. In response, the administration made 11 of 20 temporary librarians permanent. 

“In our new contract,” says Miki Goral, negotiating team member and CFT vice president, “temporary appointments can only be used in specific circumstances, not to fill vacant permanent positions.” 

UC librarians also made their salary schedule more equitable. “Our entry salary still doesn’t match CSU, public libraries or community colleges, but it’s better,” Goral says. 

In other gains, the union strengthened the review process, removed barriers that kept librarians from reaching the top of the payscale, and protected the bargaining unit: Without union agreement, the university can’t remove titles, individuals, or positions from the bargaining unit without going to the Public Employment Relations Board.

— By David Bacon, CFT Reporter