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Library Deep cuts to the Library’s staffing budget are evidenced by this growing stash of books and journals waiting to be cataloged by Technical Services librarians. Thousands more items sit on compact shelving, secured with chains, in the bowels of Doe. (Deborah Stalford photo)

Books in chains (and we don’t mean Borders)
Staff reductions leave 20,000 new acquisitions in bibliographic limbo — and threaten the Library’s top national ranking

| 02 September 2004

If you’re hunting for the obscure but potentially illuminating annual report of the Kredittilsynet (the banking, insurance, and securities commission of Norway), there’s no need to book a flight for Oslo. Nor does a quest to locate Les Divins Elancements d’Amour (a recent study of French religious poetry), the 2004 countryside guide Landscapes of the Italian Lakes, or Cuestiones de Sociologia, published by Argentina’s Universidad Nacional de la Plata, require your travel agent’s assistance. The top-ranked U.S. public research-university library — the one right here at UC Berkeley, whose recent restoration to greatness is a point of campus pride — counts each and every one of these items among its millions of holdings.

How soon their pages will see the light of day is quite another matter, though. Lean times for the campus translate, at the Library, into reductions in staff — down 60 over the past two fiscal years, including 24 who voluntarily departed their posts this Tuesday. Staff reductions in turn lead directly to a growing backlog of materials held in inaccessible basement rooms and on movable shelving secured shut by bicycle locks.


The Library boasts a collection of nearly 90,000 current serial publications —though many recently acquired periodicals await cataloging by overtaxed staff. (Deborah Stalford photo)

The Library (the capital-L entity includes Doe, Moffitt, Bancroft, and 16 smaller libraries specializing in subjects ranging from anthropology to social welfare) acquires some 100,000 new books, journals, and archival materials each year. Of these, about 20,000 are caught in this holding pattern, says Associate University Librarian Lee Leighton, director of the Technical Services unit that orders, pays for, and catalogs new items. Backlogs are not new to the Library, he notes, but the current magnitude of the problem is. Depending on whether a title is already entered in bibliographic databases shared with libraries around the country, it can cost as much as $60 in staff time to record a single item’s publication data and assign a Library of Congress classification number and subject headings to it. Only then is the item put into circulation.

Foreign-language materials are particularly hard hit by the cataloging logjam. The Library may have but a single staff person versed in Tibetan or Hindi, for example; if it loses that person, says Leighton, “we’re just stuck.” Some 10,000 Slavic-language volumes are waiting to be cataloged; in Middle Eastern languages the backlog is close to 8,000, and in South and Southeast Asian studies, about 5,000.

Budget woes have persuaded some skilled Library staff to look elsewhere for employment, and have discouraged qualified applicants from accepting job offers at Berkeley, Leighton says. He cites a decision by a cataloger who could read 10 languages to accept a more stable position with the Library of Congress, and the Chinese librarian who decided to retire early, reducing the Library’s Chinese collections staff to two library assistants. The Library spent two years trying to hire a Near Eastern Studies expert; in the end it opted to fill the spot by sending a staffer fluent in Middle Eastern languages to library school.

Morale, rankings rose

Campus veterans are cognizant of the determination and resources that have gone into rebuilding the Library, after a period of decline. A 1998 blue-ribbon report “reflected the mood on campus at the time, that the Library, once very proud and esteemed, had fallen,” recalls University Librarian Tom Leonard. Chancellor Berdahl responded to the report with a three-year commitment of $5.5 million, nearly a million of which went to staffing. “We were able to recruit talent and build special expertise in digital-library materials and in languages,” says Leonard. Morale rose, and so did the Library’s rankings — from fifth overall nationwide in 2000 to third last year, right behind Harvard and Yale.

With the recent rounds of budget cuts, however, staffing at the Library has taken a hit. Its operations budget, $21 million this year, represents a reduction of more than 16 percent, or $3.8 million in permanent funds, over the past two years.

Leonard foresees no major cuts in service hours at Doe, Moffitt, or Bancroft libraries, despite these damaging reductions. Operating hours, however, are being shaved an hour or two at the smaller libraries, and some services are being reduced at libraries large and small. Reference help has been eliminated at Doe in the evenings, for instance.

“We’re trying to take care of core services, but there will be longer lines, less service,” says Patricia Iannuzzi, associate university librarian in charge of the Doe/Moffitt libraries. “You may have to wait longer for the right person to answer your questions.”

Like many of her colleagues, she fears that — barring a change in its fortunes — the Library’s prestigious and hard-won ranking, and its ability to serve the campus, will inevitably slip.