The Library of Congress has experienced a significant reduction in staff over the past 10 years and faces an even greater reduction as more employees near retirement, according to data gathered by an employee union.
“One of the Library’s greatest resources, which is its staff, has already hemorrhaged," Library of Congress Professional Guild president Saul Schniderman told CQ Roll Call on Monday. “This isn’t something that’s going to happen. It’s already happened.” The union represents roughly half of the library’s more than 3,000 employees.
In a letter to guild members, Schniderman noted a nearly 50 percent drop in catalog and acquisition librarians and a roughly 25 percent drop in reference services staff over the past 10 years. The data also showed a slight increase in information technology specialists. Schniderman said in a phone interview that the overall decrease in staff could be attributed to positions that are not filled by the library, as well as “sequestration and the general reduction in size of government.”
LOC spokeswoman Gayle Osterberg confirmed in an email to CQ Roll Call Tuesday that the number of library staffers has decreased.
"Like other government agencies the Library has reduced permanent staffing levels to adjust to workload changes and budget constraints," wrote Osterberg. "This has been accomplished in Library Services largely through regular staff attrition and voluntary early retirement."
However, Osterberg noted that the nearly 50 percent drop in catalog and acquisition librarians was due to "organizational and technology changes that have occurred within that directorate over the last ten years. During that period staff from two distinct directorates were merged, workflows aligned and streamlined, staff retrained and work spaces relocated."
Osterberg also noted that the nearly 25 percent drop in collections and services librarians "has been mitigated by technology changes that have taken place across the Library over the last ten years." Though she said the decrease in librarians has also led to a "reduction of subject expertise necessary for quality collection development and providing in depth assistance to scholars."
The drain in librarian expertise is considered a problem by administrators and employees alike. Library Director James Billington acknowledged the problem in an April 2014 testimony submitted to the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that determines the LOC’s budget.
“Over the past several years, the Library has been operating with progressively decreasing resources,” Billington said, later adding that “there has been substantial attrition, resulting in growing knowledge gaps.”
In his letter, Schniderman noted that the library will also likely experience a wave of retirements in the near future.
"[The] Library of Congress is being downsized through attrition,” Schniderman wrote. “Not only is this trend continuing but as the rate of retirements increase, the situation may get worse. Much worse.”
The union found that the average age of employees in those two service areas was from the mid-to-late 50’s, meaning many employees are closing in on retirement.
To compensate for the loss in staff members, Schniderman is hoping that the LOC participates in a phased retirement program allowing retiring employees to work part time and mentor other staff members.
Congress approved such programs in 2012 and the Office of Personnel Management issued its final regulations in August. Agencies can begin applying to the program in November.
According to a message sent from the LOC Office of Human Resources to library staff on Tuesday, administrators will be working with the three library employee unions to develop the phased retirement program.
The message explained, "The Library plans to pilot phased retirement for one year, beginning later this year, following negotiations on implementation with the Library’s three labor organizations."
Schniderman said the unions will be briefed on the program in the next week or two and there were a number of questions that should be answered.
“The first concern is whether or not the staff at the library, to what degree, the staff will participate in phased retirement,” he said. “The second concern is how will the mentoring work.”
Though Schniderman noted there was much work to be done to implement phased retirement at the LOC, he remained optimistic that it would be possible despite a shrinking workforce.
“I believe that the LOC has the skill and expertise to be able to develop a mentoring program,” Schniderman said.
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