Further Answers: How Did Prop 13 Affect You?

This is a long post, but hopefully you’ll be as fascinated as I am.

I graduated in May of 2011, for a while I felt like I’d landed in the worst possible job market for a new librarian. Entry level positions are scarce, and there seems to be a ravening horde of experienced librarians so desperate for work that they’re taking these precious few spots.

Things could never have been this tough, right?

Then I started working in substitute pools for three different public library systems. Librarians are generally nice, and I began to hear, in each system, sympathetic stories from those who empathized with new grads, because they’d been through the aftermath of Prop 13.

In 1978, Californians engaged in taxpayer revolt. More than 60% of the state voted for Proposition 13, which decreased property taxes. This legislation made it so property value (the amount used to calculate property tax) is assessed at time of purchase, and can not increase more than 2% each year. For both personal and commercial property. It also requires a two-thirds vote for increases in both state and local taxes. I read a lot about it on the librarian’s dirty little secret, but there have been recent murmurings about reform, so you can find some good news articles about it right now as well.

It has had some pretty disastrous ramifications for schools and libraries. Before Prop 13, California was one of top school systems in the country. Now we are ranked 48th. I don’t have a neat statistical fact to describe its affect on libraries (and really, correlation is not causation, so theoretically our school ranking could be the result of other factors). What I do have, are some stories collected from librarians affected by Prop 13. I asked them:

Can you describe how you were affected by Prop 13? Were you laid off or did you have hours reduced? How long did it take to return to work? Did you return to the same level and hours as before you left? Can you see any similarities or differences between what it was like then, and what the library job market is like today?

I couldn’t resist sending my experience. I applied to library school in 1980, I think. I wish I still had the letter I received from UC Berkeley’s School of Library and Information Studies. As I remember it, the letter implied ‘if you are even accepted to this graduate program, you will be even more lucky to get a job due to Prop 13.’ I was accepted to the MLIS program and graduated. My first job in records management was followed a year later by my first librarian job as a children’s librarian. I did have to move to southern California for the public library position. I remember that Oakland Public Library was recruiting substitute/temporary librarians around the same time but I didn’t qualify for their list.

- Julia Reardon, Branch Manager, La Palma Branch, OC Public Libraries

blairProp 13 caused a bump down effect at the library I worked at.

I began working in the library field in 1959 at a Los Angeles County branch as a page. Moved to another branch as a library aid. From there to the Pomona Public Library as a circulation clerk. During those times I was going to college part time and doing a lot of the work as a professional librarian without the benefits. Finally got my bachelor’s degree & enrolled in library school at USC while working at San Bernardino County branch as a librarian trainee. Finally got my MSLS from USC & went to work at the Indio Branch of the Riverside City/County Library System. That is where I was when Prop 13 hit. I as a children’s librarian filling the last created Librarian position. When Prop 13 came, my position was the first to be eliminated. As I stated earlier, this caused the bump down affect. I finally moved on to the Colton Public Library where I retired from in 2000.

I loved working in the library field. The one regret I have is not having gotten my MSLS earlier.

The only similarity is the loss of staff due to the loss of revenue. I had to move in order to keep my job.

People today don’t realize the tremendous affect Prop 13 has had over the years to library services.

- Blair Holm, Children’s Librarian

The effects of Prop 13 on me were several.

During all this I worked as a Library Assistant II for the Alameda County Library. LA II’s then were more like librarians than clerks, except we were paid less than genuine, certificate-bearing librarians.

Lots of anxiety before passage of Prop 13. After passage, feelings of resignation and then registering for unemployment benefits. Some relief when rehired (only about one month after being rehired). Resentment, directed (only in my feelings) at the public and those who fought for passage of Prop 13.

I worked half-time for a few months after being rehired, at the Castro Valley branch of the Alameda County Library. More staff (most of those laid off) came back to work and I then worked full-time, as a Branch Manager (Library Assistant III) at a small branch of the Alameda County Library.

I was also studying at San Jose State for my library degree (MLS), which I received in 1980.

I see little difference in the library job market today and before Prop 13. It’s still hard to get a job as a librarian. ( I believe the 1990′s was an easier time to get a library job.) I got my first full-time job as a librarian (with San Mateo County Library) in 1985 after five years of searching. I worked
as a part-time librarian before that (starting in the early 1980s) at the Weekend Library Line (Late-night telephone reference service for the Bay Area, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. I worked one night a week. A story for another survey.)

-Jay Smith, Reference Librarian, San Carlos Library 

I worked in a rural county library in northern California when Prop 13 passed in June, 1978.

Our main library (in the county seat) had been open 6 days a week, and was immediately reduced to 4 days a week.

Our county library (main library, three branches, and a bookmobile) was funded by a dedicated tax rate. Before the June election, we did an analysis with the County Auditor and estimated that we would lose more than 20% of our funding, if the measure passed.

Later that summer/early fall, after the State Legislature released additional state funds to the counties, we were able to re-open the main library to 5 days a week.

All the staff took a 20% pay cut during this time (I recall it lasted a few months), except for me. I was the County Librarian and, apparently, there was some section of the state law that prevented the county from reducing my salary, since I was a County officer.

So I would come to work on Fridays, when the library was closed, and do the regular morning tasks (clear the book drop, process the mail and magazines, search for books which had been requested by patrons in other libraries in our 6-county system–these requests came to us every morning on a TWX machine–etc.)

I would also do whatever administrative paperwork (paying claims, reconciling expenditures, etc.) that had piled up during the week, and would walk up to the court house (which was open on Fridays) to make the cash deposit, file the claims, etc. And chat and listen to those county officials who were closer to the powers-that-be to find out what was being discussed and considered as options for all the county departments.

The cuts of Prop 13 were very demoralizing. They were demoralizing to our staff, some of whom left library employment altogether (the bookmobile driver was laid off, because the bookmobile service was eliminated when Prop 13 passed. When the bookmobile service was restored, he declined to return to his former position.)

They were demoralizing to the public, because the county library system was a recently created service, and they appreciated the resources of a system, the access to books outside of their library, the helpful staff, the decent hours of service, etc.

It was demoralizing statewide in a variety of ways. Prop 13 de-stablized funding for a number of the rural county libraries, many of which were funded from their County’s general fund. (Remember: we had a dedicated library tax rate. Not every county library was funded in this way.) One county library–Lassen–later closed down completely. Another county was so pruned back that they later turned to a private operator to offer a modicum of better service.

On similarities or differences between what it was like then, and what the library job market is like today: In 1978, with the passage of Proposition 13, almost every library in California was facing a cut in revenue, and the uncertainty was spread throughout the state. As background, you have to understand the differences in how libraries were governed and funded. California law provided for county libraries, city libraries, city-county libraries, special district libraries, school district library districts, and joint powers agencies that provided library services. Some county libraries were considered special districts for funding purposes and had a separate library tax. Some county and city libraries were funded from their jurisdiction’s general fund, which meant that they were in competition with many other programs, including law enforcement and fire services, for a share of that money.

In today’s environment, we have some jurisdictions that are doing better than others in terms of recovery from the recession. A jurisdiction with a lot of high-priced homes, an auto mall, and a regional shopping center with a Nordstrom’s as an anchor store is probably doing better than a jurisdiction with a lot of 99-cent stores and store-front churches on their Main Street.

In addition, the number of library school graduates in California in the class of 1978 is different from today’s picture. In 1978, there were ALA-accredited library schools at UC Berkeley, UCLA, and the University of Southern California. The program at San Jose State was focused on training school librarians. At that point, they were not engaged in the distance-education programs and large enrollments that are the hallmarks of their operation today.

There are hopeful signs for library service (and for hiring new librarians) in my opinion.

Librarians are doing a better job in their communities demonstrating the value of what they offer. We are using social media to our advantage in reaching those who are informed by those methods. The move to electronic books is an opportunity to promote our collections to new users who may rarely set foot in the library building. The renewed emphasis on services to children is a good hook to lure in the next generation of adults who may not have been regular library users in many years. Robust services to immigrant populations are showing parents about the importance of reading and libraries for their children, especially if they are from countries without a tradition of public library services.

The two library bond issues that passed in California raised the bar on what a modern library building should look like, and the application process introduced a number of best practices to any community that is looking at new construction or remodeling projects.

That said, I am concerned about the library school graduates who are still looking for work. I hope that they remain involved in the profession, even if their employment takes them to something other than a library-based career. I hope that they are flexible and are willing to gain experience in a community that is not on their radar screen at the moment, or take a position where they will be challenged in ways that are different from their “ideal” job.
-Anonymous

Brian ReynoldsI was working as a Reference/Catalog Librarian at the Shasta County Library in 1978. Pretty soon after the passage of Prop. 13 my work week and pay was reduced by 20%…a five-day week became a four-day week. This reduction lasted for only a few months, fortunately. I retained my rank and salary throughout. To maintain my income, I went back to waiting tables at a local restaurant…a job I had done in college.

I see similar conditions today where many public libraries have had their budgets cut…due to shortfalls in local funding and reductions in State funding. Our own Library has lost about a dozen positions via attrition but has been fortunate not to have to lay off any staff. Many other public libraries in California have not been so fortunate.

There is a strong perception that public libraries are obsolete, nice but not necessary. I believe this falsehood affects staff morale, staff recruitment, and customer attitudes…especially for people who use a public library only rarely. Why support an agency that is, or will soon become, obsolete? Of course, none of this is accurate but the perception is widespread nonetheless. Many people with whom I have spoken who are interested in librarianship as a profession wonder if it’s a good choice. I assure them that it is, but sometimes it’s an uphill battle.
-Brian A. Reynolds, Library Director

In 1978, I was working half time at Santa Clara County (Los Altos), 18 hours a week (so they didn’t have to pay benefits) at Sunnyvale, and on-call at Mountain View Public. Election Day was June 10th and Proposition 13 passed by a wide margin as I recall. I was one of six librarians laid off at Sunnyvale (case of “last in, first out”). Since I needed a full time job to support myself and my daughter, I had to resign my half time position at the County. Prop 13 went into effect on July 1st so I needed to find ANY job fast. From 1978 to 1992, when I became full time at Mountain View, I worked as a Secretary, at a Sales Order Administration position for a laser company ( Coherent), and as a Technical Documents Librarian at an aerospace company (Lockheed) while continuing as an hourly librarian at Mountain View.

I graduated from SJSU in 1975 and through a personal connection, got the hourly job at Mountain View, which was very lucky. It took another 3 years to find the other positions. It was the old story – without experience, you couldn’t get a job and without a job, you couldn’t get experience. Santa Clara County at that time was giving THE test and you got on a list. They finally got to me 3 years later. Once I had that job, the Sunnyvale job came almost at once. These days, I gather, things are much the same, in that openings are few and far between. Public libraries have had to cut hours and positions and salaries, and cutting staff by attrition and not filling vacancies because of the economy.
-Betsy Carlson, Adult Services Librarian, Mountain View Public Library

In 1993, after a series of annual false alarms, a change in statewide funding protocols called the “ERAF shift” led to funding shortfalls at a number of county libraries in California. This was basically a delayed reaction to Proposition 13. I was laid off from Contra Costa County Library after having worked there full-time as a Library Specialist (roughly equivalent to a Librarian II) for over four years.

On returning to work: I was fortunate and was able to return to full-time work (at Oakland Public Library) after just a couple of weeks of unemployment. It was a very competitive hiring environment, since I was competing against other laid-off experienced librarians from other county systems. I was hired into a comparable classification (Librarian II at Oakland, Library Specialist at Contra Costa) but I took a significant pay cut because I was back at Step 1 pay. Some time later, Contra Costa offered to hire me back from their layoff list, but I decided to stay at Oakland and I’m still here.

On similarities or differences between what it was like then, and what the library job market is like today: I’ve been in the field long enough now to see the job market go up and down several times. I’m not following it as closely as I might be these days, but my sense is that things are a bit better for applicants now than a couple of years ago, though it’s still a better market for employers than for applicants.

- Daniel Hersh, Supervising Librarian for Support Services, Oakland Public Library

I can tell you that Prop 13 meant that my first job was a very low paying private school part-time gig, and that when Prop 13 hit city library budgets (a year or two after it passed), I was laid off from a city library. I was rehired a few months later when someone left.

In general, because of Prop 13 and strained state budgets, cuts came to libraries in bad times. My next layoff was from a county system in 1993. Incredible numbers of branch managers like myself were laid off and then competed for the few jobs left. (I was rehired within a month by a CITY library, as were several other former experienced librarians from affected counties.) I’d have hated to be a newly-minted librarian at that time!
-Anonymous

Cindy MediavillaWhen I graduated from library school in 1977, I was immediately hired by the Glendale Public Library, where I had interned as a student. My job, which was funded by the Comprehensive Employment & Training Act (CETA), consisted of working part-time as the “services to shut-ins” librarian, where I took books to homebound community members. The rest of my 40 hours a week were spent working on the various branch and central library reference desks.

Prop 13 passed at the end of my first year working as a professional librarian. Since I was in a grant-funded position, I was the first person in the library to be laid-off. Another entry-level (non-grant-funded) librarian was also laid-off.

On returning to work: After maybe 3-4 months of being unemployed, I finally got a job in downtown L.A. at Price Waterhouse, where I worked part-time as a cataloger. I had interned at Glendale as a cataloger, so was familiar with the process. At that time (1978), Price Waterhouse had a one-room special library filled with monographs all classified according to Dewey (mostly in the 600s). I was hired to reclassify the books according to a customized system created by Price Waterhouse. I was not enamored of the work, but it was a job, so I didn’t complain. The worst part was commuting to downtown L.A. from Long Beach, where I was living at the time.

In late spring 1979, I applied for a full-time Librarian I job at the Alhambra Public Library. The head of reference there knew my former boss at Glendale and so I was hired roughly a year after being laid-off. I no longer remember, but believe the pay was about the same, but I had much more responsibility at Alhambra. I stayed there for three years.

On similarities or differences between what it was like then, and what the library job market is like today: I see lots of similarities between the job situation in the late 1970s and the situation today. I was also laid-off in 1993 during our last economic recession. Personally, that was a lot more devastating in that I had a lot of family obligations, plus we lost our house. Still, professionally, I was able to find temporary employment right away and was back to full time within 6 months.

Today, the employment picture is lot more bleak. Many of my students end up being unemployed for one or two years after graduation. This is the worst it’s been since Proposition 13. In fact, it may even be worse today: lots of competition for so few library jobs. It breaks my heart that my students–many of whom are stellar–can’t find jobs.
- Cindy Mediavilla, Library Programs Consultant, California State Library, and Lecturer, UCLA Department of Information Studies

Maybe this way; I watched it happen, and it was gradual as the state slowly contracted; first nothing then on and on with cuts. The unfinished highway projects, like in front of SFO the freeway to nowhere for years. The state robbing the counties and the cities for property tax money and the different impound accounts…sigh.

The school librarians were the hardest hit, but it was not overnight. So the statue law says the schools have to have a library, not that they have to staff it. If you live in Chappaqua, New York you pay $ 12,000 property tax on a $200,000 house in the 80’s and a further $18,000 in school taxes(no I didn’t make a mistake). Property owners don’t want to pay for things they don’t decide on, or they don’t perceive as value for money. I was the last generation where fiction was put around non-fiction on the shelving because it was worth less, and the librarians told you what you could take out-literally the public librarians told an older teen that book is not for you.

Whole generations were alienated at the library and then by Pat Brown’s then Regan then Jerry Brown’s public policies and wanted spending to stop so then you had Prop.13. By the way I am very liberal, but I saw how it went down. I heard people complain; people who spent $55,000 on a house and all of sudden after 6 years were paying $4,000 a year taxes a percentage lower than New York, but still high compared with the value of the house, and salaries here were lower on the left coast.
-Anonymous

Joni BodartI was a YA librarian in the Bay Area when Prop 13 was passed. I had been fortunate to change jobs just six months before, going from Alameda County Library to Stanislaus County Free Library, and as a result, did not lose my job when ACL closed all its branches. The director in Modesto was determined not to lay off any full time professional staff, so did other cuts. But I can still remember how devastating it was for my friends still at ACL, and how they struggled to support themselves.
-Joni Richards Bodart, Associate Professor, School of Library and Information Science, San Jose State University

In February 1977 I started graduate school to become a librarian. In March 1977 I was hired as a librarian for the Buena Park Library District. At the time they did not require a library degree for librarian but they were looking to upgrade the standards. I was very fortunate to be able to work as a librarian during library school and being able to apply what I learned. I was also very fortunate working for BPLD. As and entry librarian, they had me working in every department giving me well-rounded experience to go with the degree. After Prop 13 passed, I was one of the first to be laid off. I still had a year of library school to finish, but need to work full-time.

I had a friend in library school that had already graduated and was running a small business setting up libraries for business. She also maintained these libraries. She hired me as a cataloguer. This was part time work that I did at home and I was able to speed up my graduation by taking more classes a semester. Later that year I was able to get a part-time reference librarian job at Santa Ana Public Library. I worked both part-time jobs until I graduated in 1980, the last graduating class from the Cal State Fullerton Library School.

It was a difficult time to start this career, there were hundreds of applications for new jobs. So I count myself very lucky to have gained the experience I did while going to library school.

After graduation I moved out of state and worked in a small community college library for about 5 years before moving back to California. I worked for the same library company. This time actually going to the libraries to maintain them. Later I taught at a small Christian school in San Clemente, setting up a library for the school that help get the school accredited. In 1994, someone took a chance on me, once a again, and I started work for OC Public Libraries as an extra help librarian and then as a children’s librarian. In 2004 I promoted to senior branch manager. In 2008 started my current position at the El Toro Library.

My advice to students working on a library degree is to get library experience, even if you have to volunteer. This gives you the edge when you send in an application and/or resume and go to the interview. It will show you if you will like this work. The more experience you have, the easier it is to find a job.

I have been a librarian for 38 years now and have never ever regretted it. I became a librarian because is knew I would be challenged, learn something every day, and provide an essential service to people. It has never been boring and to this day I never know what the day will hold.
- Grace M. Barnes, Senior Branch Librarian,El Toro Library, Laguna Woods Library


If you’re anything like me, and I’m sure we could be twinsies, politics generally put you straight to sleep. But here’s the thing: our work, even if we are academic, or special librarians, is so dependent on the political system. Not just for funding, which is our life blood, but in order to fulfill our missions of promoting things like intellectual freedom, and literacy. I’m trying real hard to keep my eyes open.

I want to take this opportunity to share a few pertinent links with you:

  • Everylibrary is a Political Action Committee (PAC) for libraries. They are running a summer internship, in partnership with Hack Library School. Deadline to apply is March 15.
  • National Library Legislative Day is an ALA event in Washington D.C. that seeks to drum up federal money for libraries. If you know a non-librarian library supporter, they can win an award to attend on a travel stipend.
  • Finally, March 15 is also the deadline to apply for ALA’s Google Policy Fellowship. The Fellow will spend 10 weeks in Washington D.C. researching library and information policy.

If you were affected by the passing of Prop 13, or the ERAF shift, please feel free to join the discussion in the comment section.

If your state has had a similar experience with crippling legislation, please contact me – let me know if you’d like to put together a post about it.

Thanks, as always, for reading. Today’s other post is a discussion of “Is it the worst time ever to be a new library grad?” so if you’ve got opinions about that, please click through and comment there.

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1 Comment

Filed under Further Answers, Op Ed

One response to “Further Answers: How Did Prop 13 Affect You?

  1. Prop 13 was a devastating blow to California, especially California schools. I work for a nonprofit organization who’s sole mission at this time is to reform Prop 13 and save our schools. Please visit our website evolve-ca.org and email me to find out how you can help to fix this terrible mess and restore California to its glory days.

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