Library Issues Personal

Poverty, Libraries, Jobs, Me

A bit earlier today I saw a handful of librarians on Twitter posting a link to a Library Director’s job with what appeared to be an appalling salary of $7.25 an hour.

Each of these tweets have been re-tweeted a dozen or so times as I’m writing this, so people are sharing it. Heck, I clicked through when I saw the salary, curious what sort of place thought they could get someone for that price, and where you could possibly live on that salary.

The answer? Just down the road from where I grew up, that’s where.

Elliot county

So the marker there is the library in question, and the little town north of it that’s circled, that’s my home town of Olive Hill, KY. The library is in the county seat of Elliott County, KY, in a town of just about 600 people called Sandy Hook. Here’s a larger map to give you some additional context about just exactly where this is located.

Elliott County large


This part of the world is where I spent the first 22 years of my life, as a kid and teenager in Olive Hill and then as an undergrad at Morehead State University just down the road. If you check the Google Street View of where the Library in question sits,  it is right next to an elementary school where I played basketball as a boy.

So when I say this, I say it with the conviction of someone who knows: there is very, very little likelihood that anyone posting about this on Twitter has ever seen poverty of the sort that they have in Elliott County, KY. Hell, the entire concept of the “War on Poverty” started just down the road from Elliott County, an hour southeast in Inez, KY, where LBJ launched his famous efforts to eliminate poverty in the US.  Elliott County is the 49th Poorest County by Median Household Income in the entire United States of America. For some more reference, the median household income for Sandy Hook in 2010 was $14,313.

If there is anywhere in this country where kids need a library to help them dream, this is that place.

I was curious after seeing this tweet…

…so I decided to take a look. And if this news report is to be believed, it’s true…the poorest postal code in Canada (B1W, the Cape Breton – Eskasoni First Nation) has a median household income of $19,392 Canadian, or $15,401 US. So there is literally not a single place in Canada that is poorer than Sandy Hook, KY.

With that said: should a library director be paid $7.25/hr? No, of course not. But in this part of Kentucky, believe it or not, that is a decent salary. Not because it is objectively an amount of money that someone deserves for doing their job, but only because the area around it has been forgotten. This part of the world has been given up on by the former industries that sustained it, by the clay and the tobacco and the lumber that were the only reasons money ever flowed into the economy of the area in the first place.

This is a place that I love, this Eastern Kentucky. Even now, decades after I left, I can close my eyes and see the soft clay streaking the soil. I can feel the limestone bones that make up the gentle foothills of the Appalachians. I can smell the warmth of a tobacco barn on a Fall evening.

These are people that need help. I hope they find someone for that job that can not only show the children of Elliott County that there is a wider world, but that just maybe one of those kids will find a way to help save my Eastern Kentucky.

By griffey

Jason Griffey is the Director of Strategic Initiatives at NISO, where he works to identify new areas of the information ecosystem where standards expertise is useful and needed. Prior to joining NISO in 2019, Jason ran his own technology consulting company for libraries, has been both an Affiliate at metaLAB and a Fellow and Affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, and was an academic librarian in roles ranging from reference and instruction to Head of IT at the University of TN at Chattanooga.

Jason has written extensively on technology and libraries, including multiple books and a series of full-periodical issues on technology topics, most recently AI & Machine Learning in Libraries and Library Spaces and Smart Buildings: Technology, Metrics, and Iterative Design from 2018. His newest book, co-authored with Jeffery Pomerantz, will be published by MIT Press in 2024.

He has spoken internationally on topics such as artificial intelligence & machine learning, the future of technology and libraries, decentralization and the Blockchain, privacy, copyright, and intellectual property. A full list of his publications and presentations can be found on his CV.
He is one of eight winners of the Knight Foundation News Challenge for Libraries for the Measure the Future project (, an open hardware project designed to provide actionable use metrics for library spaces. He is also the creator and director of The LibraryBox Project (, an open source portable digital file distribution system.

Jason can be stalked obsessively online, and spends his free time with his daughter Eliza, reading, obsessing over gadgets, and preparing for the inevitable zombie uprising.

30 replies on “Poverty, Libraries, Jobs, Me”

Thanks for this post. There is a sense of entitlement and privilege that lurks the library world on many levels. I *get* that we want a living wage. I also get that all places and people have worth and we should stop screaming about money and do our freakin’ librarianship.

I agree that there is much privilege and entitlment in librarianship that must be recognized and addressed.

However, “do[ing] our freakin’ librarianship” is worthy of being paid. And in this job, which requires involvement with local, state, and national organizations and conferences, this money is worth “screaming about” (also: wanting to make more than minimum wage when you must have an MLS and therefore probably have student loans is not, in my opinion, reflective of the “entitlement” of which you speak).

Some numbers:

1) This job pays, for 40 hours/week, $290/week.

2) The median salary, mentioned by Griffey in his post, is a shockingly low $14, 313/year.

3) This job is paying $13, 920/year. Less than the median for the economically depressed area.

4) Early bird registration for the Kentucky Library Association annual conference is $125 for a KLA member. Membership is $29/year for this position’s salary range.

5) ALA registration, early bird, for members, is $255. Membership is $135/year.

None of this includes travel expenses. So, in order to ethically and professionally meet the requirements of this job, you need to spend, perhaps at least $154 a year and as much as $390/year just to be a professional member and be able to attend conferences. This breaks down to some worrisome statistics.

1) The membership fee for the KLA is 4 hours of work for the person in this position or 10% of their weekly pay. Over a year, it works out to only 0.2% of their salary, but this is not a salary that can afford to have a lot of money left over. If I make $40K in a reasonably inexpensive city, 0.2% of my pay is fine. Here, it seems to me, that it’s not.

2) The conference registration fee for KLA is 17.24 hours of work or 43% of their weekly pay. It’s about 0.8% of their annual salary. So now, between the two pieces of KLA, the person in this position may be paying 1% of their meager salary to be professionally involved, per the expectations of the job.

Just for KLA involvement, without figuring travel costs, this person must spend more than 1/2 a week of pay. That money isn’t going to housing, groceries, transport, student loans, or other things.

So, with this little money, maybe they can live in the area of the library job, but can they be involved as the job requires in the professional organizations of their field? Can they maintain the certification required of the job?

Can they raise a family? Can they do the things they want to do, beyond “freakin librarianship”? I’m doubtful. There is also the question of how much investment you’re asking a person to make in a job because of the needs of the community. I believe in the mission of libraries. I believe in helping people. But I do not believe we are “screaming” about money when we ask for jobs that allow us to pursue our life goals, too. Just as is pointed out with motherhood (to which librarianship has many parallels) you must be healthy in order to be effective in your role.

For instance, I must have a job that lets me support a family. It’s not an option. I already havea a daughter and I’m not going to put “freakin librarianship” above her needs. I simply won’t. If that’s entitlement, then, it is. Librarianship has strong potential (perhaps singularly so) to help people but it cannot be done by people who magically don’t need to eat. I have lived on a salary like this (~18K/year) with a child in an area more expensive than this. I had my daughter then. It was very hard. But, I wasn’t paying student loans and I wasn’t trying to get a professional position that required a master’s degree. I was lucky, so privileged, at that time of my life to have family support (assistance but not money). To talk about privilege, let’s reflect on those people without the kinds of non-monetary assistance they often need just do the basics (eat, live, work).

Asking or, in the case of the tone of this comment, demanding, that librarians put the needs of others before themselves because money isn’t worth “screaming” over is dismissive, unprofessional, and gendered. It does not seem to me that you “get” that we “want” a living wage. We deserve a living wage. Full stop. EVERYONE who works deserves a living wage. Full stop.

To expect librarians to be ok with jobs such as these, even with the fuller context provided by Giffey, is irresponsible. It should not have a stigma to say “I went into librarianship to have a reasonablly good, steady job” or “I love what I do but at the end of the day, I go home and expect to be comfortable.” If we changed the requirements for the jobs, I would feel differently, but we require a slew of skills, experience, and education and then expect people to work for free or very low wages. I will scream about that. That is the grossest entitlement in librarianship – a profession that uses rhetorics of help to exploit people’s labor.

Well said RHB. Also, how would this person afford transportation? The annual salary is barely enough for a base model vehicle and I really doubt this beautiful little town has public transportation.

This is me applauding your comment, shooting off noisemakers and shaking pom-poms. Yes, people need help. But people also need to be compensated for the work they do.

But at the same time, nowhere in the job description does it indicate that this candidate needs to be an ML(I)S holding, degreed professional. Library conferences are one way to get this kind of exposure and support, but it isn’t the only way.They may not even be the best way, particularly when the successful candidate might be a para-professional who doesn’t have an advanced degree (or even a Bachelor’s degree, to be honest).

Perhaps there are avenues that are available to the candidate for this position that those of us who aren’t familiar with this area haven’t been exposed to. I think this would be an excellent opportunity for those of us who are fortunate enough to work in larger library systems (and who are paid well for those positions) to think of a way to *support* this library and its director. What can we do to help?

Well said! Most of today’s librarians have sizeable student loan debt as a result of acquiring the Master of Science degree required for librarianship. This job would probably only appeal to someone who has retired from the profession with a decent retirement package, yet still wants to maintain his/her library skills and talents.

“Even now, decades after I left, I can close my eyes and see the soft clay streaking the soil. I can feel the limestone bones that make up the gentle foothills of the Appalachians. I can smell the warmth of a tobacco barn on a Fall evening.”

Dang Jason – that’s beautiful! You need to write this way more often 🙂

And I totally hear you about the main part of your post. That sounds very similar to some western Kansas library director jobs. They probably don’t require an MLS, some are part time, most of the libraries are much smaller than my garage.

Which is sad. But it’s also a foothold into the world of knowledge, which is a start, too.

i grew up in Kingsport, Tennessee, the grandson of a librarian from Lee County, Virginia both just south of Elliott County. I would love to support the librarian that gets this job with contributions, maybe even a kickstarter for the things he or she wants to do for their community. The world has changed since we left. That librarian will have access to so much super through blogs, forums, etc. even if they cannot join ALA. I hope they get someone that can demonstrate their value well beyond their salary and hopefully build community support for a living wage not only for their librarian but for their community as a whole. Thanks for giving us your perspective Jason.

A very good post, and a reminder of the extreme disparity in our country.
Here I am in southern New Jersey (much less densely populated than north Jersey) in a town of 71,000. We probably have 600 people in the building right now- the whole popn of Sandy Hook KY. My salary is about 6x the median income (of course my taxes and expenses here are probably that much too 🙂
Yes, amazing that the pay rate is minimum wage for the director. And sad. But they deserve good library services, collections, and programs too-

This job is not an insult. It is a sad commentary on the poverty of an area. They are asking for what they are hoping they can get, and know that they may not get. And, basically, a lot of places do not have money. They would love to pay off your student loans. And more programs need to exist for loan forgiveness for working in this kind of community. The fact that they may not be there is not this library’s fault.

If the municipality does not have the money, they do not have the money. In this case, if the average household income is $14,313 (and the distinction between “salary” and “household income” is missed by some–it may take two people working more than one job each to make that $14,313), then this actually may be a well-paying job for the area. One would bet that property taxes on a house in that kind of municipality are not high, and with only 600 people living there (and some of those are unemployed and kids, so not paying taxes) Sandy Hook, KY would not get a tax base that is really going to get any more money than that. In the absence of magic, the money is not there. If you cannot afford it, don’t apply. We have a lot of places around my state of residence, Michigan (my state of birth is Kentucky), that also have extremely lowpaying director jobs. They end up sometimes used as springboards to jobs in more affluent places.

Some libraries will pay for conferences and other professional development but not pay high salaries. It can be standard in poorer libraries. So the assumption that the librarian might be spending conference registration out of her salary is not necessarily valid. Very, very possible, but, further, grants and conference scholarships are sometimes awarded to people demonstrating this level of hardship.

We may not be able to afford to take the job. The community needs a librarian. Those are pretty much independent of each other.

I agree with a lot of what’s said in this article, as well as the comments. This is a nice article, but I take issue with only one part: “But in this part of Kentucky, believe it or not, that is a decent salary.” I have to disagree here. That’s not “a decent salary,” that’s minimum wage. The statement above infers that many are paid below minimum wage; that’s what would make $7.25/hr “decent,” but by law, that can’t be the case. If people are working in Sandy Hook, they have to be paid at least $7.25/hr .

Other than that, I thought the article was very insightful and touching. Libraries are so much more than houses for books, so any place that is privileged enough to have and support one, is a great place.

Yeah, I wasn’t totally clear there. What I meant was “as opposed to no work at all.” Unemployment in Elliott County is currently at 7.5%, and has been as high as 12.8% over the last year. The current US average is 5.7%.

I admit, making the minimum legal amount doesn’t count as “good” in any objective sense. But relatively, compared to the unemployed and part time employed in the county, it might well be seen as better.

…and note that the unemployment rate is based on the percentage of people who are *actually looking for work* and can’t find it; it does not include people who are of working age but are not looking for work. This includes people who are quite satisfied with not having paid employment (e.g.people who wish to be homemakers) but also people who would rather work if they could (people who cannot find jobs that accommodate a disability, people who have given up hope). So the actual percent of adults who don’t have jobs is always higher than the unemployment rate, and can be much higher, depending on the labor force participation rate.

The labor force participation rate in Elliott county is…probably not something you want to look at without a stiff drink.

If people are paid for piecework at a piecework rate, or doing childcare for somebody else, or are working in an unofficial capacity such as yardwork or snow removal type jobs, or are not able to get 40 hours per week at that minimum wage which all of the people responding seem to take for granted, you will get lots of people being paid below the salary of the library director.

This is not a unique situation. It is happening all over this nation. My job title is librarian although I do not have an MLS, I do have a MA in another field. I started this job almost four years ago making a little over eight dollars an hours working thirty two hours a week. My library is in a rural location that is well-below the poverty level. I am the only employee at my library. Even though I now make ten dollars an hour that is far below what the average person needs to live off of. Fortunately my situation allows me to work at this pay grade without many problems. For me salary has nothing to do with it and to assume that anyone applying for this job is in if for the money is foolish. I do my job for the love of the community and for the desire to help the members of my community in any way possible.

Not all libraries are staffed with multiple employees who have specialized fields. It would be nice if that were the case but in rural America you will find many men and women with the title of Librarian or Library Director who may or may not have degrees who are serving their communities in libraries. Sometimes our libraries have only one room but within those walls you will find the same things you find in larger libraries. We have computer centers, eBooks, downloadable audiobooks, we host educational and recreational events and programs for our patrons and communities we even have 3D printers along with other cutting edge technologies. These men and women running these libraries are grant writers, group leaders, community advocates, and so much more. They clean their libraries, decided what purchases to make, they catalog, and then they close the doors at the end of the day and go out serve on committees in their communities. We are doing everything we can to provide the best service to our communities by giving them the same kinds of things they could find in a much bigger library on a much smaller scale.

Yes, these men and women deserve more money. But these people are not doing their job for the paycheck alone. I admire Elliott County for having a library and I hope and pray that they find a Director like the many men and women I know who are striving to better their community one life at a time.

Come on can’t we get over the salary and cloud source some help for this district? I will donate two weeks of vacation time and take them on. I can even be a long distance helper. I’ve been a director for seven years in north east Ohio. I surely have some knowledge that can be of use. I know how to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear…we can innovate on no budget. Use me.

I went to the library website. The resource seems adequate for the population. The incumbent director is well qualified. Most likely wouldn’t be a real expensive place to live. On the plus side, the jobs that I have seen for librarians in the last few years tend to be for library directors. So, if you take a job as library director you would get to help a community out for a few years and have the credentials to move on to a higher paid library directors job elsewhere. You’d be able to sell yourself as someone who did more with less. Besides, who went and got their MLIS because of the high pay of librarians?

Since I currently hold the director position that is mentioned in this blog, I feel the need to comment. I started at the library in Sandy Hook March 31, 2014 knowing exactly what I was getting into. I have been a long time resident of Sandy Hook in the past. I know the poverty. I know the politics. I know the town. I was already in school at UK pursuing my MSLS and working as an intern, for free, in another library near my home. Being able to take a director position and get paid was a much better deal than free and a much better resume experience. Granted, the job entailed much more than my internship but it has also given me a better understanding of public libraries. I love this library. It is beautiful and has an excellent collection that I have worked hard to build. In this year, I have taken a mess that never had a trained librarian and turned it into a living and breathing library that the community actually uses and enjoys. I have written grants to supplement our $13,000 yearly budget that exists solely because of state library funding from KDLA. Yes, my salary is $7.25 an hour. I do not have any benefits with the exception of state retirement. I asked for a raise three times over the last year. I was denied by the Fiscal Court each time. There is no money in Elliott County’s budget. This is a non-taxing library and frankly, the Fiscal Court does not understand that just anyone off the street cannot run this facility successfully. I truly think they believe all I do is put books on shelves and read all day. They will probably never attract another person with an MSLS, but I do have a stack of applications on my desk right now for this position. In fact, I have one from a person that is in a very similar situation to my own when I first started here. Yes, the pay is terrible but this experience has been worth more than any pay they could have offered me. It is all but impossible to get library experience in Eastern Kentucky and this position offered me just that.

I commend your efforts. I read the blog and being a curious person I set out to find more information. Given the pay scale I didn’t know what to expect. What I found was a living, breathing library, with wifi, Internet access and a useable collection. Good luck in your future endeavors and best of luck to your community in finding a good fit for the job.

In addition, I want to point out that the library has also contributed to the cost of my MSLS by purchasing textbooks and providing stipends for portions of my tuition. The library has also covered all costs associated with attending conferences, continuing education, ALA and KLA dues, and any other expenses I incurred while performing my job. The point made about dues and such being a percentage of my pay are moot.

There is no price on the beauty that Nature provides, especially that of Eastern Kentucky.

The Job Description is just missing important details, that’s all –

bonus weekend getaways to fantastic camping, hiking, mountain biking FOR FREE at our mountain filled state parks and roadways in Eastern Kentucky = estimated value $10 an hour compared to flat Illinois or Florida :).

RMH, if the person who gets this job can’t afford to go to ALA, they’ll then be unprofessional and unethical? Really? How elitist is that?

Some communities legitimately don’t have the money to piss away on self-important highfalutin ivory tower capital-L Librarians who think they hung the moon because they’ve got some letters after their name. If this were the New York Public Library choosing to pay its director $7.25 an hour, we’d all have a legitimate axe to grind. But it’s not. *They don’t have the money*. Period. If you can’t empathize with that, that’s on you.

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