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03.07.09

Jennifer Aniston's $50K Hairstyle vs. Librarian Pensions

So it’s come to this: New York paparazzi are chasing down elderly librarians—and turning them into scapegoats for our collective recession rage. Barbara Goldsmith on how our society rewards the wrong heroes.

OK, an economic tsunami has engulfed us and every day more money, jobs, homes, security, self-esteem, and international power has washed away. In its wake is rage and a need for retribution. It’s hardly surprising that the New York Post has been featuring daily articles on “eye-popping scams” and gigantic financial corruption. But last week, among them was “Fat in the Libraries,” which protested the fact that two senior management employees of the New York Public Library receive annual pensions of $184,498 and $188,846. The subhead read, “Library retirees’ serious ca-sssh” which made one assume that this was hush-hush, and the library was out of line for having set this level of compensation.

In fact, it didn’t. The pensions are mandated by the State Pension Authority and these employees came in under Tier 1 of the New York State Employees' Retirement System, which only applies to those hired before 1972. That means they had worked 37 years or more. The Post also noted that other pensions for New York Public Library retirees ran to $21.6 million for some 1,128 people. Using the Post’s own figures (which they did not break down), a simple calculation comes to $19,000 annually per employee, but that wasn’t the spin they wanted.

There’s little doubt that our society is one that rewards gladiators, stars, fame, and idols, who we worship for a time and then destroy and move on.

Just as they did at Bernie Maldoff’s house, the paparazzi plunked themselves outside the 100th Street apartment house of Mary Conwell, who had been the director of 84 of the NYPL branches. As for Priscilla Southon, who had been the senior vice president for human resources and had dedicated 40 years of her life to the library, she was caught in a quarter-page photograph looking as startled as a deer in the headlights as she trudged home carrying three shopping bags, one from Grace’s Market and two others containing toilet paper and other such sundries. What was she doing in a paper featuring Madonna and A-Rod, Jennifer Aniston’s $50,000-a-week hairdresser (no complaints there), Bernie Madoff, and the scandalous Page Six?

What indeed? And it’s not just the Post that’s salacious. Last week the New York Times, a newspaper whose motto is “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” turned blue with a feature on a swingers' club in Brooklyn, complete with an accompanying online link that gives a 360-degree view (like those you see when looking at upscale real estate) of the sexual cribs, a buffet table, sadomasochistic equipment, coffee urns, and shabby leather chairs.

There’s little doubt that our society is one that rewards gladiators, stars, fame, and idols, who we worship for a time and then destroy and move on. Warren Buffett has been “the Oracle of Omaha” but he’s slipping, Madonna is almost a has-been, but others will soon take their place. Over the years, we’ve come to have a Rabelaisian appetite for this mental junk food. Maybe it’s not good to digest this stuff because it gives us a skewed sense of values and we become subsumed in an unreal world. The line between reality and illusion vanishes. We starve for that which makes us strong.

All this leads to the greater question of why teachers, librarians, scholars, and such—the very people who hold our present and future education and self-worth in their hands—are so undervalued? What kind of legacy are we leaving to our children when the ability to move up in a competitive world is denied them? If two librarians are given enough money to live comfortably (not lavishly) after decades of dedication, why is that a cause for opprobrium? When asked, Ms. Conwell told me that at last she has the time and money to study Spanish, attend art classes and occasionally go to the theater.

The answer, of course, is as complicated as why we go to war, but the Post story does give us a clue. In the readers’ responses, one wrote, “A-Rod sells tickets at an average cost of $60 per game and doesn’t get ANY retirement pay from TAXPAYERS. How many tickets do librarians sell?” The answer is self-evident. What these people give cannot be quantified in dollars. If you are fixated on the power of money, what credit goes to a Mary Cronwell, a trained childrens’ librarian who in her capacity as head of the branches fought a little-observed and unremarked-upon battle at the Schomberg Branch with the drug dealers on the corner and won by keeping the kids occupied with reading and special programs. I know about this because I’ve been a trustee of the library since 1983. Also, I’m convinced that Ms. Southon could have made at least ten times her pension (she’d probably have received a “golden parachute”) if she’d gone to a place like Goldman Sachs.

Vartan Gregorian, a former president of the NYPL, called it “The University of the People,” and libraries are just that and more, particularly now in responding to this economic crisis. The Mid-Manhattan Branch is buzzing with librarians helping people find jobs, write resumes, and learn how to present themselves properly in an interview. Librarians are giving them the same attention they gave a young man named Barack Obama, who found his first job right there through this free service. The library provides free computer and English-language classes, and free links to the Internet. There’s even help in filing your tax return. In the last three months of 2008, 4.5 million New Yorkers used these library facilities.

But it’s not just libraries: It’s any educational institution that can transform a society. Need we hark back to the G.I. Bill after World War II, which enabled veterans to go to college and become the outstanding leaders of the last century? The educational picture in New York is bleak. Because money is scarce, many of the public schools in our poorest neighborhoods are now so overcrowded that they are operating at double their capacity. Mayor Michael Bloomberg says there has been a great improvement in education in that 47.2% of black students now graduate high school, 43% of Hispanic students and 23% of English-language learners. That may be an improvement over the dismal past, but it’s not great.

Our president has ambitious plans for education, but this won’t happen unless we get behind our representatives and pressure them to get our priorities straight, and if you’re looking for heroes and heroines, this whole country is full of them—unsung, underappreciated, and underpaid teachers who tutor after-hours for free, spend their weekends correcting papers, who use their own money to buy supplies and sometimes food for their students. I don’t want to sound preachy, and I know that in tough times cash is king and fantasy elements are strong because they provide escape and diversion from the general gloom. But to put it concisely, we need to “get real.”

Barbara Goldsmith is the bestselling author of five award-winning books.  Barbara has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was recently designated a “Living Landmark” by the New York Landmark Conservancy.