Wrangell’s public library.
(Sage Smiley / KSTK)

Wrangell’s long-time library director is retiring, and the borough is looking for a replacement. After advertising the position for over two months and receiving a few applicants, the borough decided to pull the job posting and cut the salary. 

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The namesake of Wrangell’s century-old public library, Irene Ingle, once said: “A town can be no better than its school and its library.” 

But the island’s public library is about to lose some funding – Wrangell’s borough assembly voted 5-2 at its last meeting (May 23) to reduce the starting salary of its public library director position by just under $12,000 per year, even though the job description did not change. It makes the library director the lowest-paid department head position in the borough. 

Borough Manager Jeff Good told Wrangell’s assembly that he’d recommended the change because the library position doesn’t have the same volume of work as other department director positions. 

“As far as the responsibilities, there’s definitely the responsibilities there for [the title of] ‘Director,’” Good told assembly members, but added: “The volume of work, compared to what other directors have at the same [pay] level, it’s not the same as some of the ones compared to the same level. So that’s my concern, is, just from a quality standpoint, making sure that [it’s] the same level of work, same volume of work for the same pay.”

The change doesn’t affect the pay of outgoing Library Director Margaret Villarma, who’s set to retire at the end of June. But it will affect Villarma’s replacement.

Local author Bonnie Demerjian called in to the assembly meeting to speak against downgrading the position. 

“Diminishing the position will make it difficult to attract the professional expertise that a public library demands,” Demerjian stated. “Strong communities such as Wrangell want, and need, the services that a public library provides.”

Demerjian cited surveys from the Pew Research Center that show the vast majority of Americans 16 and older say their local library has a major impact on their community

“The city has had no difficulty in funding several new positions this past year,” Demerjian added, concluding: “I ask counsel to think hard about devaluing one of Wrangell’s most welcoming, enduring and cherished institutions.”

In a letter to the assembly, current Assistant Librarian Sarah Scambler protested the change. She’s a candidate for the library position, and has worked as assistant since 2016. She said the library logs tens of thousands of visits every year, and provides not only books for checkout but also hosts multiple reading events and supplies internet for thousands of patrons. 

Mayor Patty Gilbert and assembly member Ryan Howe voted against cutting the salary.

“The library is sort of precious to me,” Gilbert said during assembly discussions, “So this is a very difficult decision on my part.”

Gilbert acknowledged that the assembly directed the borough manager to review positions and inefficiencies in local government. But she said it caused her some heartache.

“The library has – in my mind during the budget process – has always been taking hits,” Gilbert said. “I mean, heavens to Betsy, we denied them carpet for a couple of years, I figured they were going to start hooking rugs and going to town on that.” 

Gilbert noted that during the pandemic, the borough chose not to fill a previous library position, cutting staff and working hours. 

She compared the open hours for the library and Nolan Center, which houses the municipal museum, movie theater and event space. 

With three full-time employees and a number of part-time workers, Gilbert said the Nolan Center is open to the public for 44 hours in 6 days, whereas the library with one full-time and one three-quarter-time employee and a couple of part-time workers is open to the public for 34 hours in 6 days.

She suggested a smaller starting salary cut, of just under $7,000 per year, but that wasn’t supported by the rest of the assembly. 

Assembly member Dave Powell said he didn’t want to question the decision-making of the borough manager. 

“The way I look at this is: I look at us as approving or disapproving what our city manager has done and what we have asked him to do,” Powell said, continuing: “I’m not professional on what the library does, or the Nolan Center does, or anything, but it is his job to come back to us with recommendations and make these recommendations. Because he’s the guy with the feet on the ground. So for us, I have a problem for us to go against what we pay our city manager to do.”

Most other assembly members agreed. 

The assembly didn’t discuss the potential impact on staff retention – the position has traditionally been a long-lived one. The borough took over the library in 1975. There have only been three head librarians since then – the library’s namesake Irene Ingle, Kay Jabusch, and current librarian Margaret Villarma. 

Wrangell’s public library has been a community institution for over a century – it opened on Halloween of 1921. 

In recent years, the library has relied in part on collaboration with the local tribal government and outside grant funding to support part-time workers and technology upgrades.

As the borough continues the search for a new department head, the library is gearing up for its summer reading program. Librarian Margaret Villarma wrote in a report to the assembly that the library has secured a $1,000 donation from the Stikine Sportsmen’s Association as well as over 100 prizes from local businesses, and a $3,000 grant from First Bank to help with program costs. 

Borough manager Jeff Good says the position, with the salary change, will be advertised for about a week – beginning May 24 and ending June 2 – and the borough will notify previous applicants of the change. 

Get in touch with KSTK at news@kstk.org or (907) 874-2345.