Last week, kind readers sent me not only this NYT article about L.S.S.I taking over libraries in Santa Clarita, CA, but this Reason Magazine response to L.S.S.I critics pointing out the many benefits that it has brought to the Riverside County, CA libraries.
The Reason piece claimed the NYT article was “angst-ridden” and implied “that there was something fundamentally wrong with privatized libraries and that libraries are a ‘sacred’ public service that should be protected from companies making a profit on the backs of library patrons.” I didn’t get that from the article, which I thought was very fair to LSSI. If anything was angst-ridden, it was the responses of other people, not the NYT reporter.
And some of the criticism of the outsourcing was strange.
“A library is the heart of the community. I’m in favor of private enterprise, but I can’t feel comfortable with what the city is doing here.”
What does this really mean? “Heart of the community” is vague frippery posing as meaningful speech. And the second sentence isn’t developed enough to understand, either. I can see being in favor of private enterprise in general, but opposed to it in specific instances, but not because something is the “heart of the community.” It sounds like someone who doesn’t have any good reasons for opposing the outsourcing, but opposes it anyway.
“There is no local connection. People are receiving superb service in Santa Clarita. I challenge that L.S.S.I . will be able to do much better.”
This came from a librarian, so it’s not surprising. That “local connection” theme often pops up where L.S.S.I is involved. Such critics make it sound like L.S.S.I will be flying strangers in from Maryland to work every day, then flying them back out again in the evenings. However, L.S.S.I often hires from the staff already working there, and even if not everyone working at the library will live in the surrounding area.
“Public libraries invoke images of our freedom to learn, a cornerstone of our democracy.”
Yep. They sure do! And guess who’ll be paying the bills for the Santa Clarita library? The public! Such criticism ignores the very obvious fact that while L.S.S.I is a for-profit company, their libraries are still publicly funded, and are thus public libraries. L.S.S.I doesn’t set up their own private libraries and start charging people to use them. Everyone rich or poor will still have equal access.
Someone “drew up a petition warning that the L.S.S.I . contract would result in ‘greater cost, fewer books and less access,’ with ‘no benefit to the citizens.’”
This was my favorite. The petitioner in question was last energized into public action in 1969, in relation to the Vietnam War, apparently a similarly disturbing endeavor. What’s missing from the NYT article is whether she had any proof whatsoever for these claims, and whether anyone signing the petition knew any facts at all about the matter. I suspect she doesn’t and they don’t.
While I’m not necessarily a fan of L.S.S.I or the way they run things, I just don’t understand the relentless criticism anytime they move in. Librarians were criticizing them when they took over the Jackson County, Oregon public libraries, and those libraries were actually closed at the time. It was if people preferred Oregonians to have no library services at all to having L.S.S.I services.
I would expect that such outsourcing would be considered a great thing by all the businessy librarians out there. All those librarians who think libraries should be run like businesses, or that libraries have a lot to learn from businesses, or that they should be “marketing” themselves, and other such nonsense should be ecstatic over LSSI. After all, they are a real business! They actually implement all those business innovations the businessy librarians like! Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any lavish praise of L.S.S.I from them.
Critics of outsourcing libraries always evade the real question, and come up with high-sounding nonsense. The only question that should matter with outsourcing is, will it do the same or better job of providing materials and services to library patrons with significantly reduced cost? If outsourcing improves services, or keeps similar services with reduced cost, then who could possibly object?
Given that the libraries are publicly funded and continue to have a mission to serve the community, then it’s hard to understand the sappy “heart of the community” or “cornerstone of a democracy” sentiment. If done right, the libraries will be there providing the same or better, quite probably with the same people working in them.
Any objections from librarians are irrelevant, because libraries are their to serve library patrons, not librarians. Libraries shouldn’t be workfare for the incompetent. Communitarian and democratic objections are nonsense; the main objections are by library unions and their members, who don’t want to do the same work for less pay, or more work for the same pay.
Most people not in public sector unions aren’t very sensitive to the complaints of those unions, though. Private sector unions organize against private companies, because their interests compete and employees have little power without unions. Unions organize for things, but they also organize against the interest of their employers.
Thus, public sector unions organize for their own interests against the interests of their employers: the public. The only reason public sector unions have been so successful is that they’re organized and focused and the public isn’t. Add to this the unwillingness of public sector unions to attach pay to performance or to remove incompetent employees, as well as public sector pensions more generous than most of us get and raises that seem to keep coming even when most people aren’t getting any, and it’s even more difficult for the public to sympathize.
Again, this is an “if,” but if outsourcing provides the same or better service for less money, then it is in the public interest to outsource. If outsourcing doesn’t do this, then it isn’t in the public interest. The public interest is served by having good libraries, but not necessarily by having unionized staff members.
So, given the condition that outsourcing library services provides the same or better materials and services to library patrons at a reduced cost, how could librarians who have the interest of the patrons in mind possibly object?