Annoyed Librarian
Search LibraryJournal.com ....
Subscribe to LJ
Inside Annoyed Librarian

The Real Question on Outsourcing Libraries

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?

PrintFriendlyEmailTwitterLinkedInGoogle+FacebookShare

Comments

  1. Bruce Campbell says:

    I APPROVE THIS MESSAGE.

    From the article
    “A lot of libraries are atrocious,” Mr. Pezzanite said. “Their policies are all about job security. That’s why the profession is nervous about us. You can go to a library for 35 years and never have to do anything and then have your retirement. We’re not running our company that way. You come to us, you’re going to have to work.”

    Sign me up. I’m sick of working with schlubs who couldn’t run a hot dog stand.

  2. Rachel says:

    While I think there are some people panicking and making the privatization out to be something worse than it is– I never understand criticism about people wanting to protect their jobs or their benefits. Who in their right mind would not want to protect their livelihood, especially when they’ve taken specific efforts to pursue a career they care about? Who would say, “Yes please take my pension away. I don’t deserve it”? Maybe some of it is motivated by greed, but you can’t tell that unless you know the person well enough. Wouldn’t both the lazy person who doesn’t do their job and the person who goes above and beyond both want to protect what they have?

    Sounds like this company is assuming that no librarians do any actual work– and based on Pezzanite’s comments in the NYT article I’d say he needs to work on being more diplomatic towards librarians if he intends to recruit the best ones to work in the libraries his company takes care of.

  3. FreakyLib says:

    I interviewed for a job with an LSSI-run library, and it was extremely nice, well-run, and professionally operated. The salary and benefits were excellent, but it’s true, they do expect a lot from their employees. I’m sure it would have been a good place to work.

    The only difference in that interview vs. the other interviews I went on, is that in addition to interviewing with the library director and management team, I also had to interview with a representative of LSSI.

    I think Mr. Pezzanite’s comments have a basis in reality and that’s what has gotten some librarians’ panties in a twist. There are a number of library employees who do nothing except drink coffee and gossip, while waiting for the day they can retire. There are also plenty of librarians who work very hard and care deeply about their jobs and their communities.

    At any rate, I don’t see the problem with LSSI. I chose not to work for them – but it had nothing to do with the company and everything to do with another opportunity being a better fit for me.

  4. Monty says:

    I agree with the premise of the article. I could actually see some benefit to privatized public libraries. For instance, private business will more likely reward hard workers and ingenuity rather than the seniority game that it is now.

    Also, a public library is plagued with red tape and rules preventing the dismissal of incompetent or disruptive employees. There are quite a few people that work in my library system that really should not be with us anymore for their public temper-tantrums or outright unwillingness to work. Unfortunately, there is not a whole lot we can do managerially about getting them to move on.

    There is only one part of the AL’s piece this morning that I disagree with: “Thus, public sector unions organize for their own interests against the interests of their employers: the public.” I have heard this type of analogy before and I think it is false. The idea is that the public represents the shareholders of the “Public Library” company and the mayor, council or managers are the board members and hold the reigns. This is idyllic in the same way that “the customer’s always right” or “separation of church and state” or “the law is blind”.

    The fact is, at the public library level, our elected officials are bureaucrats who work for money and favor from special interests (much like any other politician). The special interests who have money tied into government are the shareholders while the public, just like in private companies, are the costumers. While public libraries “strive” to serve them, the fact is we serve our management first and while costumers certainly can vote, they also vote with their feet when it comes to private industry (and about as often – think BP or Toyota). Most small towns and counties are owned by corporations and business and “successful” politicians know who writes the checks come election time.

    I am sure I could make this argument better, but I think it gets my idea across.

  5. Midwest SciTech Librarian says:

    So, does this mean that academic librarians are advocating for the removal of the tenure system so that university administrators can invite LSSI to take over and cut your pay and benefits? I’m sure they can do just as good a job as you can for a lot less money. Let’s save money for your clients, the students. University of Phoenix for everyone!

  6. Emma Goldman says:

    Yeah, that privatization thing has really worked out well. Capitalism is not only destroying the earth, with its insatiable need for endless growth, but it is impoverishing the middle and working classes in this country.

    Yeah, let’s privatize and outsource more. Brilliant move! Why should anything be “public” anymore? Jeebus.

  7. Emma Goldman says:

    Public libraries do a fine job–and regardless what these privatizers think–we DON’T sit on our asses all day drinking coffee. Talk about stereotypes. The only people I see sucking off the public trough are the amoral banksters and corrupt politicians. These criminals haven’t done an honest day’s work in their entire life!

  8. I’m a public librarian. With my fat, excessive, undeserved government salary, I’m about the only person in my town who can afford to buy anything or go out to a restaurant.
    In fact, restaurant owners regularly press their noses to their windows hoping to catch a glimpse my well-fed ass as it exits my vehicle and waddles up their walkway. “Look, here comes the librarian!” they say each time. “We will be able to eat tonight after he leaves a precise 16% tip. Those librarians are so good with math.”
    So when libraries are privatized, you can see that everyone suffers. Librarians are the few who can go to the movies or purchase iPads. We truly are the heart and huge ass of the community.
    (let’s see who has no sense of humor — wait for it…)

  9. The biggest (well, one of them) question that I have about this whole situation is the reason why a for-profit entity would want to run a library. I was not aware that the library would still be publicly funded (makes sense), but how in the world is this company going to make money? Libraries don’t make money. Do they take the allotted funding, pay people less and pocket the difference?
    Can someone explain how it actually works?

  10. Spekkio says:

    First:
    I can’t believe that nobody else pointed out AL’s grammar error. Quote: “Any objections from librarians are irrelevant, because libraries are their to serve library patrons, not librarians.”

    Second:
    Yes, practicality, efficiency, and cost are perfectly valid considerations. But what about ideals? Philosophy? As Lawrence Lessig has argued, there are things and places that we, historically, have not wanted to submit to the vagaries of the free market. We don’t submit religion to the market – and people get deeply uncomfortable when the market enters the equation (see Scientology, cults, scams, etc). A lot of people get worked up about combining sex and the marketplace (prostitution, pornography). Same goes for education (see the Senate hearings on for-profit colleges), police, fire, etc.

    Third:
    OK, so apparently LSSI has worked out well so far. How do we know that it will continue? What assurances do we have that the market won’t eventually corrupt these libraries? The free market sure does a bang-up job in health care – pushing innovation (outpatient liposuction!), keeping costs down (all those bankruptcies!) and spreading the benefits to everyone (all those deaths!). And how ’bout that military-industrial complex? Private contracting has done a real bang-up job in the Middle East in the last decade, too.

    Given that past is prologue, I think it should be obvious why library privatization makes people deeply uncomfortable.

  11. Ingrid Fischer says:

    When I first heard of LSSI I thought it may be a promising idea. Then they came to my town to try and take over my library system. I read their proposal from stem to stern, and all it did was promise to do what we are already doing, cut pay and offer atrocious benefits, and use volunteers in place of paid staff. We have an unemployment rate in our area of 15% + and they are going to make anywhere from $500,000 up in profit while putting people out of work? They are going to select books from lists compiled by a person in Maryland? Why should they filter what my library selects? Also, we have heard from a person who interviewed with LSSI, but why don’t we ever actually hear from someone who works for them? If they are sooooo great, why don’t they speak out in support of LSSI?

  12. gatoloco says:

    The privatization of utilities in places like Argentina have turned out quite badly. The World Bank was certain that for profit companies could act in the public interest without harm as long as the contracts were in order. Although not as drastic the same tension exists here. The stability and objectivity that government provides is the basis for a well managed library over many years not just in the quarter LSSI is reviewing. I work for a corporate library and the belief that the private sector usually outperforms government is a farce. I am so dismayed at the antipathy directed at our government and public servants. I think many corporate executives couldn’t last a day in the city halls of New York and Chicago.

  13. Michael says:

    “The biggest (well, one of them) question that I have about this whole situation is the reason why a for-profit entity would want to run a library. I was not aware that the library would still be publicly funded (makes sense), but how in the world is this company going to make money? Libraries don’t make money. Do they take the allotted funding, pay people less and pocket the difference?
    Can someone explain how it actually works?”

    They bid the job like any other government contractor does. If they perform the specifications outlined in the contract and come out with a profit, then bully for them. If they go over the allotted budget, they’re out of luck and the money comes out of their pocket.

  14. Jennifer says:

    I don’t see why AL considers it ‘nonsense’ to market a library. We all know that it’s often one of the first places to suffer from budget cuts in an organization. It’s often judged unfairly because its contributions are often seen as being more abstract than those of other units. Isn’t it foolish not to demonstrate a library’s contributions to the parent organization or users, i.e. marketing and promotion?

    I’m not a ‘businessy’, just practical.

  15. Bruce Campbell says:

    but why don’t we ever actually hear from someone who works for them? If they are sooooo great, why don’t they speak out in support of LSSI?

    Because people at LSSI actually work and don’t have time to read blogs, tweet, etc., maybe?

    Jennifer – AL was calling out the people who talk about how libraries should be like the private sector and saying that these businessy people should be excited about LSSI because they are actually providing an applied business driven model for libraries.

  16. Fat and Grumpy says:

    For me, the objection to privatized libraries is that they aren’t public libraries. Today, in my public library, I work for the citizens of my county. Working for LSSI, I work for LSSI. That’s an important difference. The money that would go to pay investors now goes toward my community’s needs. Maybe not all that efficiently, county administrators and commissioners being what they are, but at least it’s the kind of service I signed up for.

  17. I Like Books says:

    First, let me say that I’m sure LSSI could do a fine job. I assume they know how to run a library, and the people working for them will be motivated by all the things that publicly-employed staffers are.

    But privatization really seems to be a religion, with a faith that anything and everything will be done tens times better and more cheaply if only it were run by a private company. That’s just the way things ought to be.

    In practice, private prisons are no cheaper to run than public prisons. (There’s some debate there, but they get to choose the prisoners they take and still suffer more attacks on prisoners are guards.) I was told by a libertarian how cheap it would be to send a letter if the post office was privatized, but their parcel rates are about the same as FedEx and UPS, and they serve areas that FedEx and UPS won’t.

    Meanwhile, I’ve bought used scientific equipment that came from companies like Intel and Motorola; a department had a budget to spend before the end of the year or risk getting it slashed, so they buy equipment they don’t really need and surplus the old stuff. American automakers needed to be bailed out again because they couldn’t figure out how to compete. I hear stories about private companies run into the ground by inefficient operations.

    Not that public libraries are being run as efficiently as possible. Just that I don’t think private companies will do much better. They don’t run as efficiently as possible, either.

  18. KidLib says:

    I think one of the concerns about “local” is that the company will have some kind of overarching cookie-cutter philosophy of collection and so on, a one-size-fits-all McDonaldization that won’t recognize the individual traits of any given community. But since non-privatized libraries are doing that anyway, the worst it would be is an acceleration of a bad trend that needs to be reversed instead.

    And yes, there are job security issues. That’s not evil. People are allowed to be worried about their livelihoods.

    Mostly, I don’t see much point to it. It’s like the temp agencies that some cities are so enamored of for clerical work. A great big, “Why?” If the public is paying anyway, why not keep the money local rather than sending it off to another city’s big agency?

  19. Lbetty says:

    I work at an outsourced library (non-public) and it’s a pretty good deal for me. I don’t have to pay into a union, I negotiated my own salary and benefits. I get rewarded for innovation and everything isn’t based on seniority.

    Our structure isn’t siloed, so you can’t just hide in the cataloging cubicle and call it a career. I know that many public and academic librarians are dedicated and work hard, but mostly seemed fixed in one functional area — that’s not for me.

    Also, I don’t deal with endless committee meetings for simple, straight forward tasks. I create plans, work on the solution with the customer and then have it carried out. It’s nice to get things done and move on.

    Our central company works on the accounting, vendor relations and loads of stuff that just took up our time. We work with our clients doing work and every year have to defend our contract — so far it gets renewed with a raise for all of us each year. They support continuing education, because it makes me a valuable employee — I’ve never been turned down for any class or conference — as long as I could justify my attendance.

    While I don’t know if privatizing is the cure-all some suppose, it isn’t the end of the world. After all, isn’t the library board supposed to set priorities and service standards and have the private company meet those requirements? The important point, I suppose, for public libraries, is creating reasonable targets and holding the company to it.

    For me it’s worked out well to be outsourced. Sure, I’m not sticking around waiting on an under-funded pension and I don’t automatically get my birthday off. But I have a 401K plan, Ira and negotiated 5 weeks of vacation per year. I’m also not waiting for any of my co-workers to keel over in order to get ahead — my career path is my responsibility.

    Yes, there is risk involved being outsourced, but I’m willing to deal with it.