A recent ALA document called Keep Public Libraries Public tries to lay out the issues regarding library “privatization,” or what most of us would call the outsourcing of library operations.
Of course, the ALA document wants to make a distinction between the two, so they can claim that outsourcing is privatization, presumably since privatization sounds so much worse to librarians.
This is similar to the way the ALA turns a book challenge in a school library into “censorship.” They prefer to win arguments by redefining words everyone knows the meaning to instead of having good reasons. In the rest of the world, we know that privatized government agencies are no longer funded by the public. Hence the “private” part. You’d think librarians would look words up in dictionaries instead of just making up definitions that suit them.
Privatization usually means that service previously owned and operated by the government is sold or leased to a private corporation, which then has to generate its own revenue. Outsourcing can either be considered the mildest form of privatization, since some services are operated by private companies, or in contrast to privatization, since the public is still footing the bill.
“Keep Public Libraries Public” does neither, though it does make a distinction. Supposedly:
Outsourcing involves transfer to a third party, outside vendor, contractor, independent workers, or provider to perform certain work-related tasks involving recurring internal activities that are not core to the mission of the library.
Privatization is the shifting of library service from the public to the private sector through transference of library management and operations from a government agency to a commercial company.
By defining outsourcing and privatization strictly within the context of libraries, and finagling the definitions somewhat, the ALA can claim that having some private company manage a library’s cataloging is merely “outsourcing,” while a city having a private company manage its library services is somehow “privatization.”
That talk about “core services” is where the shaky definition comes in. Libraries aren’t a “core service” of city or county governments. They’re distinct services separate from the core service of government, and thus can be outsourced without being privatized.
Conveniently, “The definition of “privatization” was derived from the 1998 deliberations of the American Library Association’s Outsourcing Task Force,” since the Outsourcing Task Force has the magical ability to make words mean whatever it wants.
For another perspective (funded by the ALA), consider this study, The Impact of Outsourcing and Privatization On Library Services and Management. From the Executive Summary:
While the team intended to adopt the definitions of outsourcing and privatization that had been posited by the ALA Outsourcing Task Force (OTF), in the event we found the definition of privatization rendered the establishment of operational definitions impossible. Noting that the OTF itself was unable to adhere to its own definition, we elected to limit the definition of privatization to instances where control over policy was relinquished to a vendor. In that we found no such instances in our study, we limited our focus to outsourcing in its various forms.
That’s very curious, isn’t it, that the OTF couldn’t adhere to its own definition of privatization. That’s because it’s a sloppy definition, as the “Impact” study realizes. Even their more workable definition is still disputable, since such libraries would still be publicly funded. Nevertheless, they found no instance where control was completely handed over to a vendor.
That study looked at outsourcing from cataloging operations to the management of libraries by LSSI. And its findings?
We found no evidence that outsourcing per se represents a threat to library governance, or to the role of the library in protecting the First Amendment rights of the public. We found equivocal evidence with regard to the maintenance of a quality workforce. It appears that the issues we identified may be more indicative of broader trends of library staffing than byproducts of outsourcing. We found no evidence that outsourcing per se had any significant negative impact on interlibrary cooperation.
In general, we found no evidence that outsourcing per se has had a negative impact on library services and management. On the contrary, the evidence supports the conclusion that outsourcing has been an effective managerial tool, and when used carefully and judiciously it has resulted in enhanced library services and improved library management. Instances where problems have arisen subsequent to decisions to outsource aspects of library operations and functions appear to be attributable to inadequate planning, poor contracting processes, or ineffective management of contracts.
A detailed study. No evidence that outsourcing (or “privatization” if you want to use the flawed but loaded definition of the OTF) in itself caused any problems or represented any threat to the library’s public function.
If the ALA was still going to oppose outsourcing, er, privatization, you might think they would present some evidence of the grave danger it poses for democracy, or something like that. In fact, “Keep Public Libraries Public” would seem like the perfect place to present that evidence, don’t you think?
You can scour that 16-page document and find absolutely no evidence whatsoever that outsourcing, or even privatization, in itself harms library services to the public in any way. Opposition to an action with no evidence that the action is harmful at all is kind of irrational.
The closest the document comes is this: “Some city and county governments cancelled or did not renew their privatization contracts after officials realized that they could save money by keeping library services in-house, or that the company failed to pay bills on time or requested to increase the budget.”
Okay, some did, but most did not. However, look at the reasons they cancelled the contracts. Not because the outsourced libraries weren’t providing the services they were supposed to, but purely for financial reasons.
Instead, we get a list of questions and talking points to consider when a government is considering outsourcing its library services. As a list of questions to consider, the document is excellent, and any government using those questions should come out with a better contract if it decides to go with outsourcing. It’s just not an argument against outsourcing as such.
Most of it has to do with reasons that have no relations to libraries in themselves, like the reasons some contracts were cancelled.
The only talking point related to the purpose of libraries comes first:
Democracy depends on a well-informed and well-educated society in order to be self-governing. Public libraries provide access to an infinite array of ideas both present and past, our world’s history, our literary heritage, and learning resources for people of all ages. Today, access to 21st-century technologies has become increasingly critical for global networking, information access, and the routine tasks of individual commerce. Public libraries provide this access to all who use them without regard to means or background. Without access to these technologies, the digital divide grows deeper; more people are left further behind, and the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” widens. Libraries continue their traditional role of connecting people with the resources they need to be fully participating members of society. Because libraries are critical to the public good, they should remain in the public domain.
That sounds very grandiose. Of course, the public has always been stubbornly resistant to being informed or educated in order to be self-governing, so if democracy really depends on a well-informed and well-educated society, then so much the worse for us.
But there’s no evidence or argument whatsoever that outsourced libraries don’t provide access to information for everyone who wants it, which is probably why the rest of the document focuses on accountability and transparency of public funding and that sort of thing.
If the ALA opposes outsourcing of public library management so much, there must be a reason, but whatever that reason is has nothing to do with the provision of library service. Maybe if they said the real reason they opposed outsourcing, they know it wouldn’t convince any governments not to outsource.