A kind reader sent this article asking, are privatized public libraries so bad? The answer, as with so many questions, seems to be, it depends on who you ask.
The writer is writing as a library user. Examining the Santa Clarita, CA library after it was taken over by LSSI, she seems to conclude that not only is the library not bad, but it’s a bit better than it was before. There are more books, more computers, longer hours, and all of the general library goodness libraries like to provide.
The ALA is very hostile to library “privatization” (or, as I would say, outsourcing), but they don’t necessarily give their real reason for being so. They claim outsourcing libraries is always a bad thing. If a group considers only evidence that will help their cause and none that will harm it, then it’s a group you can ignore on the issue, whether it’s LSSI or the ALA.
The author of the ALA study on why library outsourcing is always a bad thing is even quoted in the article.
According to the article, “the privatized libraries she looked at seem slightly less good than average. But, she’s careful to note, most of the libraries are in distressed districts, so it’s hard to know how they would do if they weren’t privatized. Often, she says, it’s difficult to tell whether a library has been privatized or not.”
Difficult to tell if it’s been privatized or not. Think about that one for a moment. For the people using the library, it usually just doesn’t matter. Oh, occasionally some patron who romanticizes libraries will wax poetic about the public in public libraries, but for the most part people don’t care. Being open to the public is what makes the libraries public, not where the library staff get their direct paycheck from.
One thing that heartens me about the ALA treatment of this issue is its unusual political savvy and its consideration of librarians and not just libraries.
Politically, the ALA is obtuse, even when it might be correct. For example, the ALA speaks out on Internet filters and sounds like it’s defending kiddie porn. It talks a good game about “banned” books and censorship, when the rest of the civilized world knows there’s no such thing. The ALA tries to make us fear censorship anytime some school library in Hicksville USA removes a Harry Potter book. That’s crafty, but dumb.
With the outsourcing issue, the ALA is being crafty is a different way. First, there’s the repetition of “privatization,” which is something of a scare word for a lot of Americans, at least those that don’t make their money by privatizing everything in sight. Outsourcing might be seen as just as bad by those people whose former jobs are now filled in India or China, but maybe not as bad by most.
Then there’s the concern for library service that the ALA appears to show. This is completely consistent with all their mission statements. They’re the American Library Association, not Librarian Association, and their concern is only with how good library service is to the American people, not the fate of librarians.
Where the argument starts to break down is with articles like this one about an LSSI library. Outsourcing doesn’t always lead to bad service. Claiming that it does is just being naive or self-serving. That’s why it can’t be the real reason librarians oppose it.
Librarians oppose outsourcing library services because it’s bad for librarians.
How can LSSI provide decent,and occasionally even superior service to the public for less money? Easy, it significantly reduces the pay and benefits of librarians and library workers. Problems solved!
“The bulk of the lower costs, both for the city and LSSI, comes from cutting the benefits previously afforded to librarians. Santa Clarita’s library staff has been removed from the state’s pension plan, and must instead contribute to a 401K. According to the American Libraries Association, this is the main reason library staffs tend to oppose privatization.”
Of course it’s the main reason! I’d oppose outsourcing my library if it meant my pay and benefits would be reduced. Lower pay, no pension. This, I would say to myself and probably many others, sucks.
It does suck, and it is the main reason librarians oppose outsourcing to LSSI, and I believe it’s the real reason the ALA opposes it, regardless of their focus on service to library users. If library service improves, that’s ignored, because it’s not the real reason the ALA opposes it.
And what are librarians to do who oppose their library being outsourced to LSSI? I think I’ll save that discussion for my next post.