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Privatized Libraries: Not so Bad for Everyone

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.

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Comments

  1. pt frawley says:

    Good article.

  2. Amanda says:

    I was impressed by the *dramatic* improvement in library services in the Coachella Valley after LSSI took over. It’s hard for me to oppose privatization as strongly as the ALA would like when I’ve seen firsthand how successful it is in lower-income areas.

    • Amanda – can you share some of the improvements you’ve seen? Also, are you part of the library ecosystem or a patron?

    • Amanda says:

      I’m a librarian elsewhere – I have family in the Palm Springs area. Since I left the area, I don’t use the libraries very frequently. I know that my mom and her relatives are much happier with library service now.

      Many library facilities were expanded and hours extended. There are more bilingual (Spanish/English) staff members, and more programs for Spanish-speaking patrons. Lots more computers. It looks like a lot more books (although I use a small branch when I’m out there, and it’s one of the branches that got a new building – so that may be partially due to the increase in space).

      As a librarian, I love all the parts of my job – but the system I work in isn’t super efficient. It would make a lot more sense to have certain functions – PR, collection development, grantwriting – done centrally by professionals in those areas, rather than scattered randomly among whichever librarians enjoy doing those things. LSSI seems to have figured some of this out.

    • I heartily agree about the idea of centralizing where it makes sense and bolstering local autonomy and authenticity where it is so vitally important. That’s the idea behind my cornerstone proposal for a “National Library Corporation“, similar to NPR and PBS.

  3. davidinvirginia says:

    Public libraries as tax-supported institutions are probably on the way out and the original subscription-based model as “in the day” a possible replacement. I doubt that there is enough profit in a private enterprise public library.

  4. This topic screams out for truthfulness and critical thinking. A few points …

    The phrase “privatizing libraries” is patently false and using the term privatization in any context is unduly partisan. The libraries that have contracted with LSSI remain public (municipally owned and governed). They are simply outsourcing various degrees of library operations. Municipalities contract for services all the time and it’s perfectly reasonable to evaluate the option for public libraries.

    Consciously or not, public libraries are pursuing a low-end service strategy. Andy Woodworth has noted that “the bulk of a librarian’s daily tasks could be performed by someone with a GED.” Very little of what libraries provide today requires specialized skill and new services tend to foreground buildings and equipment rather than human talent. It’s not surprising that cost-reduction strategies from other low-end sectors (e.g. outsourcing) are gaining traction in the library sector.

  5. me says:

    @Jean
    Andy’s article highlights a problem with directors and the leadership of certain libraries. All of the professional librarians where I work serve on community wide committees, undertake special projects (including having several books published, developing initiatives etc.)plan programming for their respective departments, present at conferences, teach classes, perform community outreach etc.

    Aside from when I first started working here I’ve never had to work at the Circulation Desk (As part of the training period new librarians work at every desk to get a feel for how the entire operation runs). It is the responsibility of the administration (and the librarians themselves) to initiate and perform useful tasks that justify their level of education aside from the duties that are performed within normal operating parameters.

    • Me – thanks for the thoughtful reply. In addition to its content, I’m taking it as a reminder to take more care with my words. While I stand by my statements about public libraries pursuing a low-end strategy and most of the work requiring no specialized skill, my original comment did not acknowledge the work you described. Might there be a three (or more) pronged dilemma here?

      - Public libraries pursuing a low-brow strategy (as newspapers do, btw) to drive circulation
      - Library management and staff that do not initiate more demanding work (as you suggested)
      - Librarians not promoting the more complex or demanding work they do and countering popular press accounts that report only the unspecialized work. I wrote about this in 2009 and warned:

      Based on this press coverage, municipal officials and the public — faced with difficult budget choices — might reasonably conclude that people with library degrees are not needed to deliver library services. Indeed, a case might be made that computers and bright people with good customer service skills can do the job.

    • me says:

      I do agree with this statement: “new services tend to foreground buildings and equipment rather than human talent”. We need to do a better job of promoting our reference and research service. I think you’d be surprised at the overall ineptitude of people who consider themselves “internet savvy” at searching the internet not to mention a more complex databases.

      One of the major problems with Google (for example) is that people punch in their search terms and if they don’t find what they need on the first page they generally think it can’t be found. I’d wager that 95% of the time a librarian could find it for them but never gets the opportunity.

  6. Andrew says:

    Here in Melbourne, Australia, there are quite a number public library corporations that arose out of local government restructuring back in the 90s.

    They seem to be working just as well – if not better – than they public libraries run by local governments. They still employ qualified librarians, and some of them are the most innovative in the country, such as Yarra Plenty Regional Libraries and Geelong Regional Libraries.

    What’s more, they don’t seem to be bogged down by all the bureaucratic nonsense that you get when you work for a local council.

  7. Joey says:

    My stomach turned immediately upon reading the first sentence of the linked article.

  8. Pepe Lemieux says:

    Then you all must be oh so pleased by this bill passed last year by Congress:
    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/04/01/962273/-New-Budget-addresses-Library-Privatization-

  9. Overworked Librarian says:

    I am on the fence about this. There is much upset at my library due mostly to ‘bureaucratic nonsense’. The worst of it for librarians here is that we are overworked, underpaid and our concerns and issues ignored. The politicians in the city and on the library board spend most of the public’s money on strategic planning on an imaginary facility in the always distant future. Librarians have to make do with virtually non-existent budget for collection development and no monies for programming. All of this has been before an official break from the city. Once the official impending break from ‘The City’ the board and their consultants will have a more direct and unsupervised access to the money. For these specific people I am working under… I think it’s horrible. It probably doesn’t actually relate to ‘privatization’… the monies are still public funds from a millage. There is an egregious misuse of funds going on… which will probably only worsen.

    • Overworked – organizations tend to shackle their suppliers less than their employees, and I wonder how much of the wasteful noise you describe would go away if LSSI were brought in to manage operations in your library system.

    • Joneser says:

      Jean, it still depends on where LSSI fits into the funding organization. The above example gives the impression that the problem was “The City” and the break means that the Library will be more in control without all of those extra layers. Would LSSI have been able to deal with “The City” in a more effective way?

    • Joneser – When I replied, I was thinking of the truism (at least in my experience) that consultants tell you for a price what your employees tell you for free. So … input on how to make the situation in question more tenable or how to deliver better service, etc might have been accepted from an LSSI operations manager whereas the same input would have been ignored from “Overworked” and her/his colleagues.

      Sounds too like Overworked’s library is collateral damage in a political scrimmage, in which case no reasonable input would matter anyway.

    • Joneser says:

      I totally agree with you on that. I’m “nationally known” (according to others) and I teach a class at the local library school, based on a lot of research and practical knowledge and experience. Do you think I get listened to at my day job, where they could get it for free?

      The answer to that would be “no”.

  10. Elisa says:

    I believe there was a session about this at ALA Annual last year. One of the featured speakers was a woman who led her community opposition’s to LSSI coming to their public library and won.

  11. Michael says:

    Regardless of the exact structure of LSSI ran libraries (quasi-public, private, etc.), outsourcing certain services or the entire library itself sets a bad precedent.

    I love public libraries because they are pretty much the last institution whose mission it is to disseminate all information, not just profitable information. Although the LSSI relationship with public libraries seems to be a win for both the public and the corporation, the fact that corporations are legally bound to increase the wealth of their shareholders is a concern and is counter to the goal of public libraries.

    Where could this lead?

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