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

Libraries or Librarians?

A kind reader sent me this opinion article about AB 438, a bill in California that would make it extremely difficult for municipal governments to outsource library services to private contractors, and seemingly impossible to save any money by doing so. The bill has passed the Assembly and is headed to the state Senate.

You can read the article for details, but basically any outsourcing would have to continue to protect union jobs, which is the goal of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the brains behind the bill.

They have a website supporting the bill. The “privatization beast.” Oooh, how scary! It hosts a very tedious video with people saying how great public libraries are, which is somehow relevant to someone, though I’m not sure how, since outsourced libraries are supported by the public and do the same things regular public libraries do.

There is a guy in the video who says, “Public libraries are supposed to be public, not private.” That’s mighty clever. I’d never thought about it that way.

Various city newspaper editorials are against the bill, arguing that the state bill is too intrusive on local affairs, among other things. Given the perpetual budgetary mess in California, it is sort of ironic that the state government is trying to tell local governments how to spend money.

Since there are a number of California municipalities in serious budget trouble, the choice might very well be between contracting with LSSI or closing down libraries. Which should librarians support?

Unions definitely don’t support libraries. Unions support employees. Albert Shanker, former head of the AFT was right when he said, “When school children start paying union dues, that ‘s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.”

The same goes for library patrons. When library patrons start paying union dues, the SEIU will consider their interests.

So which should it be? Outsourcing libraries or closing them? Or raising taxes on people who probably haven’t had a raise themselves in years?

Since we have an ALA conference coming up, this should be perfect fodder for the ALA Council. This is an issue actually affecting American libraries, and would be perfect for the Council to pass a resolution about.

Naturally, since it’s the American Library Association, not the American Librarian Association, the Council should vote for whatever would be best to keep libraries open, not protect librarian jobs until closures force layoffs anyway.

The ALA is supposedly dedicated to maximum access to information. This could clash with the SEIU’s dedication to maximum jobs and benefits for its members.

Considering the ALA has acted against the interests of librarians for years by wooing people into library school with the promise of abundant, but unfortunately nonexistent, jobs, the path should be clear.

How about: Resolved, we oppose any law that could facilitate library closures? Or, we oppose any law that restricts libraries’ abilities to make information as available as possible?

Wait, it could be even better!

Since in the slightly unhinged ALA hive mind anything not purchased by a public library is thus being censored, a law that might threaten library closures by eliminating the possibility of saving them through outsourcing is an intellectual freedom issue. Right?

Thus, the OIF should get involved, and not just the Council. The OIF should issue a proclamation standing up for the intellectual freedom of people in towns around California whose libraries could be threatened in future, and against the heinous censors of the California Assembly and SEIU.

Neither a Council Resolution nor an OIF proclamation would do any good, of course, because no one listens to them, but it would be fun to watch ALA Councilors trying to argue that the jobs of librarians are more important than making sure the public has library service.

Maybe that could be one of those lame “great debates” that keep popping up at the ALA conference. I’d probably skip that one, too.



  1. There’s a simple and elegant solution to the whole problem. Local governments close their libraries rather than outsource them. Suddenly all those union jobs across the state are gone.

    At that point they wouldn’t be putting union jobs in danger if they reopened the libraries a few months down the line under an outsourced model. The union jobs were already gone! Brilliant!

  2. You do know that private sector employees can unionize, right? If library workers want a union, it is their decision alone.

    The staff at the LSSI-run library system in Jackson County, OR are represented by SEIU Local 503.

  3. HERE HERE! Jobs pay dues. higher salaried jobs pay more dues. more dues means more money for union brass. This is the underlying problem with unions in the modern age.

    I think it’s the responsibility of all public employees to give the public the MOST in return for their money. They are our bosses and that’s what they deserve. When we focus on this instead of job preservation, libraries can start to be relevant again.

  4. “[O]utsourced libraries are supported by the public and do the same things regular public libraries do.”

    Not so fast, AL. For some balance to that unsupported point, read this and this, and, while you’re at it, this. Outsourcing public library work to private organizations is not quite the path to library salvation you make it out to be.

  5. Your Friendly Neighborhood Librarian says:

    Isn’t this called micro-managing? I think every municipality should have the right to muck up their library however they want. It is called reaping what you have sown. Or, you get the government you deserve.

  6. I really don’t see how a privatized organization, using taxpayer dollars but not disclosing how these dollars are being used, and running under the guise of a public service but not actually accountable to the public, can be good for libraries or librarians. There is much more to this issue than whether or not library unions are being self-serving.

  7. Spekkio says:

    Lawrence Lessig, in an illuminating TED talk, discusses remix culture from another, more libertarian, point of view. That’s not entirely relevant here…what’s relevant is what he says in the beginning of the talk. In brief: there are places that we do not want the market to go. Not because the market cannot successfully handle goods or services, but because we do not trust the market to do it or we feel that the market should not do it.

    I would argue that libraries are a place that many people simply don’t want to see markets invade. It feels like an unacceptable encroachment – not unlike the idea of turning a house of worship into a for-profit enterprise.

    If LSSI were a non-profit company, like OCLC, maybe folks would be more accepting. As it stands now, I think people will resist library privatization.

  8. “Public libraries are supposed to be public, not private”, I guess he has not looked at all the “private” libraries in PA, and even AZ has two.

  9. From a NYT’s 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.”

    Nice guy.

  10. Toby Higbie says:

    Okay, I get the idea that this post, and blogger, have tongue in cheek. But let’s step back and think about the particular political moment.

    Really what you are saying is that library employees should not have collective bargaining rights (and by extension the same for all public employees). This is the ideology of so many right wingers these days: public employees are lazy and need to work harder because the “public” is the employer. The theory here is that we “the public” deserve the right to exploit our workers just like every other red-blooded American boss.

    The problem with this is that the union members who get decent salaries and good pensions actually live in our communities and pay taxes, which in turn support things like, well, libraries. Fully privatized libraries are by definition aimed at maximizing profit for shareholders. Maybe that’s just not fun to write about?

  11. chi_type says:

    So the only two options are privatization and shutting down libraries? Really?
    OF COURSE we all already know how evil and greedy unions are and how wise and altruistic corporations are and how much better things will be once we can get all these lazy, selfish, overpaid government workers on the unemploymant roles. They just take up tax dollars and don’t pay taxes or put money back into the economy (um, right?) so THAT will probably pretty much clear up this whole Great Recession/economic crisis thingee that was caused by the evil unions while Countrywide was trying to help everybody get a really bitchin’ new house. Glad we got that cleared up! Next!

  12. I would like to address a few things regarding this “hot” issue:

    1. Our society has lost interest in having professional people working for them. They do not want to pay what it takes to have good teachers, good nurses, good librarians, good state workers. They believe they are not getting their monies worth.
    2. The majority of these jobs listed above are held by women. Coincidence?
    3. When you do not protect workers rights, you allow management of ANY organization – public or private – to make hiring decisions based on financial reasons alone.
    4. Will the public recognize what they have lost when they have non-professionals in these fields? No – instead the libraries will simply have fewer patrons. This will convince the local governments that they were right to cut funding. Additional jobs and funding will be cut or libraries will be eliminated.
    5. I am a librarian and I work my butt off! Not only that, but I spend my own money for story time craft supplies and missing series books the library cannot afford to purchase.
    6. The people who will be hurt by not having professional librarians will be the poor, the unemployed, the under-educated – the societal “throw-aways”. There are many people in government today who do not believe these people are valuable enough in our society to give them what they need to be fully functioning citizens.
    7. The jobs being attacked today are those female-dominated fields that provide the nurturing and caring our world needs. They help those who cannot help themselves. They provide to society what people need to feel alive. Cuts to teachers, nurses, librarians, etc. will reduce what makes it a joy to go to school, an intellectual pleasure to use the library, and the relief that can be provided by when someone is ill – knowing the person assisting you is a well-trained professional who is passionate about what they do and is dedicating themselves, not to their paycheck, but to their profession.


  13. @Hedwig-

    The quote is DEAD ON CORRECT, imo. We keep stats we keep to ensure that we have jobs. Almost everything is done at some level to show how important and needed we are as opposed to providing the best service to the public.

    Now, onto the other argument. Are libraries a social service for the poor? Is that what our goal is? Is that what we do? Is it to provide entertainment and (some) education for the poor at the expense of the rest? When did this become a pillar of library philosophy? When did people get the right to the internet? When did people get the right to watch Cars and Saw for free?

    I know it’s not “free”- but it’s much closer to free for those that use it than it is to costing something. I’ve recently figured out (as I’ve posted on my blog) that a small minority of the population drives the library’s existence. This is paid for from the time and income of those who never use us at all. Is that fair? Is that right? What justification is there for libraries to be publicly funded in light of this?

    I just think if we’re truly a public service- some type of entitlement- the arguement should be made and we should be staffed, funded, and directed accordingly.

  14. LibraryGuy says:

    Hey Barb, here on Planet Earth we want trained nurses to take care of us. That’s why they start at $25 an hour around here. The only ones who want to reduce the number of nurses are insurance companies. It may come as a complete surprise, but insurance oompanies aren’t exactly aligned with the general public’s needs.
    Also, most state workers are women? I’m sure you’ve got the male/female ratio for each and every state. Please, if it’s online, provide a link.
    “The majority of these jobs listed above are held by women. Coincidence?” No-you’ve provided a false (at best) or unprovable statement, so it’s impossible to say if it’s a coincidence. My guess is that the reduction in librarians is because they don’t do anything that someone with a few weeks training couldn’t do, and for half the money.
    “The people who will be hurt by not having professional librarians will be the poor, the unemployed, the under-educated” Nice try. No, they won’t. They’ll still be served by dedicated folks who want to do a good job. It’s just that those folks won’t be swelled with self-importance because they have a useless master’s degree. And, since they won’t be wildly overpaid, there may actually be more of them to help.

  15. Is librarianship the only profession filled with so many of its own professionals who look down on their own profession? Do dentists or pharmacists hate themselves this much? (Of course, their too busy making bank to have time to flagellate themselves the way librarians do.)

  16. Michael Collins says:

    I am a great admirer of your posts, Annoyed Librarian, but I do disagree that Unions and an accumulating benefit for staff is a bad or wrong thing. I would also suspect that Librarians and Library Staff are not the reason why many local councils or states are in a dismal financial state.

    Thanks for your column, I look forward to reading your next posting.

  17. Dear Library Guy, Wow…wildly overpaid? Maybe on Mars…but supply me with the stats on that, please?

  18. Randal Powell says:


    Even if the people making major decisions in a library don’t have an MLS or MLIS, they still need to be educated, intelligent people. They need to be people who have somehow acquired expertise in organization systems, collection and retrieval, information behavior, design and evaluation, and preferably, a variety of leadership and technology skills. These skills are not needed by people who checkout your books, but they are needed by people who direct and control a large library.

    I’m not a big fan of credentials myself, because I believe that people should have the opportunity to learn things on their own and demonstrate their competence in an authentic setting, but there is value in knowledge and skill and innate intelligence.

  19. I Like Books says:

    I’m not opposed to outsourcing in principle, but the rewards really need to facilitate the desired outcome.

    There was a library system that was turned over to private management, with several conditions like the number of magazine subscriptions to keep. And so the profit-driven private-sector firm (and therefore by definition, depending on who you ask, is invariably more efficient than any government institution) canceled the expensive (and most useful) subscriptions and replaced them with free advertising-driven subscriptions, regardless of probable use to patrons.

    Maybe a different contract, or an independent budget for acquisitions, or something could have corrected that. But it’s a cautionary tale. Certainly management shouldn’t have to make the choice of the public good or personal enrichment.

  20. disappointedlibrarian says:


    You are obviously posting just to provoke since your retorts are so clearly wrong, but just in case you’re serious:

    -librarianship, teaching and nursing are unquestionably fields dominated by women on this planet, that is earth by the way, and have always been undervalued, as you so astutely opine in your well thought out post.

    -and do you really believe that the most low paid and less educated bodies you propose to put in libraries to serve the public will provide the best service? The more the cheaper the merrier? How about we don’t pay folks at all, get a whole bunch of volunteers (who of course don’t have to support families or pay rent or anything like that) and expect them to know the answers to the most challenging reference questions? But I guess in your world people don’t ask difficult questions that require intelligence and education to answer. Oh my, those arrogant educated folks just have to go and stop sucking at the public teat.


  21. Young Librarian says:

    Unions are stupid (in my very biased, opinionated generalization that was not researched, but based upon anecdotal experience from my youth). I remember when the teachers went on strike in elementary school, they cancelled our spring vacation and shortened our summer to make up for it. When we tried to strike in protest, we got in trouble.

    It happened again in high school. :P

Optimization WordPress Plugins & Solutions by W3 EDGE