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Outsourcing and the ALA

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.


Please note that new comments for all posts on this blog have been closed.


  1. I think the real reason why they’re so opposed to privatization is summed up in a Dan Akroyd quote from Ghostbusters:

    “You don’t know what it’s like out there! I’ve
    worked in the private sector. They expect results.”

    Having an outside company coming in and shaking things up means more accountability for librarians who have been on autopilot for decades and potential trouble for librarians who are trying to make the best of a bad situation but still underperforming. No wonder they’re resistant to having someone come in and shake things up.

  2. YES! Great quote to drive the point home. I am in total agreement with AL on this one.

    I also challenge someone to show proof contrary to what is discussed here. Someone show me, with some measurable stat, where outsourcing library services has negatively impacted the citizens in a meaningful way.

    something other than anecdotes from union members, please.

  3. “Someone show me, with some measurable stat, where outsourcing library services has negatively impacted the citizens in a meaningful way.”

    I see what you did there. You’ve set yourself up to be able to dismiss any evidence that can’t be quantified in just the way you want it packaged. You’re trying to make the subjective objective.
    The issue of public library outsourcing is first a philosophical question before it is a practical one. AL attempts to minimize the philosophical issue by narrowing the focus to just the practical evidence she presents here as well. No evidence she, or you, tried to find any evidence other than what fits her, or your, preconceived view. A healthy “small-c” conservatism and skepticism about public library outsourcing is not irrational. Legitimate concerns are at stake here.

  4. If the only evidence is subjective then it cannot be accurately measured.

    How else are you going to understand impact? Someone’s feelings? “I don’t like it because I’m irrational. Yes the services are the same- maybe even better- but I refuse to acknowledge it based in personal bias and irrationality.” That’s what we’re going to hear. Those who don’t perceive a negative impact won’t be vocal because they don’t care. Even those with a positive impact are less likely to be vocal. This is why annecdotal evidence IS NOT GOOD ENOUGH.

  5. BK Librarian says:

    In my experience outsourcing library services does not negatively effect them. But it is sometimes a waste of money as AL has pointed out.

    Brooklyn Public Library hired an outside consultant to do a community needs assesment that the staff already on salary could have easily done. We could have easily created a survey like the one the consultant sold us (I know I learned enough statistics in library school to do so). To make matters worse the survey told us things that staff and patrons have known and said for years (ex. that they like the library quiet and they don’t like how it has become a hang out space where noise is permitted or ignored). Even worse, the library has not acted on any of this information.

    BPL has also outsourced the movement of materials between branches (interchange) to UPS. It cost more to do this but the library got sold on UPS because they thought they would use some of the extra services. I also suspect that like many government agencies somebody gets a kickback when they outsource a job to their friends. That is the real problem, public money wasted on private consultants and contractors that do work staff could do. This goes for maintenance as well. We have so much trouble come budget time, but the library spends money hiring friends of people in administration to do jobs we already have staff for.

  6. Again, the issues here are not merely subjective feelings or prejudices but go to the heart of the very meaning of the public library to many people. To dismiss their concerns as “irrational feelings” is mightily condescending of you.
    Furthermore, just because something like library outsourcing/privatization seems to work in the short run does not mean an erosion of public services in the long run will not occur. It’s going to take some time before we’ll have the evidence you want RIGHT NOW. Hopefully, that won’t be too late for some systems.

  7. If there is no data now, there is NO PROOF that there will ever be data to support the argument.

    So, since there is no data of service erosion- or other problems and downgrades- there is no (rational)reason to fight it.

    The argument that something could- in the future- possibly happen that has yet to happen (and has no eveidence of being on the horizon) is a bad one. That is not an argument should be listened to.

    Also, like AL said, this is not a privitization. These companies are still at the mercy of the city/county governments. It’s not like they- all of the sudden- have an absolute monopoly over library services forever.

  8. “The argument that something could- in the future- possibly happen that has yet to happen (and has no evidence of being on the horizon) is a bad one.”

    How? Just because you say so? Anecdotal evidence– the kind you so breezily dismiss– is quantifiable evidence on the horizon. Being skeptical or questioning is not an irrational stance.

  9. @fatguy-

    It’s a bad one because it’s leads to paralysis. If you never change when you think something bad could possibly happen- even when no evidence exists that it will, the you NEVER change. You can’t act on the idea that one day some other evidence might appear and negate the hypothesis that has, up to now, proven to be true. It’s not because I say so. It’s because if you take that line of thought to it’s logical conclusion you get nowhere.

    Being skeptical is not irrational. Being skeptical in the face of overwhelming evidence (or taking a contrary stance without any supporting evidence) is irrational. It is faith.

    When I see evidence to the contrary, I will assess it and adjust my stance. I will not, however, continue to doubt the truth in the face of evidence. I will also not say, “yeah, but what about something that has never happened and is, in all likelihood, not going to happen? If that did happen, it could be bad, so let’s not pay attention to the evidence and keep things the way they are.”

    Should you take worst case scenarios into account? Yes. Should you dictate policy based on them? No.

  10. Spencer-
    To spout a cliche, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. AL has cited one study from 10 years ago to support her claim that library outsourcing/privatization is neutral at best. Have you done any further reading on the subject? I’m not going to do your homework for you. You’re a librarian. Look it up.

  11. Yes, you’re not providing any references because you don’t have any, you’re not providing them because I should be able to find it myself.

    Well done.

  12. anonymous says:

    No, according to much current usage, privatization is an appropriate term for this arrangement. Consider the number of states now engaging in what is called prison privatization, defined in Wikpedia as, “A private prison, jail, or detention center is a place in which individuals are physically confined or interned by a third party that is contracted by a local, state or federal government agency. Private prison companies typically enter into contractual agreements with local, state, or federal governments that commit prisoners and then pay a per diem or monthly rate for each prisoner confined in the facility.”

    The state still pays the tab via collected taxes and the privatized prisons don’t raise their own income. You might want to call this outsourcing, which is also fine, but there is plenty of precedent for “privatization” of any number of government services, for which outside companies are contractors and are compensated by tax revenue, not independent income.

  13. Ok then. Call my bluff. Go, look. Tell us what you find.

  14. Would be nice if someone did do some scientific research into the matter, something a little more timely.

    I’ve worked for one of these so called privatization/outsourcing firms. It was the worse job ever. Why you ask? I never worked with the primary users and patrons and missed that. I copied and cataloged out researched and handed it over to my bosses, who then handed it over to the librarians who then handed it off to the users. Ugh. I was a factory worker, not an Information specialist!!!

    Yea, they may be cheaper, may get the ‘job done’ (i still work just as hard as I did back them, tyvm) and the librarians and users are probably quite happy with the end product, and not quite caring how it was procured but not a nice place to work and take pleasure in your work environment. I pity all the employees of outsourced/privatized library-related gigs.

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