Are Privatized Public Libraries So Bad?

Many systems end up with more books and longer hours. Why then, does library privatization make so many so uncomfortable?

Image
Shutterstock

I'll admit, to me, the idea of a privatized public library has a certain dystopian ring to it, the ultimate public space corrupted for a profit. That image was not much aided by my first (and second and third) call to Library System and Services Inc., the only library privatization company in the United States. LSSI now runs at least 15 library systems in California, Oregon, Tennessee, and Texas. This means it is, effectively, the fifth largest library system in the country.

Time and again, I ran through an automated response system without finding a real person. A week's worth of emails went unanswered. And then, there's the message at one of LSSI's libraries, which directs you press two for "costumer service."

Is this the future of the reference desk, I wondered? Not exactly the library system of my childhood, where each call about books on hold was answered by the same librarian I had known since I started attending kid's corner book readings. 

But then, there's the example of Santa Clarita, California. In 2010, the city decided to pull their three libraries out of the Los Angeles County Library system. Officials had considered running the system locally, but ultimately, the council voted (4 to 1) to turn the system over to LSSI to run. More than 100 residents protested the change at acrimonious meetings with "keep our libraries public" signs and t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan, "I love L.A. County Libraries."

One opponent, Jane Hanson, was so unnerved by the outsourcing contract that she became involved in local politics for the first time since 1969, when she joined a recall movement related to the Vietnam War. Her petition (which she circulated at a card table in front of the main library branch) alleged that LSSI would result in “greater cost, fewer books and less access." She collected 1,200 signatures in three weekends.

But even the councilman who opposed the move, Bob Kellar, says he hasn't heard any complaints since the new system opened in July. "I have visited the library a couple of times and walked around. I was very impressed with what I've seen," he says. "I really haven't felt that there has been any push-back."

Indeed, it sounds like there's not much to complain about. Hours have increased. The library is now open on Sundays. There are 77 new computers, a new book collection dedicated to homeschooling parents and more children's programs. Santa Clarita is even installing a fancy laptop dispenser, where patrons can swipe their card to check out a laptop to use anywhere in the system. Visits are up; a new facility is in the works.

•       •       •       •       •

When Santa Clarita began considering privatization, the decision drew national attention. It was, according to the New York Times, the first financially vibrant city to make the switch. 

Deputy City Manager Darren Hernandez is careful to stress that this decision was made because of LSSI's "expertise" — "we didn't have experience operating libraries," he says — though he acknowledges that cost did play a role. The city thought they could run their system for $5.1 million a year; LSSI gets $3.8 million.

This savings means the city has been able to budget $4.8 million a year for libraries, with the extra $1 million going to buying new books and a new, LEED-certified building.

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.

It also has some unions up in arms. A new California law requires all cities to "clearly demonstrate" that a contract with a private firm will result in "actual overall cost savings," and it requires cities to hear at least three bids before making a decision, was pushed forward, in a large part, by the SEIU. 

But LSSI says there's no other way. In a 2010 New York Times article, then-LSSI chief Frank A. Pezzanite argued that public libraries 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."

“Pensions crushed General Motors, and it is crushing the governments in California,” he told the Times.

Then there's the question of profitability: how much is LSSI really making from these deals?

No one quite knows the answer. LSSI, which got its start developing software for government use in the 1980s, will not disclose that information. It's owned by a private equity firm in Boston and has about $35 million in annual revenue and 800 employees. 

"It's a closely-guarded secret," says Jane Jerrard, who wrote a book on the issue for the ALA. Jerrard compared privatized libraries with similar publicly run facilities in the same state, looking at how library visits, materials held and circulation changed after LSSI took over.

In one example, Kansas's Finney County library system saw a 29 percent drop in the materials held between 2003 (when LSSI took over) and 2009. The number of visits rose just half a percent. At the same time, a similarly sized public library in Hutchinson county saw visits jump by 100 percent.

But before LSSI took over, rural Finney County struggled to attract a qualified MLS-degreed librarian, Jerrard says. LSSI has provided a stable head librarian - as a result, the staff is more productive and better trained.

On the whole, Jerrard says, 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.

The real question is whether the public might be able to do just as well. In one example, librarians from the Jackson-Madison County Public Library in Tennessee put in their own bid to run the library on a much smaller budget. "Unfortunately, a governing board is not going to take that seriously," Jerrad says.

•       •       •       •       •

And, of course, there is a less tangible problem with library privatization: it makes many people very uncomfortable, even if they can't quite explain why. According to Patricia Tumulty, of the American Library Assocation, it comes down to questions of access. "With privatization, the public loses some direct control," she says. "You’re having the chief operating officer answerable to a third party rather than answerable directly to the public or the county commission."

Tumulty helped the ALA (which is on record against privatization) develop guidelines for what kind of questions a library should ask when considering whether to outsource their services. These include queries about quality of library services ("how will a private library maintain or increase the level of service to the community and still make a profit?"), intellectual freedom ("will the company adhere to local policies such as the protection of user privacy?") and loss of community involvement.

But the question that resonates — not just for libraries, but for so many cities grappling with privatizing public services to cut costs — is one of community control. When a city lets a private company run the show, who controls the resource, and how much say do we get?

Santa Clarita officials say questions like these miss the point. The city argues the system still belongs to the public — it's just given LSSI permission to oversee certain tasks. "We're a contract city," says Santa Clarita's communications manager. Hernandez likens it to hiring a landscaping service to mow your lawn. "That lawn still belongs to you."

Photo credit: Sharon Photo/Shutterstock

About the Author

  • Amanda Erickson is a former senior associate editor at CityLab.