Public Libraries For Profit

The trend of farming out public libraries to a private, profit-oriented business has raised concerns because libraries have long been considered democratic bodies built on the cornerstone of information diversity, transparency and intellectual freedom

Akito Yoshikane November 27, 2007

More and more, public libraries are being managed by private companies.

In late Octo­ber, Jack­son Coun­ty, Ore., re-opened the doors to 15 of its pub­lic libraries after a lack of funds had forced them shut on April 6 – the largest library clo­sure in U.S. his­to­ry. How­ev­er, as patrons returned to the book­shelves in the south­ern Ore­gon coun­ty, they learned that their libraries are now under pri­vate, for-prof­it management. 

Ore­gon suf­fered a $150 mil­lion bud­get short­fall – and Jack­son Coun­ty a $23 mil­lion loss – in fis­cal year 2007, after the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment failed to renew a $400 mil­lion annu­al sub­sidy designed to help rur­al com­mu­ni­ties suf­fer­ing from the decline in tim­ber-log­ging rev­enue. Though Con­gress even­tu­al­ly extend­ed the fund­ing by one year, Jack­son Coun­ty com­mis­sion­ers, strapped for cash, vot­ed to out­source library ser­vices to the Mary­land-based Library Sys­tems & Ser­vices (LSSI), which spe­cial­izes in library man­age­ment. Found­ed in 1981, the com­pa­ny ini­tial­ly oper­at­ed fed­er­al libraries dur­ing Pres­i­dent Reagan’s era of pri­va­tiz­ing gov­ern­ment ser­vices and con­tracts. LSSI now pri­vate­ly man­ages more than 50 pub­lic libraries nationwide.

Com­pa­nies like LSSI focus on coun­ties that are des­per­ate to keep their pub­lic agen­cies afloat but lack suf­fi­cient funds to do so. In the case of Jack­son Coun­ty, offi­cials offered LSSI a five-year con­tract worth $3 mil­lion annu­al­ly, with an addi­tion­al $1.3 mil­lion reserved for build­ing main­te­nance. The deal cuts in almost half what the coun­ty pre­vi­ous­ly spent.

Pub­lic libraries in Dal­las, River­side, Calif., and Finney Coun­ty, Kan. have also hired LSSI staff.

But the trend of farm­ing out pub­lic libraries to a pri­vate, prof­it-ori­ent­ed busi­ness has raised con­cerns. For one, pri­vate com­pa­nies are not sub­ject to the same over­sight as are pub­lic insti­tu­tions. More impor­tant­ly, libraries have long been con­sid­ered demo­c­ra­t­ic bod­ies built on the cor­ner­stone of infor­ma­tion diver­si­ty, trans­paren­cy and intel­lec­tu­al freedom. 

Libraries tend to reflect the com­mu­ni­ties they serve,” says Loriene Roy, pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Library Asso­ci­a­tion (ALA). “[They] respond to com­mu­ni­ty needs and they do so with­in their bud­get, but they are not set up to make prof­it. A com­pa­ny com­ing in that doesn’t exist with­in the com­mu­ni­ty that is prof­it-mak­ing, you can see that there is a dif­fer­ent atti­tude and there is con­cern about that.”

Under pub­lic man­age­ment, trans­paren­cy tends to be clear. As much as 80 per­cent of pub­lic library fund­ing can come from local tax sup­port, mak­ing libraries account­able to a board of trustees with rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the community.

While munic­i­pal­i­ties have for years con­tract­ed non-library ser­vices,” such as jan­i­to­r­i­al duties or pho­to­copy­ing, the out­sourc­ing of core” library ser­vices – cat­a­loging and use of auto­mat­ed sys­tems and mate­r­i­al acqui­si­tion – has increased. 

This prompt­ed the ALA to cre­ate an Out­sourc­ing Task Force and con­duct a study on pri­va­ti­za­tion in 1999. Two years lat­er, the ALA coun­cil adopt­ed a stance oppos­ing out­sourc­ing, stat­ing that libraries are not a sim­ple com­mod­i­ty” but are an essen­tial pub­lic good” that should be direct­ly account­able to the pub­lic they serve.”

LSSI makes its mon­ey from the dif­fer­ence between the bud­get and what it spends – or does not spend. It typ­i­cal­ly down­sizes staff, cen­tral­izes account­ing and human resource ser­vices, and buys books in bulk, all while pass­ing down admin­is­tra­tive costs – some­times as high as 15 per­cent – to patrons as gen­er­al han­dling fees. (The com­pa­ny does not dis­close its earnings.)

They oper­ate entire­ly with our tax dol­lars but they have no trans­paren­cy,” says Buck Eich­ler, pres­i­dent of the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU) Local 503 in Jack­son Coun­ty, whose orga­ni­za­tion rep­re­sent­ed the pub­lic library employ­ees. They’re com­plete­ly secre­tive about their books. We no longer know where our tax dol­lars are going.”

Although the total cost of run­ning the libraries was cut, so, too, were library hours. Now, most libraries in Jack­son Coun­ty are open at half the nor­mal oper­at­ing times and are closed on Sun­days, total­ing only 24 hours a week, down from the 40-plus hours before the April shut­down. The excep­tions are the libraries in Ash­land and Tal­ent, which will stay open for 40 hours and 36 hours a week, respec­tive­ly, after local res­i­dents recent­ly vot­ed in favor of a levy on month­ly util­i­ty sur­charges in order to pay for the extra hours.

While coun­ties still own the build­ings and retain con­trol of library poli­cies, LSSI is in charge of hir­ing employ­ees, which has caused mixed reactions. 

I don’t have any prob­lems with it at all,” says Kim Wolfe, man­ag­er of the Med­ford branch. I think it’s a per­son­al deci­sion for each indi­vid­ual. The com­mu­ni­ty is thrilled to have the libraries open­ing again. They’re thank­ing us and they’re glad they can come in and use our services.”

SEIU’s Eich­ler, how­ev­er, has said some work­ers have refused to go back to work under a pri­vate employer. 

We don’t want to sac­ri­fice liv­ing wages at the expense of work­ers,” says Eichler.

LSSI brought back about 60 of the 88 peo­ple who were laid off, accord­ing to one library staffer. But now that they are no longer union employ­ees, they’ve been sub­ject to con­trac­tu­al changes in rights, ben­e­fits and dis­clo­sure information.

Although salaries are com­pa­ra­ble to what they were before, employ­ees in the Jack­son Coun­ty Libraries are now no longer part of Oregon’s pen­sion sys­tem, which has been replaced with a 401(k) pro­gram. Med­ical ben­e­fits have also been cut, and salary lev­els have been adjust­ed depend­ing on mar­ket con­di­tions,” says Anne Bil­leter, a for­mer Jack­son Coun­ty library manager.

I’m not say­ing that LSSI has a goal of union-bust­ing, but it is cer­tain­ly the net effect,” says Eichler.

Some areas have seen a back­lash. In Bed­ford, Texas, after a com­mu­ni­ty-wide peti­tion cam­paign to oppose library out­sourc­ing gath­ered 1,700 sig­na­tures in four days, city coun­cil mem­bers vot­ed 4 – 3 to reject pri­va­ti­za­tion in August. If our library dies, this com­mu­ni­ty dies,” said Mark Gimenez, a local res­i­dent who attend­ed the board meeting.

But not every pub­lic library is cel­e­brat­ing vic­to­ries. In Jack­son-Madi­son Coun­ty, Tenn., even after a com­mu­ni­ty group lob­bied against pri­va­ti­za­tion, the Ten­nessee Court of Appeals ruled in April that the coun­ty board has a legal right to outsource.

Thomas Hen­nen Jr., direc­tor of the Wauke­sha Coun­ty Fed­er­at­ed Library Sys­tem in Wis­con­sin, says, It is the urgent duty of pub­lic librar­i­ans to put the good’ back into the pub­lic good’ of the pub­lic library movement.”

Aki­to Yoshikane is a free­lance writer based in Chicago.
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