Privatization of Library Services. Seriously?

Apparently so! As if everything I’ve been writing in the past few months (the challenges for learning 21st Century Skills, creating relevant 21st Century libraries, acquiring 21st Century librarianship skills, rapid advances in technology, lagging MLS education, and more recently, education reform and societal changes) isn’t enough of a challenge for librarians, NOW we have another growing threat to the local library institution – PRIVATIZED LIBRARY SERVICES.

Believe it or not, privatized contracted library services have been around in the form of Library Systems & Services, LLC (LSSI) for almost 20 years.
“Since 1981, Library Systems & Services, LLC (LSSI) has partnered with communities throughout the US to provide library outsourcing for new and existing libraries, as well as contract library services for Federal agencies. LSSI currently provides library management services across 13 public library systems and 63 branch operations in the US.”

“We assume full responsibility for operations while communities retain ownership of library facilities and all capital assets, policies, programs, and collections.”

“Library patrons typically notice improvements almost immediately:
– better customer service
– improved hours of operation
– expanded collections
– new technologies
– engaging new community programs”

Now, there’s a BOLD claim for a private sector enterprise that sounds a LOT like an indictment of existing library services. Are professional librarians and their libraries incapable of providing “better customer service”, or any of the rest of LSSI’s claimed “improvements”? I don’t think so!

The most glaring question one has to ask is – HOW? How can they offer all that they claim, and do it at a profit? Maybe lower wages for employees? Maybe because they let the community continue to pay ALL the overhead fixed costs of running the library? Maybe more volunteers? One Friends of the Library Board Member of the library privatized in Redding, CA, is quoted in the article as saying; “We volunteer more than ever now,” Mr. Ceragioli said.” Curious. One has to question why.

Or, in the case of LSSI in Santa Clarita, CA, they will de-unionize the library system. (Isn’t there a law against that? Oh yes, the Labor-Management Relations Act of 1947, also known as the Taft-Hartley Act. We’ll assume there’s a loophole somewhere.) Maybe there is a reason it has taken LSSI twenty years to gain any notable foothold in the industry (if you can call 14 library systems at 63 locations a foothold – maybe a toehold). Contractors are not cheap, and most communities can see through the claims to the down side of privatization.

A New York Times article Anger as a Private Company Takes Over Libraries by David Streitfield, published on September 26, states; “There’s this American flag, apple pie thing about libraries,” said Frank A. Pezzanite, the outsourcing company’s [LSSI] chief executive. He has pledged to save $1 million a year in Santa Clarita, mainly by cutting overhead and replacing unionized employees. “Somehow they have been put in the category of a sacred organization.” The company, known as L.S.S.I., runs 14 library systems operating 63 locations. Its basic pitch to cities is that it fixes broken libraries — more often than not by cleaning house.” [Emphasis added.]

I worked in the government sector in a previous lifetime, both state and federal, so I know what outsourcing means. And I’ve also been an employee of a government contractor, who makes a bundle of money because governments use “other” funds besides specific operating or project funds to pay for the more expensive costs of contractors – rob Peter to pay Paul. That’s often how that system works. The other way it is profitable for the contractor is to cut services and slash overhead costs, i.e. employees, as LSSI is planning in Santa Clarita.

What’s apparently most disturbing about this Santa Clarita situation, as Streitfield points out, is that LSSI “… has been hired for the first time to run a system in a relatively healthy city, setting off an intense and often acrimonious debate about the role of outsourcing in a ravaged economy.” OUTSOURCING? Where’s the debate about the value of the community library run by the community? Where’s the outrage at letting a private company at the behest of their local government de-unionize the library work force? Where’s the outrage at the library director working for a for-profit contractor, rather than for the citizens of the community? The whole ‘contractor behind the scenes making the library run better and cheaper’ facade sounds like a huge sham to me. Wake up people! See the wizard behind the curtain!

I’m not sure Streitfield got it right when he slanted his piece toward the “outsourcing” issue. It appears to be more of a “the library is the community” issue to me.

The head of the county library system, Margaret Donnellan Todd, says L.S.S.I. is viewed as an unwelcome outsider. “There is no local connection,” she said. “People are receiving superb service in Santa Clarita. I challenge that L.S.S.I. will be able to do much better.” … “A library is the heart of the community,” said one opponent, Jane Hanson. “I’m in favor of private enterprise, but I can’t feel comfortable with what the city is doing here.” Mrs. Hanson, who is 81 and has been a library patron for nearly 50 years, was so bothered by the outsourcing contract that she became involved in local politics for the first time since 1969, when she worked for a recall movement related to the Vietnam War. She drew up a petition warning that the L.S.S.I. contract would result in “greater cost, fewer books and less access,” with “no benefit to the citizens.” Using a card table in front of the main library branch, she gathered 1,200 signatures in three weekends.

Regardless of the perspective on a core issue, we should all be wary of turning over our professionalism to private enterprise. I know I’ve promoted 21st Century libraries as needing to be “more business-like”, but I do not advocate making community public libraries a for-profit business. Business for-profit is ONLY focused on the bottom line, especially a contractor who lives or dies on making money by cutting costs – WHERE EVER! They CAN’T increase revenue any other way, except maybe through grants or donations. But, WHO is going to GIVE to a for-profit company? I shudder to think about being the director of a public library being paid by a contractor, yet trying to foster community support for the “the heart of the community”.

Do we really believe that a for-profit contractor is going to invest in new technology, take directions from a library board, expand the collection, or implement new programs at the public’s request? Where’s the profit in that? While virtually all municipal departments are “cost centers”, a for-profit business survives on “profit centers”. There are no “profit centers” in a public library! (unless you consider the overdue book fines a profit, and I’d like to see a for-profit company survive on that. Seriously!) The nature of the library is totally different than just another municipal department like water or sewer or human resources. Why not privatize the whole city/county/state/nation if it’s so advantageous?


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7 responses to “Privatization of Library Services. Seriously?

  1. Well said, Steve!
    I was doing some reading on this issue and I find it alarming. Now that LSSI is owned by a mergers and acquisitions firm, the family-owned roots of the company have even less credence.

    If our communities do not have the ability to support public libraries, then we have done a poor job of affirming our importance in those communities. We are part of those communities and need to approach our problems from the perspective that we are “all in it together”. Privatization and its for-profit baseline rationale corrupts the freedom of expression and exploration that modern society supposedly values.

    I think some of this comes back to our hang ups about libraries being simply “places” where ideas might be exchanged or books are housed. We need to start promoting ourselves as knowledge builders who, like accountants and doctors, don’t NEED a building to practice their profession. Their value lies in their training, knowledge and instruction.

    Christina Neigel

    • Thanks for that additional insight into LSSI. Makes it even less appealing as an alternative to the community run public library, and more of a totally LAST RESORT. I agree that our “traditional” ideas about what the library is and does need to be closely examined in light of 21st Century factors – technology, education reform, and societal changes.

  2. skramace

    The truth is that for-profit companies have the infrastructure and incentive to be streamlined. This is how the defense industry has been for years (I work for a large defense contractor). As a tax payer, I would want money to be spent as efficiently as possible. A company such as LSSI provides librarians, with accredited MLS Degrees, an HR infrastructure and a process that works. How is that not a better alternative?
    Another aspect, which is difficult to deal with, is that jobs are at higher risk. Unfortunately, the government has a culture where time is a credential. Notice I said “time” and not “experience.” If 5-year employee does a better job than a 20-year employee, and there is one job available, the better employee should get it. I don’t care if the 20-year employee has spent his/her entire career somewhere and has a family of 5…the better employee provides a better service.
    I am stating my opinion, based on my experiences as a federal contractor. I would love to hear valid counterpoints.

  3. I know from my own experience in the defense contractor industry that contractor employees make higher salaries than government employees doing the same work. Somebody is making a profit somehow, either through reduced overhead or expenses, and it ain’t the government. Economy of scale can only net so much profit in such a small market. Not to mention, a privatized library is not being run by the community.

    Federal Government Librarian Series, 1410
    Individual Occupational Requirements
    Basic Requirements:
    All librarians must meet the requirements for professional education in library science or possess equivalent experience and education as shown for GS-7; however, as a standard practice applicants enter at grade GS-9 on the basis of a master’s degree in library science.

    Additional Education and Experience Requirements for Positions at GS-9 and Above
    GS-9: 2 full years of progressively higher level graduate education or master’s in library science or equivalent graduate degree, e.g., LL.B. or J.D., related to the position.
    GS-11: 3 full years of progressively higher level graduate education in library science or doctoral degree (Ph.D. or equivalent) related to the position
    GS-12: None

    General Schedule (GS) Pay Scale: 2010 Most Supervisory Librarian positions are GS-12 level = $60,000. GS-9 is $41,500.

    I would be very surprised if LSSI employs any supervisory librarian at that low a salary, and regular MLS librarians surely make more than $41,500 on average. So who’s saving money by privatizing, if everybody is making money?

    • skramace

      I know several LSSI employees with MLS Degrees. Market is tough right now in the Washington Metro Area with the hiring freezes in public libraries. People are willing to take 41K per year over nothing. I must say, though, they are willing to take the lower pay, but the lack of respect that they receive is unacceptable. These qualified professionals, because of the distaste for library contracting projected from the customer, are treated like scum. This brings me back to my previous comment about qualification. I know from anecdote that there exist non-contractor librarians who cannot perform simple functions on a computer, and are 20 years out of experience with basic library functions, but are rewarded with job security.

      • I think it’s a fair statement that people take jobs where ever they can get them these days, understandably so. I disagree with discrimination for any reason, and I’d be interested in hearing from some librarians in the privatized side of the public library regarding their experiences. It’s also fair to say that there are individuals in every profession whose skills are outdated and who have failed to keep pace with their colleagues and profession’s standards. I also disagree with providing those people job security. Jobs should be secure only based on performance.

  4. Disgusted Librarian

    Absolutely! I’ve worked at the “best” library in my state for 20 years. I’ve seen incompetent management hired over and over again (and then fired or transfered). I’ve worked with librarians who do NOTHING; they ignore patrons at the reference desk and do as little as possible to get by. Many librarians are poorly socialized and unable to get along in teams. There is no accountability. Privatization benefits taxpayers and brings merit and incentive back to the equation. Many public libraries are actually thin veneers over private company offerings (Overdrive, EBSCO, etc.), anyway..

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