Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Public Library Closed for Lack of Funds; Reopens Outsourced to For-Profit

Click on the title to this post to read an article from the newspaper, The Oregonian by Matthew Preusch. Here is a snippet:

Libraries in Jackson County, shuttered in the spring by a budget crisis, will start reopening later this month -- run by a Maryland corporation rather than local government.

Residents in Medford, Ashland and surrounding communities have been without libraries since April, when all 15 branches were mothballed indefinitely.

County leaders closed the libraries when faced with a budget shortfall brought on by the end of a federal payment program for timber-dependent counties.

After voters rejected a library levy to make up the lost funds, the county opted for outsourcing to cut costs, and last week it approved a contract with Library Systems & Services, the country's largest private operator of public libraries.

Initially, libraries will be open for about half the total hours they were before the closure, with five branches open 24 hours a week, another five open for 16 hours, and the remainder for eight. (snip)

[The ALA] studied the company's work with libraries in Riverside, Calif., and found that patrons thought service had improved and employees were happier than when the city had operated the libraries.

Jackson County estimates it will save about $25 million over the next five years by working through LSSI. Under the contract, the county keeps ownership of all the library's assets and sets library policy.

"In Jackson County's case, they've got a police manual that's probably 2 inches thick, and we operate those libraries in accordance with those policies," said Robert Windrow, LSSI vice president.
Library Systems and Services(LSSI) is the company which has reopened the Oregon library, and about 65 other public libraries which have been closed for lack of public funding. About 100 people were laid off when the Jackson County library closed, and about 50-60 folks are being rehired by LSSI.

I have very mixed feelings about this. I think public libraries are a crucial public good. They offer a leveling of the playing field to immigrants, to poor folks, to anybody who wants to learn about the world, their government, or just to read more than they can afford to buy. I am so sad when a county or town closes its public library because they won’t or can’t support it financially. The nearby town of Randolph, Massachusetts closed its public library recently. Wow! I think it is a very bad sign when a community can’t support what I consider a vital public resource. And it usually happens in the areas that most need that sort of leveling of playing fields – where more folks have less money.

I suppose it’s better to have a shorter access, provided by a private company that runs the library, than to have no access at all. I suppose the library staff who have been hired back are glad to have work again (at comparable wages!) in what must be a depressed area – though missing the public employment benefits. But I am concerned about the trend of moving a publicly funded and managed service into privately managed hands. The story is not clear about how LSSI makes its profits. It does not say that library services will be offered at a price to patrons, but it also does not say that the county is paying LSSI the full cost of running the library. How would the county save money by outsourcing if some of the cost did not fall on the library users?

An Associated Press article that ran in the Boston Globe about the closings October 7 (Link) said
For years, state and local governments have been privatizing certain functions, such as trash collection, payroll processing, and road maintenance.

But contracting with an outside company to run a library is a relatively new phenomenon, one that has been gaining in popularity as communities from Tennessee to California look for ways to save money.

The practice has generated a backlash from those who argue that municipalities are employing a backdoor method of union-busting, and those who say that such profit-making ventures go against the notion that libraries are one of the noblest functions of government in a democracy.

Most of the 15 or so US municipalities that have outsourced their libraries has signed on with LSSI, which is the biggest player in the field but is privately held and does not disclose earnings. (Snip)

The county will retain control over certain policies, such as late fees, the cost of a library card, or how long library patrons can keep a bestseller. But LSSI will be in charge of buying books and says it will use its muscle to obtain deep discounts from suppliers. It will also be responsible for hiring, and says that while its salaries will be comparable to what the employees were making previously, the benefits will be less generous.
Note that the folks at LSSI choose books and make hiring decisions. I worry when profit dictates selection and what protections librarians have for making controversial choices. Of course, politicians hve not been very good about those things, either!

Check out the Maine State Library’s Library Value Calculator for one way to calculate the value of a public library to citizens. It allows a dollar value to be attached to the numbers of circulated magazines, books, movies, programs and room use. But the value of public libraries goes beyond any dollar value. To me it seems central to the American value placed on opportunity. By making the knowledge and information of the world available on a more equal basis to everyone, public libraries create opportunity:

* Opportunity for students to use better databases and books.
* Opportunity for immigrants to learn English and become citizens
* Opportunity for small businesses to gather information to compete and grow
* Opportunity to learn and improve oneself, no matter who you are
* And Opportunity to participate in our democracy.

Public libraries are key to making America the land of opportunity and equality. I am proud that Boston was the first to legislate free public access to libraries.

(Image is Boston Public Library, from their website at www.bpl.org

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