Public Libraries for Profit

Public Libraries for Profit



     By Akito Yoshikane
     In These Times
     Tuesday 27 November 2007

     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."

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