Like police and fire departments, most Americans assume libraries are the quintessential public service, delivered by public employees. But these are not ordinary times. As a result, some struggling cities are turning to outsourcing firms that claim they can run public libraries at a lower cost than the public sector.
The issue became front page news when the New York Times ran a story last week on how cities in California, Oregon, Tennessee and Texas were proposing to outsource library services. Proponents of outsourcing (e.g., city officials and firms that offer the services) say the private companies can run libraries just as well as the public sector but at less cost. The firm L.S.S.I., for example, claims it will save the city of Santa Clarita, Calif., $1 million a year by cutting overhead and replacing unionized employees.
Public librarians and staff are understandably upset. But patrons have been particularly outraged at the idea of "privatizing" library services. Last year, Oak Brook (a village outside of Chicago) considered outsourcing its libraries to save an estimated $300,000, according to the Daily Herald, a suburban Chicago newspaper. Reaction was swift and strong. "Privatizing is a draconian solution which will destroy the library as a viable community resource," said Barbara Benezra, president of Friends of the Oak Brook Public Library, in a statement to village trustees.
Public officials who have considered or actually outsourced their library services are quick to point out that the public libraries are not going private. They are the same public resource as before, providing free lending services as well as other forms of community support.
Will public library outsourcing become a trend? Hard to say. If private firms can prove they can save substantial money without impacting the kinds of services that patrons have come to expect, then expect to see more public officials willing to consider the once unthinkable. But loyal library patrons will be watching very carefully and are not afraid to voice their displeasure about such a notion.