The Outsourcing of America's Public Libraries
As cities turn over library management to private companies, readers see the public trust erode.
By James Nash
A Maryland company that runs public libraries has more than doubled in size in the past decade as governments seek savings. Bibliophile residents complain that an investment in knowledge and culture is being milked for profit.
Library Systems & Services LLC is running into opposition as it seeks to add the 24 libraries in California's Kern County to its portfolio of 82 in six states, allowing the county to shed a unionized workforce of 118. The county north of Los Angeles would be the largest addition for LSSI since the firm, which is owned by Wayne, Pa.-based Argosy Capital Group Inc., got into the book business in 1997.
The only coast-to-coast operator of public libraries has capitalized on a recession-driven trend of contracting out government functions. Chicago leased its 36,000 parking meters to a Morgan Stanley-led partnership in 2008. Georgia's universities last year turned over student-housing management to Corvias Group LLC for 65 years. The City Council in San Bernardino, Calif., in May voted to outsource 15 services including fire protection and park maintenance as part of a strategy to exit bankruptcy.
In Kern County, the bid for private management has residents debating whether the printed word is a special trust.
"This is meant to increase business profits and drive down quality," said Esdras Quintana, a 14-year library information-technology employee and member of the Service Employees International Union. "We need to invest more in our libraries. Turning over our libraries to LSSI would not be an investment. It would be an abandonment of a precious public asset."
Officials in Kern County, an oil-producing and agricultural region of 850,000 where Cesar Chavez co-founded the United Farm Workers in the 1960s, entered into conversations with LSSI last year. In January, the county declared a fiscal emergency as officials predicted that collapsing crude-oil prices would reduce property tax collections 15 percent. The West Coast's drought threatens grape and almond crops.
Even though Kern County has ordered departments to seek budget cuts over seven years, Administrative Officer John Nilon said the library move wasn't about reducing the system's $8 million annual budget. Rather, he said, it's about restoring hours and programs.
"What's behind this is just a desire to improve library services," Nilon said during a public forum last week at a library in Arvin, a town where one-third of the 20,000 residents live below the poverty line.
Arvin's library is closed Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Many of the 40 residents who attended pleaded with Nilon and other officials in English and Spanish to expand hours, buy books and upgrade technology. When Nilon asked for a count of people opposed to private management, 28 raised their hands.
"If our libraries are privatized, the companies have a right to do whatever they want and they don't have to listen to the community," said Yesenia Contreras, 26, an Arvin resident and community organizer. "We live in a rural community. Our kids do not have access to books and computers."
Privately run libraries, like charter schools, depend on believing the market is "omnipotent and omniscient," that citizens are customers, rights services, and education a form of corporate indoctrination, said Michael E. Matthews, head of serials for the Watson Memorial Library in Natchitoches, La., and a member of the Progressive Librarians Guild.
"The fact that LSSI is owned by a private-equity firm should come as no surprise since its purpose is to transform public libraries into storefronts with reduced staffing and operating expenses, thus maximizing profits," Matthews said.
Governments have made safeguarding culture a priority since antiquity. The Library of Alexandria in Egypt contained much of the world's written knowledge in the three centuries before Christ, and was burned in the 200s or 300s, its final destruction in 639 symbolizing the collapse of Classical civilization.
The U.S. has more than 16,000 public libraries, dating to the first half of the 19th century with institutions in Boston and New Hampshire. Andrew Carnegie parlayed his fortune running steel mills and railroads into building free institutions in the early 20th century, with hundreds in 47 states.
"Whatever agencies for good may rise or fall in the future, it seems certain that the Free Library is destined to stand and become a never-ceasing foundation of good to all the inhabitants," Carnegie wrote.
Today, LSSI is the fourth-largest library operator in the U.S., after public systems in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles County.
LSSI has added more than 20 in the past five years, but the trajectory hasn't been constant. San Juan, Texas; Linden, N.J.; and Fargo, N.D., have severed their relationship over complaints about the company's tacking on costs and paying bills late, according to press accounts. In San Juan, city commissioners said the company wanted to charge an excessive amount to add Sunday hours, teen programming and more books, without disclosing its profit margin.
LSSI, whose chief operating officer, Paul Colangelo, declined to share profit information, said governments set policies such as what materials to purchase and operating hours, and that the county doesn't keep fines for overdue books. (In Kern County, that's 50 cents a day.)
In Kern County, the company could expand hours 20 percent, including Sundays at some branches, and increase spending on books to $1 million a year from $258,000, it said in a preliminary assessment a year ago.
The county would dismiss the system's employees. LSSI would eliminate union work rules that "stifle productivity" such as restrictions on part-time clerical workers and consolidate backroom operations, said Bob Windrow, vice president of business development. No library managed by LSSI has a union, he said.
The company would rehire librarians at or near their current wages, while replacing pensions with private 401(k) retirement plans, Windrow said.
Of the 82 company-run libraries, 47 are in California. Riko Mendez, political director for the SEIU local representing workers from San Jose to Kern County, said LSSI's model is to cut salaries and benefits, rely on volunteers and make money by selling library-branded pens and other products.
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