We’re all familiar with public libraries outsources certain functions, including their catalog, Wifi network management, ebook platforms, and (sometimes) the acquisition of new materials.
But did you know that some public library systems have been outsourced entirely, and are now run by private companies?
According to the San Diego Union-tribune, that is exactly what just happened in Escondido, Calif.
Despite the protests of hundreds of angry residents, the Escondido City Council voted 3-2 Wednesday night to begin the process of outsourcing the city’s library service to a private company.
An overflow crowd of more than 250, almost all opposed to the plan, packed the City Council chambers and for hours pleaded with the council not to move forward with signing a contract with Maryland-based Library Systems and Services Inc.
But Mayor Sam Abed joined by councilmen Ed Gallo and John Masson, voted to pursue the arrangement with the for-profit company in order to save $4 million in the next ten years in operational costs and more than that in future pension payouts.
“This is an opportunity to make the library better,” Abed said, citing a recent County Grand Jury report that was critical of the services the library provides the community
This is not exactly a new thing.
LSSI has been privatizing public libraries for going on 20 years now, and people have been complaining about the trend for almost that long. At first the company focused on libraries in financially strapped regions, but in 2010 the NYTimes reported that LSSI took over the Santa Clarita public library system.
That was LSSI’s first takeover of a healthy library system. According to their website they now run over 80 libraries in the US, and judging from the lack of public outcry, they seem to be doing a good job. While the American Library Association is opposed to the practice, I can’t find that they have published any editorials which point out the problems.
The closest I have found to criticism i a paywalled academic paper from 2007 which appeared to find flaws in the hype:
The findings from the cases show that NPM claims related to returning government to its proper principal-agent focus, and thus achieving gains in efficiency and citizen use/satisfaction, are questionable.
Coincidentally, evidence suggests that Escondido had an unhealthy and struggling library system.
Earlier this year San Diego county convened a grand jury which investigated the Escondido public library system, and that grand jury found that the then-current system did not meet the needs of the community or make the most of its resources – the public library did not use all of its annual budget, for example (PDF).
While one can appreciate how opponents to privatization feel about the issue, that report shows that the library is currently being mismanaged. Really, the current management should have been sacked, and new management hired, but it is almost impossible to fire civil employees.
Outsourcing the public library to LSSI was the only solution to a severe problem. That solution goes against a century of tradition, but so what?
What matters is how well the library functions, not who is running it. If LSSI can do a better job, why not let them do so?
image by danxoneil