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September 29, 2010
When Is a Library Like a Prison?
Aside from any other comparisons, when the management of both institutions is outsourced. Cash-strapped governments have leased assets or turned over some services to private companies as a way of keeping their costs down. Now the trend has hit some public libraries. The New York Times reported on Monday that a city with good financials, Santa Clarita, California, has hired Library Systems & Service to manage its three libraries. That development seems not to sit too well with some citizens with Santa Clarita.
A visit to the LSSI web site shows glowing testimonials from various municipalities who have engaged these outside services. There are expanded library hours, upgraded facilities, and a host of other improvements through LSSI management. How is is possible that a for-profit company can do that with less operating money than would a library board? Consolidation is one avenue. The New York Times describes the company as the fifth largest library system. Online subscriptions and other purchases are less expensive in bulk. Centralized cataloging is another area that lowers costs. How about staff? Now, I think, we're getting to a substantial area of savings.
According to the LSSI faq, all or "nearly all" local staff are retained, becoming employees of LSSI rather than the municipality or county that has the system. This effectively takes these employees off the government books and placed them in the private sector where the salaries and benefits can be a bit more, what's the word, "flexible."
Here are some comments from the company chief executive as reported in the Times article:
“There’s this American flag, apple pie thing about libraries,” said Frank A. Pezzanite, the outsourcing company’s chief executive. He has pledged to save $1 million a year in Santa Clarita, mainly by cutting overhead and replacing unionized employees. “Somehow they have been put in the category of a sacred organization.”
“A lot of libraries are atrocious,” Mr. Pezzanite said. “Their policies are all about job security. That’s why the profession is nervous about us. You can go to a library for 35 years and never have to do anything and then have your retirement. We’re not running our company that way. You come to us, you’re going to have to work.”
Ah, the hostility to staff, or am I reading something into this? As an academic, I can't really speak to the work conditions in a publicly-funded library. The sentiments seem to suggest that librarians are lazy and overpaid. I don't think that is the case, but then again, I'm not in the business of squeezing money out of library systems. [MG]
Of course there is an "American flag, apple pie thing" about free, public libraries! Democratic principles are foundations for the existence of free public libraries and many public librarians are at the front of intellectual freedom issues. Can those ideals of free access to information continue to exist if public libraries are run by corporations? Will those public librarians be able to act in the interests of the commonweal? Not if the librarian's first consideration is for the good of their corporate management. Support democracy, support your public library.
Posted by: Spencer E. Clough | Sep 29, 2010 2:21:36 PM
You are not reading anything into those appallingly, no doubt deliberately misleading remarks. See my own comments about the story at Accidental Blogger.
Posted by: Dean C. Rowan | Sep 29, 2010 11:43:45 AM