or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Privatizing Libraries

   March 25th, 2008

Tewksbury Public Library logoThe idea of privatizing libraries in Oregon made news a few months ago, and recent articles in the Boston Globe are reporting that now two Massachusetts libraries are facing privatization.

I personally don't like the idea of privatizing a public library in general, but now it's a little more personal: one of the two libraries mentioned, the Tewksbury Public Library, is in the same consortium as my library.

It's also personal because on April 1st, both Tewksbury and Chelmsford residents are voting on tax overrides that will affect library funding and services. Tewksbury is in more dire straits than Chelmsford, but if our override doesn't pass, we will lose staff and be open fewer hours.

But back to the first Globe article. Towards then end, there is a quote from (I think) a Tewksbury resident:

The government cannot run anything that a business couldn't do better.

Are you kidding me? Would you feel better if your town had a privatized, for-profit, police force? And didn't fire departments start out as subscription-based, until communities realized that it was in their best interest to protect the entire community equally?

As far as library privatization goes, I am certainly not an expert on how it happens, but it sounds like a bad deal to me. One article states that privatized libraries get their funding from grants and taxes, but not fees - which along with aid money from the state, is exactly where our budget comes from now.

If a library is privatized, there is the possibility that it would no longer get aid money from the state. So for this to save money, they'd have to really cut costs, and it looks like the strategy is to not provide benefits to staff. Which means that library staff would go from "the best people available" to people who are able to work at a job with no insurance (this in a state where it is now illegal for residents not to have insurance).

And what happens to patrons? Being part of the same consortium means Chelmsford residents can freely use the Tewksbury library and its materials. If run by a for-profit private company, it makes sense that they would stop this practice, because no revenue is generated by sharing their materials with people that don't pay taxes in their town.

I'm sure they have a reasonable business model worked out, or else communities wouldn't seriously consider this. But I like the quote that closes the article:

The library's public, so everyone can use it.

Exactly. Remember a previous post where I was debating between answering the phone "May I help you?" and "Can I help you?" In a for-profit world, customer service loses priority to the financial bottom line, so I think I'd have to start answering the phone with this question:

Is this good for the COMPANY?

Update 5/28/08: Yay: MA Library will not privatize

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6 Responses to “Privatizing Libraries”

  1. Lichen Says:

    What about the implications for patron privacy? Does a private library still fall under the laws that protect patrons against the unauthorized release of records? I think these are state laws and some may offer protection for private libraries, but I’m not sure.

    Also, what about censorship? If a library is private and for-profit, isn’t it possible that the management might have a vested interest in concealing certain information from the public and therefore compromise the industry line against censorship?

  2. Brian Herzog Says:

    I’m sure this varies depending on jurisdiction, but my guess (and I emphasize guess) is that the laws cover public libraries.

    It’s been suggested that since privatized libraries are still funded (in part) by tax dollars, then privacy laws will still apply. I don’t know if that’s true, though – school and public university libraries are funded by tax dollars, yet I think their privacy and censorship rules are inherited from their institution.

    I wrote to LSSI to ask how they handle patron privacy, and will post (with their permission) their answer here if I receive one.

  3. Brian Herzog Says:

    Ron from LSSI was kind enough to reply to my message, and here is his interesting reply:

    LSSI is a library management outsourcing company. LSSI operates public libraries in accordance with applicable statutes and library policies set by their respective library boards and officials. We uphold privacy laws and library policies like any other staff.

    LSSI does not privatize libraries; it does not purchase the assets of the public libraries that it operates. Their library collections and buildings belong to their communities–as do their library policies.

    Ronald Dubberly
    President of Public Library Operations
    Library Systems & Services, LLC

  4. Dawn Says:

    So..what happened in the 4/1 vote??

  5. Brian Herzog Says:

    For Chelmsford, the override did not pass by a margin of 5,695 to 4,545 (which was far closer than most people expected, I think). Town departments will be meeting between now and July 1st to work on implementing our reduced budget for the next fiscal year.

    For Tewksbury, I was apparently wrong on both counts. Their voting was on April 5th, and an override was not on the ballot (I even called their Town Clerk’s office to confirm, and she said she got calls all day Saturday from residents asking why the override question was not on the ballot).

    Their main contests were for Town officials, and from reading news reports, it looks like an override played a large role in the candidates’ platforms.

    Also, since this post I’ve talked to a librarian at the Tewksbury Library, who said that privatization isn’t nearly the immediate threat news reports made it out to be. It is one possibility being discussed, but she said the Town has many options before the situation ever comes to that.

  6. Brian Herzog Says:

    Yay: MA Library will not privatize