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

Privatizing Libraries

   March 25th, 2008 Brian Herzog

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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“Raise your hand if you hate libraries”

   July 10th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Freakonomics Apple logoThe Freakonomics blog has an excellent post today, entitled "If Public Libraries Didn’t Exist, Could You Start One Today?" Certainly worth a read, and the comments are good, too.

And interestingly, I saw Sicko yesterday, in which a very similar principle was brought up: if something as socially-important as health care can be privatized, then why not privatize other public services: fire stations, police departments, libraries? Why should we hold onto our old-fashioned, socialistic, help-thy-neighbor way of running these services? Surely we should be looking for ways to make money off of these things, like good little capitalists. Or are some things more important than money?

Thanks Chris.
freakonomics, libraries, library, privatization, public libraries, public library, role of libraries

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