Monday, September 27, 2010

Private Companies Running Public Libraries

The newest fad in libraries isn't e-books, it's turning over the reins to private for-profit companies.  It's not widespread, but it's catching on.  As the New York Times reports, L.S.S.I. (Library Systems & Services - not sure where the I comes from) has taken over struggling libraries in communities across the country, with the goal of cutting costs and increasing efficiency.

Cutting costs and increasing efficiency?  That sounds great!  But how does it work, and how does a company turn a profit from a free public library?  For starters, L.S.S.I establishes a contract with the library's governing body.  Since the whole idea is to save money, we can assume that however much that contracted amount is, it's less than the preexisting library budget.  We can further assume that L.S.S.I. takes their cut right off the top, and divides the remaining funds for staff salaries and benefits, furnishings, collection development, etc., which means less money for those important expenditures.

One of the cost savings highlighted in the article is cleaning house on the library's current staff and hiring new staff (or sometimes the old staff) who will work for less money and less benefits.  Frank A. Pezzanite, the company's chief executive, espouses the belief that library employees work for "35 years and never have to do anything" before settling into a nicely pensioned retirement.  By getting rid of longtime dedicated employees, L.S.S.I. makes way for less experienced staff who will accept lower salaries and fewer benefits.

So here are my issues:

1. I resent the accusation that library employees, as a group, do not work hard at their jobs.  Just as I resent accusations that teachers, police, etc. don't work hard at their jobs.  In every workplace there are some that work tirelessly and some that do not.  Go-getters tend to climb the ranks and advance in their careers.  Those who don't work, tend to get fired.  Sometimes, yes, they sneak by, but that's no different from one place of employment to the next.  Every workplace has "that guy" that is never on-task.

2. Wiping the slate clean and cutting salaries and benefits will save a bunch of money upfront, but that only works at the beginning.  Those new employees, if they stick around, will continue earn more a little bit more each year, and thus cost the library more to keep, so costs here will go up each year.

3. Less money in the budget means fewer books on the shelves, diminished quality in the selection of materials and outdated materials.

4. The last quote in the article "We volunteer more than ever now." (from a library patron) makes me think that perhaps another way they're cutting costs is by not having enough staff to support library services.  Library volunteers are great and any library that has them is lucky, but they aren't a substitute to trained professionals.

5. I just don't see what L.S.S.I. can do for a library that a well-trained library director or consultant can't, unless it's really all about cutting costs by getting rid of union employees who "cost too much."  By having the library run by a private company, all union guaranteed benefits (salary, pension, etc.) are no longer available to employees.  And that saves money, yes, but it seems like the wrong way to go about it - taking money and benefits from your employees only to give most of it to a private company, just for getting rid of the union?

6.  I fear that there MUST be some other way this company is turning a profit.  Do they have proprietary software that you sign on to use as well?  Do they sell your patron records? What's the secret?

Note: I am NOT an employee at a public library.  I am not even an employee at a public school library.  I work for a private school, do not receive a pension, and am not a member of any union.

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  1. Oh, man. I hadn't seen this. That's ridiculous. If a for-profit company wants to fix a struggling public institution and improve efficiency ... start with the postal service. Thanks for the heads up.

  2. Yeah, why hit the libraries first? We are a small, small part of most city budgets. And hmmm, didn't they try this with schools a while ago? I recall it was rather a flop.

  3. Even if the private company runs a good library (I have no idea on their success rate), there are some things that are public services and shouldn't have a profit motive attached. I'm all for turning around failing institutions by bringing in new/additional people to implement a turnaround, but giving over the whole system? It just doesn't sit well with me.