California Librarians Warn, Beware of the ‘Privatization Beast!?

The Ventura County Star reports:

Dozens of librarians from across (California) came to the Capitol on Monday to rally in support of a bill that would make it more difficult for local governments to contract with private firms to run libraries.

They rallied as only librarians might, concluding the event with the reading of a homemade, hand-illustrated children’s storybook titled “The Privatization Beast Comes to Our Town” and the appearance of a person dressed in a bright yellow costume playing the role of the fictional beast.

The librarians are rallying in support of AB 438 (bill text available online here) sponsored by Assemblyman Das Williams (D-Santa Barbara). This bill would impose a range of requirements on local officials seeking to partner with private library operators to achieve cost savings, unless the library or libraries are exclusively funded by special taxes. Specifically:

These requirements, until January 1, 2019, would include, but not be limited to, publishing notice of the contemplated action in a specified manner, clearly demonstrating that the contract will result in actual overall cost savings to the city or library district for the duration of the entire contract, prohibiting the contract from causing existing city of library district employees to incur a loss of employment or specified benefits or an involuntary transfer, and imposing specified requirements on contracts in excess of $100,000 annually.

Finally, language in the bill specifies that AB 438 does not preclude local officials from independently adopting additional more restrictive rules.

However, given the history of successful library privatization efforts in California, AB 438 would best be described as a solution in search of a problem.

California has been a national leader in applying this policy tool. Riverside County, California became the first municipal government in the U.S. to contract with a private library operator in 1997, entering a partnership with Library Systems & Services, Inc. (LSSI) that is still in place today. In June 2010, the county published a report on the first 13 years of the LSSI partnership (report available online here), highlighting an array of benefits including:

  • Enhanced services, with operating hours, circulation and staffing more than doubling;
  • Decreased operating costs, totaling $900,000 in the first year alone;
  • An expansion in the number of branches from 24 to 33 (a 27% increase);
  • Over $15 million invested in new facilities or major renovations;
  • Increased services and expanded growth while maintaining a flat 1.15% ad valorem library property tax;
  • An average 111% annual increase in the collection development budget:
  • Enhanced financial accountability, and
  • Significant investments in new library technology, including the addition of over 200 public-access high-speed Internet terminals.

Over the last few years local officials across the Golden State have privatized library operations in cities like Santa Clarita, Moorpark and Camarillo. In February 2010, the Redding City Council voted unanimously to extend its contract with LSSI to operate the three libraries in Shasta County for three additional years. According to Kim Niemer, Redding’s director of community services:

[The contract renewal] is recognition of the progress and success of the library in the last three years […] As a result of the LSSI partnership, Shasta Public Libraries now provide residents in Redding, Anderson and Burney with better service, more convenient hours, new technology, clean facilities, courteous staff, and programs designed by and for their communities.

The successful record of library privatization in California speaks for itself. Local officials continue to effectively balance tradeoffs when deciding when and how to partner with the private sector, which proves they deserve to maintain their purview over libraries without intervention from Sacramento.

For more on library privatization, see Reason Foundation’s Annual Privatization Report 2010: Local Government; Part 7: Library Privatization Takes Hold in California (available online here).