Why the New York Times and Library Patrons Shouldn’t Be Angry About Privatized Libraries

On Sunday September 25 the New York Times publishes an angst-ridden piece implying that there was something fundamentally wrong with privatized libraries and that libraries are a “sacred” public service that should be protected from companies making a profit on the backs of library patrons. In “Anger as a Private Company Takes Over Libraries” David Streightfeld writes:

A $4 million deal to run the three libraries here is a chance for the company to demonstrate that a dose of private management can be good for communities, whatever their financial situation. But in an era when outsourcing is most often an act of budget desperation — with janitors, police forces and even entire city halls farmed out in one town or another — the contract in Santa Clarita has touched a deep nerve and begun a round of second-guessing.

Can a municipal service like a library hold so central a place that it should be entrusted to a profit-driven contractor only as a last resort — and maybe not even then?

“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.”

As a patron of a huge library system that has been run by LSSI, the company that is featured in the New York Times article, for more than 13 years, let me just say that my personal experience with a public library under private management has meant longer library hours and more materials to choose from My children enjoyed story time just as much under private management. But don’t take my word for it! My experiences are validated by a large amount of outcome data that was recently published in a Riverside County report, The Riverside County Library System: Thirteen Years of Innovation, Experimentation and Progress, which details the real value that LSSI has added to the Riverside County library system.

During the 13 years of the partnership:

  • Supplemental funding of approximately $5 million in grant money was secured by LSSI, greatly enhancing what was accomplished over and above what tax revenues supported.
  • Support services provided by LSSI, including accounting, automation support, training, and human resources, have been consolidated, resulting in far less overhead–saving $900,000 in operating costs the first year.
  • A doubling in the library system’s materials budget the first year, which has since grown approximately ten-fold to almost $2 million annually;
  • A 34% increase (on average) in expanded library operating hours the first year (which have now more than doubled).
  • The public/private partnership has completed 20 construction projects, including 11 replacement facilities and 9 entirely new libraries, as well as 7 major library renovations.
  • The library system introduced an early childhood literacy program that has helped over 15,000 children enter school reading or ready to read since 2002.
  • The partnership created an English as a Second Language program that has helped thousands of adults learn to speak, read and write English.
  • The county library system launched an award-winning Latino outreach program called Leer Es Triunfar (Reading Is Succeeding) and become a best-practice example in the state of California for such programs as Día de los Niños/ Día de los Libros.
  • The partnership initiated and continues to operate six joint- use library facilities shared with local school districts.
  • The library system installed a Radio Frequency-Identification (RFID) self-service system in many facilities, so people can check out their own materials, speeding up that process and also preventing theft of materials.
  • LSSI introduced a new web site providing 24/7 access to reference services, databases, interactive programs, staff blogs, and a chance to comment and interact with others around topics and areas of interest. Users can also request RSS feeds sent to their email, and interact with library staff and services online.
  • LSSI installed a new print-on-demand system with a $100,000 grant from the State of California so patrons can print, cover, and bind books from computer files. The service is free if patrons return the book to the library’s collection after they read it; as an option, they can elect to keep the book and pay a small fee.
  • In 2005, the American Library Association awarded Riverside County Library System the prestigious John Cotton Dana Award for its Latino outreach program Leer Es Triunfar (Reading Is Succeeding).
  • Circulation in the last three years has increased over 70% and attendance at Riverside County Library System programs has increased 150% in the same period. The increases shown above in attendance at programs from 1997-98 to 2008-09, including an astounding increase in adult attendance from just over 1,000 to over 61,000 in 2009.
  • In Riverside County LSSI offered employment to all existing library staff. The new LSSI employees received their same rate of base pay, accumulated vacation time and vacation accrual rates. Their prior investment in the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) was protected. They also became eligible for Social Security for the first time and they were given the option ofparticipating in their new employer’s 401-K plan and other LSSI employee benefits.
  • Employees also became part of a merit-based, results-oriented awards system for salary increases and promotion. The arrangement has proven satisfactory for most: many of those incumbent employees are still working within our system; more than fifty received 10-year service awards from LSSI in 2008; and currently, Riverside County, through LSSI, is providing employment for 214 professional librarians and paraprofessionals.
  • Finally, LSSI does all of this at half the cost of the nationwide average for per capita spending on libraries. According to the American Library Association, nationwide, the average per capita operating expenditure for public libraries was $34.95 in 2007 (the most recent information available). Under LSSI management, Riverside county spends roughly half that amount while giving Riverside taxpayers and citizens more library benefits than ever before.

Maybe Santa Clarita patrons should visit the Riverside County Library System before they decide that library privatization means the end of the community enrichment provided by the local library system. Maybe the New York Times should call some community members in Riverside and see if they are willing to return to the service levels offered during the 85 years that the city of Riverside operated the county system.