Wednesday, May 2, 2012


By Ove Overmyer
President, CSEA City of Rochester, N.Y. Library Workers Local 828 Unit 7420
AFSCME NY Local 1000 / CSEA

Rochester, N.Y.-- Disparaging public library initiatives that have produced marginal results is an insult to public library administrators and staff everywhere.

In an article written by Mr. Steve Coffman, The Decline and Fall of the Library Empire, the Library Systems & Services, LLC. (LSSI) argument fits in nicely with the austerity theories of political conservative right wing ideology-- lets attack public services because we, private corporations, pretty much own everything already and see public tax dollars as the last bastion to conquer. I take particular offense to the inflammatory use of the word "Empire," like we are in some kind of evil war. On second thought, maybe we are.

Still not the most common notion, the idea of library privatization is gaining steam around the country. We would argue that privatization would destroy our iconic houses of knowledge and quickly erode our quality of life.

Every entity, including public libraries, implement new strategies and every entity misses the mark sometimes. Isn't that how you grow? Status-quo is not good enough-- you have to make attempts to evolve and move your mission forward to be successful in carrying out your vision. Every company or government agency does that-- its part of the plan. To suggest public libraries are in decline is absurd. All you have to do is look at the statistical data we have generated in the past decade to suggest otherwise.

LSSI wants you to take your eye off the ball

Mr. Coffman’s pitch is just trying to get public librarians and local government officials to take their eye off the ball. His commentary is nothing more than a thinly-disguised knuckleball trying to drum up business.

In fact, American public library success stories heavily outweigh his hyperbolic theories. Our successes exponentially outnumber some of the library initiatives he rationalizes as "decline" and "failure."

 AFSCME and CSEA are two labor organizations that have been overtly fighting public library privatization and corporations like LSSI since 1981. Although both library administrators and staff recognize the author's talking points with attempts made to predict the needs of their communities, we believe that LSSI’s core mission at this time is unwarranted and extremely detrimental to any local government or community.

Agreed, we have seen initiatives and programs come and go-- but who would have predicted all the technology changes in this fast paced global world of ours-- it's very hard to write a plan of service when the technology you envision is outdated before you begin rolling out the software or association with a vendor. Furthermore, Mr. Coffman speaks in glittering generalities and does not substantiate his claims. He paints with broad brush strokes— a depressing abstract canvas with no defining lines.

 Privatization is the antithesis of what libraries should be

The very notion of public libraries becoming private or corporately owned flies in the face of a generations-old institution. Public libraries are truly the cornerstones and anchor of every community-- even in the digital age of the Internet and books on iPads, local libraries still act as education hubs for all citizens regardless of your walk of life.

What also differentiates public libraries being run by community stakeholders from what LSSI offers is the cost of labor-- skilled workers who earn a living wage. Library workers at LSSI libraries make less and are viewed as "cheap labor." What the American economy needs right now to build strong communities are good paying jobs with benefits-- not involuntary, temporary part time positions or minimum wage employment.

Moreover, if we move toward privatization like Mr. Coffman proposes, what we lose in the process is the ability to shape institutions that are uniquely our own. Public libraries are the only entities that can protect our opportunity to give people full and free access to information as they see fit.  Any company delivering library services would be more interested in maximizing its profits and answering to share holders rather than providing the freedom to access information and resources that require a community to maintain any standard of living.

To outsource an intellectual service suggests that it is a simple commodity that can be quantified, described in a written document or Request for Proposal (RFP), and contracted to the lowest bidder. Much of the important work of librarianship is abstract and non-quantifiable. The successful practice of librarianship is closely tied to the particular characteristics of the communities served. Considering today’s standards, to suggest a corporate business model could provide less expensive and adequate library services is suspect at best and has not been proven to be effective to date. LSSI’s track record so far has been anything but stellar.

Furthermore, corporations have traditionally been very heavy-handed in their attempts to make a profit, so in this type of situation, some formerly free services may begin to cost taxpayers money. Over time there may be a growing tension between the corporation and local citizens, and virtually every change becomes closely scrutinized by the public. The biggest downside happens if the corporation ignores the needs of the community and wields a heavy-handed corporate agenda. In effect, the library is no longer accountable to the citizen taxpayer—it becomes a slave to the shareholders and corporate owners. 

It is our belief that outsourcing library services will also lead to marginalizing the disabled, poor and our most vulnerable citizens. It would also lead to consolidation of services that would basically serve the most convenient or wealthy library users if a more capitalistic business plan is implemented.

Undeserved populations that are more difficult to reach may be excluded in the outsourced library as the contractor focuses on those benchmarks easiest to achieve with a narrower focus on customer demographics. This fear is not only being voiced by library staff in the library literature and on library listservs, but also appears in the letters to the editor and statements made at city council meetings of communities where outsourced library management is being considered.  

Privatizing Libraries,” a timely Special Report published by ALAEditions, provides a succinct but comprehensive overview of the "privatization" of public libraries. Authors Jane Jerrard, Nancy Bolt and Karen Strege provide background on the trend of local and state governments privatizing public services and assets and then examine the history of public library privatization right up to the recently introduced California legislation to restrict cities in the state from privatizing library services.

While talk of privatizing public services has fewer supporters than opponents, it’s probably a conversation that will not go away anytime soon. We should also examine what happens when a private, for-profit organization takes over essential management tasks and decisions of a public library, including the effects this can have on services, patron satisfaction and staff, as well as legal issues. Let’s put it this way-- would you rather have an out-of-town corporate raider run your local library or retain and employ community members and neighborhood professional librarians to run these institutions?

Library budget cuts are just misplaced priorities

photo: MSNBC
Shrinking public library budgets suits the LSSI narrative very well—it gets their foot in the door in the privatization conversation. 

Moreover, you would have to be living under a rock not to know American libraries are struggling with budget cuts. According to the 2012 State of America’s Libraries Report , staffing cuts happened at every level in 2011, from the local public and school library to the Library of Congress, which lost nearly 10 percent of its workforce.

Library advocates and library workers know that any dollar spent on library materials, programs and services should be considered an investment and not an expense. Libraries deliver a return on investment too, unlike other public services. While public libraries continue to do more with less, we have seen five percent more states report decreased state funding for their public libraries in 2011-2012 than in 2010–2011. Some 23 states reported cuts in state funding for public libraries, marking the third year in a row that more than 40 percent of participating states have reported decreased public library funding.

We all know budgets may be down, but we cannot overlook the fact that library usage is up: the ALA reports that public libraries in many major U.S. cities continue to see circulation rise as community stakeholders ponder privatization.

True library advocates should be very alarmed by LSSI and Mr. Coffman’s message— a move to privatize our public library systems will not make our communities fiscally stable, safer, smarter or stronger. Simply put, it will only funnel unaccountable tax payer dollars into the hands of a few corporate giants who are primarily interested in lining their own pockets with your tax dollars.

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