Lazy Librarians And Other Privatizing Tales

Where’s Laura Bush when we need her? While the country’s most renowned ex-librarian is enjoying retirement in Texas, there’s a company abroad in the land quietly privatizing public libraries and trashing librarians while they’re at it.

In a recent New York Times article, we learned that public libraries, a sacred, respected public institution if ever there was one, have joined police and social service agencies in the outsourcing gunsights. The article cites Santa Clarita, California, where city officials have voted to turn their financially healthy public library over to Library Systems & Services, LLC (LSSI). LSSI is a national library outsourcing firm, which is now the fifth largest library system in the country, having privatized public library systems in California, Oregon, Tennessee and Texas.

Why privatize a healthy system? Well, in the article, the Santa Clarita political leaders say it’s to "ensure the libraries’ long-term survival in a state with increasingly shaky finances." And how will LSSI do that? Frank J. Pezzanite, LSSI CEO has "pledged to save $1 million a year in Santa Clarita, mainly by cutting overhead and replacing unionized employees."

Mr. Pezzanite is passionate about his company’s mission:

A lot of libraries are atrocious, ... their policies are all about job security. That’s why the profession is nervous about us. You can go to a library for 35 years and never have to do anything and then have your retirement. We’re not running our company that way. You come to us, you’re going to have to work.

(Mrs. Bush, are you listening?)

Pizzante’s harsh view of librarians doesn’t seem to be shared by citizens of Santa Clarita, at least, and I doubt very many other Americans either. Public libraries occupy a special place in our hearts. As one retired teacher said at a recent Santa Clarita city council meeting: "Public libraries invoke images of our freedom to learn, a cornerstone of our democracy."

Mr. Pezzanite recognizes that public libraries have a special hold on the American imagination:

There’s this American flag, apple pie thing about libraries. ... Somehow they have been put in the category of a sacred organization.

But while libraries evoke images of freedom and democracy for some, for Mr. Pezzanite, they evoke images of library pensions bringing down municipalities, just as "pensions crushed GM." When LSSI takes over the Santa Clarita library system, employees who are rehired will have 401(k) accounts, but no pensions, according to the Times. The Service Employees International Union, which has 87 members in the system, is protesting the outsourcing.

Not surprisingly, LSSI is well-known among professional librarians. It has a history of making inflated claims about what it will accomplish. One source citied by the Library Journal says that Santa Clarita citizens are going to mount a "multi-pronged attack" against the outsourcing. The Journal also reports that, according to a county librarian, under LSSI, library patrons will no longer have direct access to card catalogues at the library, but will have to funnel loan requests through a countywide cooperative.

All in all, the outsourcing of city libraries is not going down so well with the city’s library patrons. In fact, there’s even talk of a recall petition aimed at the city council, to protest the move. One elderly patron, who has used the system for 50 years, set up a card table in front of the main library branch and gathered "1,200 signatures in three weekends" to protest the takeover. She worries that the LSSI takeover will bring with it "greater cost, fewer books and less access," with "no benefit to the citizens."

The worry about the future of libraries and the importance of access to materials is rooted in research. The new Reading Is Fundamental research review found that access to print materials (including access to libraries) were strongly associated with better educational outcomes.

What probably won’t be found in research is the feeling Americans have about a cherished public commons, where people volunteer to help school kids find books and nurture love of reading.