On Privitizing Public Libraries (Some Thoughts)

A few weeks back, I can’t quite remember why, I asked my boss if she knew anything about privately owned libraries.  I didn’t mean some rich dudes personal collections of books and maps and shit, I meant a legitimately accessible library that was not publically funded but instead owned by a private business.  I asked this mostly as a hypothetical, unsure if such things even existed.  I knew that various corporations maintained libraries for record keeping and other word related material, but I was thinking more along the lines of a normal public library collection, albeit owned by a company rather than being a part of a municipality.  How would such a library work?  Patron memberships and more stringent overdue fees?  What kind of policy and procedure would such an institution uphold?  Seriously I was curious about this.

Well my questions have been somewhat answered (“somewhat” is key here).  I point you, oh friendly readers, to an article in yesterdays new York Times titled “Anger as a Private Company Takes Over Libraries.”  Turns out that there really kind of are privatized public library systems.  the article focuses mainly on the outsourcing of the Santa Clarita library to L.S.S.I.  The articles focus is primarily on the opposition to the outsourcing of libraries to companies like L.S.S.I. as well as challenges pose din such actions, however, it does confirm to me that there is such a thing as privately owned library systems.

Over the past couple of years many public libraries in this country have suffered some serious budget blows. As municipalities struggle to overcome steep deficits and budget cuts, public libraries are often casualties in money-saving scenarios.  Privatization through companies like L.S.S.I. are one possible solution for keeping a library system functioning while not being a major drain to a county of city resources.  But is it the best solution?

Even as many libraries are facing vast budget cuts, public library use has been skyrocketing in recent years.  Much of this is driven by libraries being one of the few locations in many communities providing free Internet and computer access.  Also, with many Americans facing tighter incomes, there is a strong appeal to being able to check out a book or DVD  for free instead of having to drop $15 anytime one wants to read or watch something new.  However this discrepancy between dropping library budgets while often having increased patron use, is bound to cause issues.

Listen, libraries are valuable, and I am not just saying that as a public library employee.  The services provided by modern libraries goes far beyond just letting people check out books.  You also have the Internet and computer access, the availability of a mass of online resources for just about any research or knowledge based needs, a wide variety of multimedia material (CDs, DVDs, eBooks, MP3 players, etc), various programs and classes for patrons of all ages, and often remote access to reference resources, plus much more.  Libraries provide a great resource for continual learning and access of information. 

However, I often wonder if libraries can’t be doing it better.  I think that there is a lot of progress in many areas, but I also notice hesitations and slowed progress which can ultimately result in a loss of patron confidence and utilization.  Privatization could potentially drive a new perspective in the way in which libraries function and serve a population, but it must be done carefully and consciously.  

A library must first and foremost listen to its patron population and make sure that it is serving those patrons to its best capacity. Without steady patron usage a library will dwindle and decay.  Second, there needs to be a strong reliance on expertise.  Libraries have been around for a long time, and have also been quite successful.  A large part of the long and successful history is due directly to the people who have focused entirely lifetimes to creating meaningful and beneficial collections and services.  A move toward any privatization should not disregard an established expertise if that expertise is ready and willing to contribute toward changes and progress.  Finally, a good library system must be flexible to near constant change.  At its core a library is a recepticol for information and if it falls behind in an ability to provide relevant information then it is stagnating.  The most successful libraries are the ones that can adapt to and adopt new forms of information delivery and promote its use in the community that it serves.

There is part of me that understands the concerns in library systems like Santa Clarita about the move to a private ownership.  I think a big part of it is just the idea of outsiders coming in and “taking over.”  But also, how tried and true is the process?  Is there enough evidence that library privatization is an effective thing?  All in all though, I do not think that outsourcing a library need necessarily be a bad thing.  I think if the management is done properly and with consideration towards its greater patron service then there will be more success.

Interesting stuff really.  Anybody else heard anything about like happenings?

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~ by Nathaniel on September 27, 2010.

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