How can we keep our libraries strong and independent? Ask local librarians

Opinion by Gail Lancaster, published in The Bakersfield Californian, Aug. 11, 2011

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We are living in the information age. Access to information is a prerequisite to almost any kind of success. That’s why, more than ever, free, accessible public libraries are a core public service — an idea that has come under attack in recent years as more and more cities listen to the siren song of private companies promising to take this core public service off the public’s hands.

But should a library really be a profit center? The first step is to look at the things that happen in a library, none of which lend themselves to turning a profit.

They are, in essence, public services, services that benefit our entire community.

As a librarian for three decades, I’ve seen firsthand the difference a library makes in the life of a person who uses one of our computers to fill out an unemployment application or complete Social Security paperwork. I’ve seen the love of reading passed from parent to child during our story hour. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve seen how the library makes our democracy stronger because citizens have access to unbiased information.

Often, a student can’t find all the information on Google he or she needs for a research paper. Many local historical records aren’t on the Internet. Most importantly, when you venture into the World Wide Web from your home, you don’t have access to a professional librarian dedicated to helping you sort through all the junk to find the most reliable information.

Even during these hard times, our libraries have continued to offer the wide selection of books for young and old, reference materials, and research guidance that we have always been known for. More than ever, we’ve also been a crucial resource for those looking for work, families that have had to cut out expenses like home Internet access, and those who just want to escape from all the bad economic news by diving into a great novel.

Maybe for these reasons, community support for our libraries has never been stronger. Our volunteers and Friends of the Library help us stretch a shoestring budget to meet the needs of everyone in our community.

But now, some say that’s not enough. Private library corporations have convinced some local governments that in this tough economy they can save money by privatizing essential public services such as libraries.

Unfortunately, these decisions are being made without basic safeguards to ensure the move to private control will really save money, or that the quality of our libraries won’t be sacrificed in the process. AB 438, legislation now being considered in Sacramento, could put in place these basic protections before our libraries are turned over to corporations and speculators who control them.

Without these common-sense protections — such as an analysis of the true costs of privatization — too many communities have learned the hard way that “private” doesn’t mean less expensive. Here in Kern County, our public library system is operated solely for the benefit of our community. We ensure that every dollar in library spending is devoted to creating value for library patrons. In contrast, private corporations have to make a profit, so communities end up paying more for the same services or accept reduced hours, access to fewer materials or less experienced staff.

Moreover, a library is an active public asset that citizens control for the betterment of their community. Privatization would turn libraries into a line item in a corporate financial statement.

I believe strongly that our libraries should remain public, but if our community chooses another path, protecting taxpayers and everyone in our community who uses the library must remain the highest priority. AB 438 will give Kern County taxpayers and residents the tools to assure our libraries stay strong and accountable to the public.

Gail Lancaster is a librarian with more than 30 years of experience; she has served Kern County Library patrons for 12 years.

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