Public interest needs protection in deals to privatize libraries

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Opinion by Molly Spore-Alhadef Special to the Mercury News
Posted: 08/06/2011 9:54 PM

Across California — in Anaheim, Santa Clarita, Sonoma, Ventura, San Diego and elsewhere — a private library management company, Library Systems and Services Inc., has been wooing strapped cities and counties with the siren song of maintaining services and achieving substantial savings.

What could be better than a budget fix at no cost to the public? Nothing, of course. But as in any mating ritual, the public needs to question and verify the overtures of the private companies hoping to take over such a core public service. As the saying goes, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

In Santa Clarita, public officials made the decision to privatize their city libraries despite a public outcry from community members who wanted to maintain public control over their precious investments. So far, that city’s taxpayers have had to cough up $12 million in extra expenses for a privatization scheme  they were told would save them money. Other communities have seen experienced librarians replaced with less qualified staff and hours reduced.

Elsewhere in the nation, the Linden, N.J., library terminated its contract with LSSI after determining the town could offer the same level of services for $300,000 less. Fargo, N.D., also terminated LSSI’s contract after the company repeatedly requested budget increases and failed to pay bills on time.

Let’s not let another locality learn this lesson too late. Although I don’t believe it’s the right fit for libraries, I recognize there are those who believe privatization can work. Surely we can all agree that if it’s done, it should be done right.

The state Legislature is considering AB 438, a bill that would put in place basic safeguards to ensure taxpayers actually see savings as well as high-quality service if libraries are privatized. The bill requires accountability, transparent bookkeeping, adequate notice, the right to terminate the contract if the contractor doesn’t deliver and measures to maintain services. That’s why AB 438 deserves support.

Andrew Carnegie, who founded a huge swath of our nation’s free and open public libraries, required that communities make a commitment to maintaining library services. He believed that “a library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert,” which certainly rings true.

Now, at another juncture in our nation’s history, we need to renew the commitment to lifelong learning and access to information. If we don’t adopt safeguards, we risk losing a vital piece of our democracy and our community.

As a librarian for more than four decades, I’ve never seen so many people count on the library as a place to improve their lives and, through online courses, their job skills. Our proudest days on the job have been when patrons come back to the library after we’ve helped them learn computer skills or find information online, saying: “I’ve got the job!”

With school libraries short-staffed or even closed, we’re proud that our community libraries are a place where students can get help with research. We love hearing, “I got an A on that history paper because of your help!”

These kinds of encounters are the true purpose of a library: to serve the public.

We’ll know if LSSI and other private firms are legitimate if they continue to bid for library contracts when services, savings and accountability are established. If they embrace these standards and deliver what they promise, more power to ’em. If standards drive them away, we’ll know we were right to question their business model.

MOLLY SPORE-ALHADEF has been a librarian for 45 years, 33 of them at the Redwood City Public Library. She wrote this for this newspaper.

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One Response to “Public interest needs protection in deals to privatize libraries”

  1. Anne Dempsey says:

    To: Molly Spore: Are you originally from MA? Perhaps we went to High school together at AOA. I am also interested in libraries, as trustee for a public library here in MA.

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