Last month, three public libraries in the Los Angeles suburb of Santa Clarita ditched the L.A. County public library system, the biggest in the nation. To save money, they turned instead to a little-known but fast-growing private competitor, the Maryland-based Library Systems and Services International (LSSI).
Hardly anyone in the general public realizes it, but LSSI, which runs 68 branch libraries in California, Kansas, Oregon, Tennessee and Texas, is now the fifth largest library system in America.
Quiet though it has been, the rise of LSSI has attracted its share of critics, not just at the local level but in the increasingly nervous network of public library systems around the country. As city budgets tighten and privatizing services becomes more politically acceptable, LSSI keeps attracting interest from cash-strapped communities searching for ways to keep their libraries in good working order without spending more than they can afford. LSSI so far has no competitors in the private sector because, according to CEO Brad King, no other company has dared to go "where angels fear to tread."
Indeed, there's something for them to fear. LSSI has received consistently icy receptions in most of the places where it has come in and taken over. Every community has its share of library users who believe that a library system is a core function of local government, regardless of what the budget situation is. Some are turning to state lawmakers to pass legislation that would make library privatization more difficult.
Stockton, California, ultimately decided to continue running the Stockton-San Joaquin Public Library as a public entity earlier this year because of stiff local opposition to the concept of privatizing it. LSSI had promised to spend at least $800,000 more each year on books and materials while improving customer service and expanding operating hours by "as much as 47 percent" — a tempting offer for a library with few attractive options. But local residents either didn't believe that or didn't see it as sufficient incentive to take the library out of public control.
Some communities have tried going private and then changed their mind. The city of Fargo, North Dakota, signed up with LSSI but was dissatisfied and eventually reverted back to public-sector management. But it's probably fair to say that most of the privatizations have gradually won public acceptance, especially when libraries have lengthened hours and expanded services and collections under LSSI management.
Challenge to unions
The American Library Association has had an official policy statement in opposition to library privatization on its books since 2001, but ramped up its involvement in the issue this year. Many in the profession were rankled by a quote in a 2010 newspaper article from LSSI co-founder Frank Pezzanite: " 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."
LSSI has a track record of re-hiring staff from the libraries that it takes over, and claims to offer industry-competitive wages. But union protections and defined-benefit pension plans usually disappear, with a company-matched 401(k) plan in its place.
An ALA report released in June urges communities to thoroughly vet privatization proposals and provides a checklist for doing so. "We get reports all the time of companies calling up city leaders and saying 'we can save your library,'" says Patricia Tumulty, chair of the ALA's task force on privatization. "Well, how? Are we actually looking at the same hours of service? There's a different standard of transparency and accountability between a public library and a private organization."
In many cases, public library systems that get taken over by LSSI are in truly bad shape. Jackson County, Oregon, had had all 15 library branches shuttered for six months because of budget cuts until the contract to manage them was awarded to LSSI in 2007.
But Santa Clarita is a different story. The libraries there weren't in imminent danger of dramatic cuts to services and programs. There, LSSI convinced the local government that money was being wasted on overhead that could go to expanding the collections. So the three county libraries reopened to the public on July 1 under LSSI management. Centralizing and automating administrative and back-office functions can free up library staff to focus on interacting with library patrons, King says.
Santa Clarita resident Michael Wilkerson wasn't impressed on his first library visit after the change in management. "They don't seem to know what they're doing," Wilkerson says. "They were very scripted, 'Oh look, you want a library card? We have six different colors.''' Wilkerson is worried that the community feel of the library will disappear. He expects the company to cut corners on services and programs in order to make a profit and was outraged that the city council acted on the deal without more analysis or active pursuit of community input.
Local uproar over the move and the way that it was handled by the city council is fast-tracking a bill in the California Assembly that would make it harder for other cities to take the same tack. The legislation as originally conceived would have required a public vote before libraries could go private.
Now, a milder version lays out a series of due-diligence steps a community must take before outsourcing library services, including detailed financial analysis and increased public notice. The Assembly passed the bill in June and a Senate floor vote is expected in August. "All of the things that LSSI or another company promises to the public for cost savings should have proof," the bill's author, Assemblyman Das Williams, said in a heated hearing of the Senate Governance & Finance Committee on July 6. "And it should be proof that is presented to the public in a public meeting with adequate notice. That's what I view as the core of this bill."
The League of California Cities doesn't consider this approach a step forward. The League argues that the bill effectively would take the outsourcing option off the table for many communities, forcing them to resort to branch closures and shortened hours of operation. "The practical impact of this bill is to simply ban a city from contracting out library services," said Kyra Ross, legislative representative at the League of California Cities.
The legislation also is being pushed aggressively by the Service Employees International Union, which represents many public library workers. In a union online video campaign , a claymation "Privatization Beast" wearing a tie tramples through a nameless downtown and gobbles up a library while a narrator warns of the potential impact: "Libraries, though tiny and defenseless, are plentiful. Enzymes in the behemoth's esophagus immediately begin to break down the library, forcing it to charge a fee for services that were formerly free, such as patent research… and books."
Brad King of LSSI says such claims are groundless. "That's the most maddening thing that we deal with," he complains. "We've never charged a fee to the public for a service at all, ever."