The American Library Association has, so far, appeared cautious in its slowly evolving position on library privatization. This month, however, it looks like some ALA state chapters are beginning to take a stand against the Privatization Beast.In this month’s Illinois Library Association journal, the ILA Reporter, librarian Meg Klinkow Hartmann examines the ethical and business cases for library privatization. In “Show Me the Money: Privatization and the Public Library,” Hartmann cites a doctoral thesis by Heather Hill that reviewed several LSSI contracts for library management in various parts of the country (note: many of these contracts are not easy to find). In Hill’s review of these contracts, she found several striking similarities:
- A complete lack of contract language definining what a well-run library is and provides
- A reduction of the public library to a commodity and patrons to customers
- Contractual language stating that oversight of the contract is provided by an administrator under contract to the private company; in other words, LSSI oversees its own contract with the local government.
“As to ethical concerns, a private company may decide to use or sell patron records for marketing purposes and feel no obligation to adhere to the ALA’s stand on retaining private information. Underserved populations may get short shrift, since the contractor will focus on easily achieved benchmarks of success. Sunshine laws do not apply in private industry. When the public good is not easily quantified, standards in collection development and services become prey to economics and the profit motive.”
Dollars and cents, as Hartmann points out, are in direct competition with the ethical underpinnings of the library profession. When push comes to shove, the company’s bottom line will always prevail.
If the ethical and professional arguments don’t convince you, Hartmann points to LSSI’s mixed record of success. At the LSSI-run libraries in Riverside, California, “unit cost for service delivery increased by 58 percent after an initial introduction.” In Fargo, North Dakota, LSSI was “delinquent in its bills and the contract was terminated.” It’s clear that turning over library management to a private company (or worse yet, an out-of-state company owned by a private equity firm, as in LSSI’s case) does not necessarily lead to cheaper services.
What can we do to stop efforts by LSSI and others to privatize public libraries? Hartmann’s advice is to be proactive. You can start by helping defend the public libraries of Santa Clarita, California, where the city council there is weighing the option of withdrawing from its freshly signed contract with LSSI. Let’s send Santa Clarita’s city council Hartmann’s message, that, “Where capitalism reigns, the benchmarks of success have little to do with community needs.” Libraries belong to the community, and should not be run for the profit of a private company.