"At the moment a storm is raging in California over the privatisation of public library services and the proposed introduction of Bill AB 438, a Bill that would require a city/authority to hold a referendum before handing its libraries over to a private firm to run. What has this got to do with the situation here? – well the biggest private provider in the US, Library Systems and Services (LSSI), just happens to be looking for business in the UK.
LSSI are currently talking to a number of authorities in the UK including Wokingham and Croydon; they have stated that they are looking for a 15% share of the sector but have not to date signed any contracts — as far as we know? It is also worth pointing out that another private firm John Laing Integrated Services currently runs Hounslow Libraries which have latterly suffered significant staff cuts and threats of closures .
Clearly the issue of privatisation is one that polarises opinion, especially in the US where most commentators are pro-privatisation with the counter-protest coming from places like Santa Clarita and the ‘Privatisazation Beast’ campaign set up by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
In the UK there is evidence that the majority of opinion is “anti”. Reasonable people of all economic backgrounds and political colour do not welcome the piecemeal destruction of their valued public library service. Some of my own reasons for opposing the privatisation of public libraries are listed below :
- Private companies are accountable to their shareholders. They exist to make profits and this, to me, in relation to running a public service is a fundamental conflict of interests. (LSSI are majority owned by the private equity firm ‘Islington Capital Partners’)
- There is always a real risk that a private company could fail, leaving the service and users high and dry.
- Public Libraries are perceived by most to be a ‘haven in a heartless world’ that offers a ‘neutral’, ‘public’, ‘non-judgemental’ and ‘safe’ environment. Privatisation introduces a commercial element into the equation which radically changes this status.
- LSSI, the main player, has a reputation in the US for using non-unionised staff, not paying pensions, cutting terms and conditions, deprofessionalising the workforce and paring the service back to the bone.
If the reader does not find the above arguments persuasive, then the following quotes from LSSI’s founding father, Frank Pezzanite, and Jim Lynch, Vice President LSSI UK, might be a wake-up call :
“A lot of libraries are atrocious,” Mr. Pezzanite said. “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.”
The “slacks and trainers mentality” among librarians will be abolished, Mr Lynch says. In its place will be “a rigorous service culture”.
Need I say more?