Just about everything in cities seems fair game for privatization these days. Trash pickup, parking meters. But libraries? That’s different.
The question, explored in a recent New York Times article, is as charged and volatile as you might expect.
Some cities are turning to a Germantown, Md., company to run their libraries to cut costs. The article is pegged on Library Systems & Services’ being contracted for the first time by a healthy city, not one that’s desperate. Library Services says it can cut $1 million from the budget of Santa Clarita, Calif.
In Santa Clarita, as elsewhere, the company consistently runs into an attitude that libraries are too important, too sacrosanct to be outsourced. Employees don’t like it—no surprise there. But some of the fiercest opposition comes from patrons.
Company officials counter that many libraries are poorly operated and exist as much to secure lucrative jobs as to serve the public.
Library Systems cuts costs mostly by slashing overhead and pushing out unionized workers, many of whom have both pensions and 401(k)s—think General Motors restructured.
Asked about the merits or demerits of a for-profit operator, Tom Shevlot, president of the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library board, said he’d never heard of the idea. As a result, he withheld judgment.
Musing hypothetically, Shevlot said the state’s lease of the Indiana Toll Road to a private operator appears to have been a good idea. But libraries aren’t roads, he emphasized. The work is service- and knowledge-based. So he questions whether high levels of service and expertise could be maintained in a system where profit was the motivation.
“You have to look at these things very carefully,” he warned.
The library is certainly under financial strains. The proposed budget it’s presenting to the City-County Council is 5 percent below last year, to $39 million, and includes big cuts in hours of operation, among other things.
What about you? Would you see a private operator as a nightmare, savior or somewhere in between?