There may be no more eloquent statement about the erosion of our civic connectedness than the news that public libraries around the country are starting to outsource their daily operations. Yes, public libraries are being privatized. This should not be entirely surprising, given how jails, highways and even military operations are being privatized these days. Yet it does raise the distressing question — If libraries are vulnerable, where will this momentum for dismantling our civic institutions end?
Julia Silverman of the Associated Press reports that about fifteen cities and towns around the country have outsourced their libraries by signing on with Library Systems and Services, Inc. (LSSI), a privately held Germantown, Maryland, company. Among the cities that have privatized their library management are San Juan and Leander in Texas; Redding and Moorpark in California; and the Jackson-Madison County library system in Tennessee.
The reason given for outsourcing library services is always the same: cost savings. But rarely do calmer-minds-in-charge stop to ask how those savings are achieved and what they communicate to the public. The first step in privatization is the hiring of new employees and the laying off of existing public employees and union members. LSSI also shortens library hours, sometimes dramatically. To reap new efficiencies, one can imagine a standardization of book acquisition. Will the new management really care about local needs and sensibilities?
The biggest loss from privatization may be the changed image of the public library. A civic institution serving public needs becomes a quasi-business dedicated to profit. That, in turn, changes our commitment to it. Would you volunteer and sacrifice to help out a local library that is run by an out-of-state corporation?
“This is a shift from the public trust into private hands,” one librarian lamented after his library was privatized. “Libraries have always been a source of information for everyone and owned by no one.” Libraries are not just another “cost-center” on a budget sheet; they are symbols of a community, democratic culture and equal opportunity. The privatization of libraries symbolizes our political unwillingness to provide for the common good.
Most cities and towns have financial troubles at one point or another, and any responsible government has to make ends meet. But it is telling that this necessity is not being met with belt-tightening or higher taxes — or some other community-based solution — but with a surrender of the institution itself to a private contractor. Our problem may not be with municipal finances per se (although much could be done there), but with our waning sense of the commons…at least, in fifteen cities and towns.