IN LATE OCTOBER, Jackson County, Ore., re-opened the doors to 15 of its public libraries after a lack of funds had forced them shut on April 6-the largest library closure in U.S. history. However, as patrons returned to the bookshelves in the southern Oregon county, they learned that their libraries are now under private, for-profit management.
Oregon suffered a $150 million budget shortfall-and Jackson County a $23 million loss-in fiscal year 2007, after the federal government failed to renew a $400 million annual subsidy designed to help rural communities suffering from the decline in timber-logging revenue. Though Congress eventually extended the funding by one year, Jackson County commissioners, strapped for cash, voted to outsource library services to the Maryland-based Library Systems & Services (LSSI), which specializes in library management. Founded in 1981, the company initially operated federal libraries during President Reagan's era of privatizing government services and contracts. LSSI now privately manages more than 50 public libraries nationwide.
Companies like LSSI focus on counties that are desperate to keep their public agencies afloat but lack sufficient funds to do so. In the case of Jackson County, officials offered LSSI a five-year contract worth $3 million annually, with an additional $1.3 million reserved for building maintenance. The deal cuts in almost half what the county previously spent.
Public libraries in Dallas, Riverside, Calif., and Finney County, Kan. have also hired LSSI staff.
But the trend of farming out public libraries to a private, profit-oriented business has raised concerns. For one, private companies are not subject to the same oversight as are public institutions. More importantly, libraries have long been considered democratic bodies built on the cornerstone of information diversity, transparency and intellectual freedom.
"Libraries tend to reflect the communities they serve," says Loriene Roy, president of the American Library Association (ALA). "[They] respond to community needs and they do so within their budget, but they are not set up to make profit. A company coming in that doesn't exist within the community that is profit-making, you can see that there is a different attitude and there is concern about that."
Under public management, transparency tends to be clear. As much as 80 percent of public library funding can come from local tax support, making libraries accountable to a board of trustees with representatives from the community.
While municipalities have for years contracted "non-library services," such as janitorial duties or photocopying, the outsourcing of "core" library services-cataloging and use of automated systems and material acquisition-has increased.
This prompted the ALA to create an Outsourcing Task Force and conduct a study on privatization in 1999. Two years later, the ALA council adopted a stance opposing outsourcing, stating that libraries are "not a simple commodity" but "are an essential public good" that should be "directly accountable to the public they serve."
LSSI makes its money from the difference between the budget and what it spends-or does not spend. It typically downsizes staff, centralizes accounting and human resource services, and buys books in bulk, all while passing down administrative costs-sometimes as high as 15 percent-to patrons as general handling fees. …