Public Library, Private Management. (Enterprising: Business as an Act of Creation)

By Hemingway, Mark | The American Enterprise, July-August 2002 | Go to article overview

Public Library, Private Management. (Enterprising: Business as an Act of Creation)


Hemingway, Mark, The American Enterprise


A fresh blow in the battle for privatization of inefficient public institutions has recently been struck by an obscure little private company based in Germantown, Maryland. In five short years, the successes of Library Systems and Services Incorporated (LSSI) have turned the sleepy world of public libraries on its head.

LSSI has actually been in the library management business for over 20 years. It was founded when the Reagan administration decided that federal libraries could probably be run more intelligently by private industry. A group of professional librarians and automation specialists formed the company to take up a Reaganite challenge requiring them to provide the same level of service for at least 10 percent less money than the federal government was spending.

No problem. For 15 years LSSI managed federal libraries in places ranging from the Smithsonian Institution to the Department of Energy. At that point, company officials decided the skills they had acquired would also allow them to manage corporate, academic, and public libraries. They began marketing their services in 1997, and by July of that year were running the Riverside County Library System in California.

In theory, managing the public libraries of Riverside, which has 25 separate branches in 15 different municipalities, should be no easy task. Since LSSI took over, however, the results speak for themselves. Over a five-year period, weekly hours of operation have almost doubled, several older library buildings have been replaced or remodeled, the amount of money allocated for acquiring new books is up a whopping 250 percent, and there has been a 57 percent increase in the size of the library staff. But here's the kicker: Before LSSI took over, the operating budget for the Riverside County Library System was $6.3 million; the first year of LSSI's contract (1997) it was $5.4 million; last year, total spending in Riverside was only $6.3 million. That's a lot more bang for your tax buck.

According to Bob Windrow, the vice president of sales and marketing, "Our goal is to go in and provide a higher level of service for the same tax dollars. If we can't do that there's no reason for a city or a county to hire us." Windrow freely admits that "on more than one occasion we've gone back to the governing body [of a library] and said `Gee, for the amount of money you're appropriating, you're doing a pretty good job, you're getting about as much service as you can expect for that investment.

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