Privatizing Libraries

What with the wild and weird Presidential campaign, and the focus on the Supreme Court in the wake of Scalia’s death, there’s much discussion about the operation of the federal government. But Americans have really been engaged in a much longer debate–largely uninformed–over the role of government in general.

And that debate has “evolved;” a recent column from the LA Times brought me up short. It began:

The list of responsibilities that a local government must shoulder isn’t an especially long one. Typically it includes keeping the streets paved and the streetlights lit, maintaining adequate police and fire services, inspecting buildings, sometimes providing water. One hallmark of almost every local jurisdiction is the free public library.

So the proposal before the Kern County supervisors to turn over the county library system to a private company operating out of suburban Maryland marks a major step. If you’re looking for a sign that local political leaders are intent on giving up all pretense of working for the public interest, look no further.

As the columnist points out, the proposal to privatize the library system is part and parcel of the long slide in spending on public infrastructure, the result of viewing the public budget as an expense rather than an investment. The Kern County supervisors are choosing between turning the library over to a private, for-profit company, or imposing a sales tax increase of one-eighth of a cent to fund the libraries.

How, one might ask, does a company make a profit operating a library? According to the story, LSSI, the company in question, cuts down the number of employees, “squeezes” those who remain, and replaces existing pensions with cheaper 401K plans. Even then, the proposal defies logic.

Chronic underfunding and repeated budget cuts have allowed the Kern County libraries to deteriorate physically, while the county spends money instead on an 822-bed expansion of its jail. Library employees are among the lowest paid public workers in Kern County, the advocacy group says.

Turning management over to a firm that will add its own profits to all the other expenses incurred by a library system doesn’t seem on the surface to be a path to improved library services. The money will still have to be found to improve and maintain the physical plant, acquire books and magazines, and upgrade the system’s electronic access.

Something more fundamental is lost when a system such as libraries becomes privatized. The sense that government exists in part to provide infrastructure and services that should be immune from the influence of private interests.

Free public libraries create and nurture community. They cannot be replaced by bookstores (as former Mayor Goldsmith once advocated) or other for-profit ventures. Their importance in the age of the internet has actually grown, as they have moderated the digital divide and curated essential access to credible information.

Government isn’t a business. It exists to provide public goods– services that the private sector cannot and will not provide. When we starve and diminish it, we lose that which makes us a community–an “us”–rather than an assortment of winners and losers who simply occupy a common geography.

Privatized libraries are a step too far. Far too far.


  1. When I get bored, I read reddit. One of the threads recently asked immigrants, “What was one of the things you found in the US that you couldn’t get from your home country?” Public Libraries were rated very high on the list along with the enormous food options in the grocery stores.

    I liked to go to the library and get books so that I would have to clutter up my bookshelves with book purchases and that saved me money too. Every time I went, all of the computers were being used by people that didn’t have computers at home. It’s a great place to meet for groups that don’t have a permanent location yet and that too is free. Kids have reading hours. I miss the local library.

  2. “When we starve and diminish it, we lose that which makes us a community–an “us”–rather than an assortment of winners and losers who simply occupy a common geography.”

    This sentence, in a nutshell, describes what the Republican party has been doing to our entire country for the past 3-4 decades.

    The real shame is that there are voters suffering because of this and they are completely unaware who is really causing their pain. They continue to listen to the vitriol and hatred of the Republican party propaganda and have no clue that they are voting to destroy their own lives.

  3. Our local libraries are already engaged in corporate connections as all ebooks are distributed through Amazon. You cannot easily renew ebooks and are constantly reminded about purchasing them.

  4. Aren’t our libraries part of public education system? Except for the main library here, they are in close proximity to schools for easy access by students. Library and school were closely connected during my growing up years; giving me a vast source of information and spurred my interest in learning more about different subjects. Not all necessary information can be taught during the school day…or semester.

    Local cutbacks in funding cut back on qualified library staff; today’s libraries are computerized to research specific interests, educational and entertainment, requiring knowledgeable staff to aid those unfamiliar with the system. Movies can be rented as well as books and artwork with their histories to display in our homes. Do libraries still have Story Ladies who read to entire groups of kids, inspiring us to read more? My friend worked in libraries here for years till staff cutbacks; she received her Masters in Library Science believing it would help her with employment. She has never found a job to use her education but is still paying for those pesky student loans.

    Privatizing libraries appears to me to be another form of government control to cut back on the public education system already in deep trouble.

  5. I love my library and wouldn’t want to live without it’s management. It’s so well managed that I doubt companies like LSSI would want the business.
    Professor, I hope Mike Pence does not get wind of your Kern County report. Let him base his swan song on some other idiocy. There has already been enough upsetting news from the State House this year and the first quarter is only half over.
    I support the library through a pittance of taxation and I send in a little extra periodically.

  6. Teresa,

    You’re right as Sheila has said, “They want to rule they don’t want to govern.” Their template for ruling is a theocracy, not a democracy. And that’s why you’re not going to see protection for the LGBT community any time soon.

    The following is from the Jacksonville alternative magazine called Folio. The E-mail was sent to the Mayor doing the attempt by the City Council to pass an LGBT human rights ordinance.

    “…..however, there is an email like this one Mayor Lenny Curry was sent. “Is this the reason why voters voted for you? Do you not know that this is the Bible belt? To what end will you let the special interest go. [sic]”

    Last week, the Mayor and the City Council decided not to pursue an LGBT human rights ordinance. Mayor Curry never was for the ordinance. He’s backed by the Tea Party. The Mayor just needed a good excuse for himself and his City Council “buddies” to take the ordinance off the agenda.

  7. If you privatize the Library System, it will work like the American Business Model. Downsizing or now as they size right sizing from say 20 Libraries to 10 and cut the hours of service. Employees that remain will have their wages reduced or frozen.

    Unlike Carrier here in Indianapolis laying off 1,400 workers and moving operations to Mexico, the Libraries cannot move. Less than three years ago, the company received a $5.1 million stimulus-funded tax credit from the Department of Energy — for the sole purpose of creating and maintaining green jobs in the United States. Carrier, a subsidiary of United Technologies Corporation, won the $5.1 million award in 2013 after vowing to expand production of energy-efficient gas furnaces at its Indianapolis facility.

  8. Conservatives have been carefully taught that money coming from their public pocket is bad, but from their private pocket is good even though it’s the same money. They’ve willingly fallen for that cultism because they believe that from the public pocket is coercion but from the private pocket is choice and choice = freedom.

    Of course the truth is that public is an investment in both the present and the future for all and private is more immediate and certainly more personal.

    Of course given that perspective that they’ve been issued there are many places in the world superior to live in compared to America. I typically think of Somalia which traditionally has little to no government.

    Every man for himself, the ultimate freedom. The promise of conservatism here and the fact of living conditions there.

    What is the ultimate slavery though is living in America but wishing for Somalia. Why would anybody be so enslaved?

    The truth is that they love to live in America, in fact they feel entitled to it, but they want others to pay for it, mostly the poor.

    Most of us realize that the poor are so because they have no money. If we make them poorer and therefore more at risk for survival they literally have nothing to lose.

    People with nothing to lose also describes Somalia.

  9. Libraries are a conservative target for the same reason that the USPS is. They are sure to become much different because of technology, and the essential services they provide are of high value for poorer people and no value for wealthier people. So in a country yet to be realized of all wealthy people and modern technology both the USPS and Public Libraries would be of little value.

    But because of the nature of capitalism the wealthy can’t be wealthy without the poor as factory cannon fodder.

    So a country run by the wealthy, called an oligarchy or aristocracy or sometimes a theocracy is a fantasy in the modern world.

    But many go through life chasing fantasy. The last Republican “Debate” was a classic demonstration of that.

  10. Look no further than the current issue of the (formerly) venerable National Geographic. I realize it was not a ‘public’ periodical, but it is already heading downhill. It is already becoming the mouthpiece for privatizing public lands.

  11. I’m waiting for the Republican plan to install pay toilets in public schools; of course Voucher students will be allowed to go for free.

  12. Pete,

    “But many go through life chasing fantasy.”

    I would question MANY. From my personal experiences, a more appropriate word would be MOST. I apologize. I’m not in a very charitable mood these days.

  13. An act of kindness build many of our libraries in the US, thanks to Andrew Carnegie, from the famed Carnegie Steel Corporation which sold to JP Morgan and became US Steel.

    After, he gave away his millions for the betterment of the citizens

    What we need is another Mr. Carnegie to invest the American’s dream. And where better to find the American dream then in the open doors of knowledge, our public libraries.

    Gates, Buffett, Paige, Ellison, Zuckerburg, can a brother spare a dime?

    Please invest in America, not in a privatized America!

  14. Privatizing public libraries and library systems is an utterly absurd idea. We are already dealing with a situation where there are “information have’s” and “information have not’s” in this country. Doing this will only make this worse. The unbridled access to information is an essential ingredient in the preservation of our freedoms and also of human progress as it has been for centuries. As such it should never, ever, be just another commodity in someone’s business portfolio.

  15. George,

    Thanks for the link to Lissi. The Jacksonville Public Library system is the only public institution in the city that has not been taken over by the Tea Party influence. I can now see the “writing on the wall.” Without effective intervention, it will come.

  16. Am I interpreting this correctly? The article is blaming the Republican Party and conservatives for the demise of the public library??????

    Unfortunately, all of them (even the writer of this article and the responders) are responsible. Public libraries have been underfunded and ignored by both parties and the local community for way too long. The support of the public library has to start at the local level.

    I find it offensive that these folks are blaming a political party for something they should be fighting for at the local level.

    Just my two cents.

  17. Pete, I disagree with your logic. I for one am fortunate, in the top % of wage earners, and use and enjoy the value the library offers.

    Its not a social-class issue, its a selfish issue. GOP does not want to share any wealth nor benefit any less fortunate citizens.

    And that’s why were are at the point we are for the GOP presidential nominee; Hate, bitterness, and boorishness above all.

    The party of GOD (the GOP!), WWJD?

  18. Privatizing libraries? Crazy. The next thing you know they’ll want to privatize other things the taxpayers have paid for like schools, roads and prisons . . . O yeah . . .they’ve already done that. As I have said before, this isn’t about privatizing–it is about piratizing.

    PS: I can’t wait to see how many “unproductive” libraries are closed in poorer areas and what the cost of a library card will be.

    Some days it is VERY difficult to continue to hope. Pete’s first comment says it all.

  19. If you’re interested in a powerful social experiment some evening turn off TV and curl up in an easy chair with your screen size of choice and Google “TED Hans Rosling”. Be prepared for better entertainment and more important insight than was ever availible on TV. I think by now a whole evenings worth.

    Hans wants us to know the world better. So he simplifies complex statistics so that even we get the insights from it.

    One simplification is his class system – people whose transportation choices are limited to on foot, by bicycle, motorcycle, auto, airplane and perhaps their own airplane if I remember correctly.

    Each of us were typically born into one of those classes. Good fortune is a wonderful thing. What Hans likes to think about though is what is going on world wide in the distribution of those classes and the conditions each class experiences over time.

    Of course if you are limited to getting around on foot your choices in all other ways are pretty limited. On the other hand Donald Trump with his own internationally capable airplane has unlimited choice, unrestricted freedom.

    The question that an evening so spent typically brings to mind is simple: what’s the greater good? The few with unlimited freedom or the many moving up through the classes?

    Conservatives pretend they choose the latter while worshipping the former. Liberals assume the former and look to the latter as means to that end.

    Will you be the same person at the beginning and end of an evening so spent?

    It changed me into a recovering Republican from a comfortable one. A capitalist comfortable with democratic socialism applied where needed.

  20. The private sector renders winners and losers, but the obligation off the public (government) sector is to serve everyone. Books, periodicals, and computers must be accessible to everyone.

  21. JoAnn is exactly right. The privatization of libraries is another step to destroy education for all in our country. Keep the poor and minorities in poverty, keep depressing wages, encourage more voter suppression laws, underfund public education, demonize public school teachers, give the plutocrats the aristocratic status they so clearly feel they are due. When we surrender to those who would enslave us when we have tools available to fight back, we effectively guarantee our children enslavement or bloody revolution. History is full of examples.
    These proposals strike at the heart of our grand experiment. It makes me very sad and angry.

  22. I totally agree with those who see the danger in privatizing libraries.

    The republican party is already dead, or on life support. They have been taken over and purchased by the Koch Brothers who created and support the tea party – they promote “libertarian” ideas as if we will have more freedom without any regulation of businesses who pollute our earth, enslave our workers with low wages a family can’t live on, and want to gut every level of government so they can operate unfettered businesses in the name of profit. There are now plenty of tea party candidates who have won office because people don’t understand the GOP has been purchased by uber rich, very “un-civic” men so they can get rid of the EPA.

    They have pledged $900 million to defeat Hillary Clinton, the only qualified candidate on either side because they know they will be regulated by the EPA under her administration.

    I was raised near Kern County and this is a heavily white county that has apparently drank the Koch-flavored kool-aid; they want ignorant people to follow their tricks to destroy and gut our government because they don’t like regulation in any form. They also have no regard for citizens who want to educate themselves about our government or vote intelligently because it takes an idiot to elect these tea party candidates. Kern county is full of “yahoos” who are carbon copies of the Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity and Koch Brothers public who just hate fairness and justice in government. After all, this takes tax money which they have repeatedly refused to pay because their moral compass needle is stuck on “GREED”.

    Their right-wing agenda is to destroy women, hurt children and the poor, elderly and get as much wealth as they can while the getting is good and people don’t realize they are just greedy jerks who don’t care about this country, just their own personal short-term gains. These uber rich have no similarity to the Carnegie foundation which gave cities a start in the public library system. If we don’t wake up, the whole country will be coal, oil and McDonalds – after all we don’t need lungs, plastic or healthy diets – just more profit for the Koch brothers’ kingdom.

    We must defeat the tea party; meanwhile, the formerly “kinda” decent republicans can’t say a word because they have been neutered by these efforts of the tea party to privatize everything so they can turn the whole country into a profit center with dirty rivers so we can all drink Flint water.

    I am sure Donald Trump is popular in the Kern County area; I have old friends who are supportive of his ideas. His idea of getting companies to stop taking jobs overseas is to invite them to the oval office and make a “deal” with them – right, I am sure Donald has lots of ideas of how to profit personally by being president, and being civic is not one of them- a megalmaniac and narcissist has obvious self-interests at heart, but they disguise it like they are pro-business. The problem with this idea is that we tried that and it gave us the Great Depression. We got another near Great Depression but we bailed out the greedy bankers and wall street after they gambled the country’s future and lost; they crashed the world’s economy selling smoke and mirrors, and they got away without going to jail.

    I say we work hard to get Hillary elected and she can figure out a way to get the Koch Brothers regulated, fined for their polluting businesses which is oil refining; their part-time job is ruining the country, so they must be punished. Don’t let the anti-intellectuals take over the country; the next step is visible in this article, so well written and appreciated by me.

    Thanks Shelia!

  23. Wow. My local library is run on a shoestring & barely has a larger budget than the local HS football team. It’s hard to believe that Kern County would be able to “squeeze” the employees enough to pay the high-five-figure administrators and the mid-six-figure directors.
    Maybe if they “crush” the employees rather than “squeeze” them? All in the interests of efficiency, of course. And five or ten years from now when the company isn’t making enough money and reneges on the contract, Kern County can start over from scratch.

  24. If we sell our government, our voice, our power to the Kochs then we deserve what we will certainly get. Enhanced wealth redistribution and freedom lost forever.

  25. Believe it or not, Indiana has been a shining star in the library world for some time, because library money comes from taxes. In many states, where libraries have to beg and plead for funds, the libraries are pathetic. The Lake County and the Vanderburgh Public Libraries are wonderful resources that continue to expand services in creative ways, reaching out to all members of the public. To privatize theses libraries would be another nail in the coffin being constructed for us by our Tea Party legislators.

  26. Just another example of the dearth of innovation and willingness to take risk in the corporate world. Paying taxes is inevitable, so corporations and investors scheme to come up with ways to help themselves to tax money, whether it is to “privatize” prisons, schools, trash collection, TIF handouts or taking over other government services, and now they’re picking on libraries.

  27. Privatization is usually taxation without representation. Private companies are not transparent, representative, or responsive to taxpayers.

  28. From a school librarian, with apologies to Martin Niemoller:
    First they came for the school libraries, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a school librarian.
    Then they came for the public schools, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a public school teacher.
    Then they came for the public libraries, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a public librarian.
    Soon all sources of free public knowledge will be gone
    Will you speak then?

  29. Delighted to read the remarks from angry Hoosiers who are aware of the dangers of conservatism and are going usher in the curative sunlight of Democratic Socialism in November.

  30. Commenter, Paula, is correct in noting that libraries have done a lot of outsourcing to private businesses already (ebooks and journals, cataloging, library management systems, etc.). We say that this saves us money, because it’s cheaper to have someone else do the work than have a worker on staff. But the big picture – and the bigger concern – is how much this behavior has affected the skill sets of librarians and library workers, and how it’s set the table for the very act of privatization this article addresses. We, meaning myself and others within my profession, need to take responsibility for our role(s) in allowing this to happen and, more importantly, work to correct it.

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