The public library is treasured even by people who rarely use it. Along with book-borrowing privileges and research tools, the library offers something more fundamental: As a public, local institution, it defends intellectual freedom and supports and responds to the particular needs and interests of a community.
At least, it used to. More and more, a library’s civic function depends on where you live. Writing for In These Times, Akito Yoshikane recently reported that Library Systems and Services (LSSI), a private, Maryland-based company, now runs 50 “public” libraries across the United States.
When funding issues force communities to consider permanently closing their libraries, outsourcing to LSSI can be a relatively attractive alternative. According to its website, the company can make a library “operate more effectively at lower cost per hour.” According to Yoshikane, the company accomplishes this by, among other things, downsizing staff, reducing hours, and passing costs on to patrons. And it keeps a portion of the community’s library budget as profit. What’s more, libraries that outsource core services to LSSI lose the local oversight typical of public libraries.
Not everyone is quietly accepting library privatization as an inevitable result of a free market and limited public funds. Local campaigns have defeated outsourcing initiatives, and, in at least one county, the Service Employees International Union local has gotten involved. Also, as Yoshikane notes, “the ALA [American Library Association] council adopted a stance opposing outsourcing, stating that libraries are ‘not a simple commodity’ but ‘are an essential public good.’ ”
(For a wider look at the state of public libraries, see this 2005 article from the Utne Reader.)