Maryland company builds library empire

Cities privatize services to cut costs

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Cash-strapped cities and local governments across the country, having privatized services such as trash collection and prison operations in efforts to make up budget shortfalls, are increasingly eyeing another service as a prime candidate for outsourcing: the neighborhood library.

To save money, counties and cities in California, Kansas, Oregon, Tennessee and Texas have outsourced much of their operations to Library Systems & Services LLC.

The Germantown, Md.-based company over the past several years has quietly built up what amounts to the nation’s fifth-largest library branch network, trailing only the systems run by major cities such as New York and Chicago.

As the company expands, many library workers are resisting the shift and others are challenging whether a service long associated with civic identity and pride should be run with an eye to the bottom line.

How it works

LSSI cuts costs in part by providing centralized services such as accounting and human resources. In most cases, library staff, formerly employees of the city or county, go to work for the company - although typically without the same levels of benefits and retirement support they received as public-sector workers.

Books, microfilm and other materials remain the property of the local government, and boards or library foundations still set policy and control the overall direction of the system.

While local governing bodies maintain some control, LSSI takes over decisions such as which books to buy or library hours. The company says it usually can maintain or even expand the hours of operation.

The average library patron will see little difference.

“When you walk into one of these places, you’re not going to see a dramatic change. You’ll see a lot of the same people working there, a lot of the same books on the shelves,” said Molly Raphael, president of the American Library Association.

Problems of privatizing

Ms. Raphael’s association opposes for-profit business control over libraries. Despite a familiar feel inside the library, the ALA says, any form of privatization can pose problems.

“Publicly funded libraries should remain directly accountable to the publics they serve,” reads a portion of the ALA’s policy on outsourcing and privatization.

In California, some lawmakers want to give residents direct control over the futures of their libraries. A bill awaiting a vote in the state Senate would require the public’s approval and a clear demonstration of cost savings before a local governing body could hire LSSI. Among the bill’s biggest boosters: the powerful Service Employees International Union, whose members often staff the libraries targeted for LSSI privatization.

“Taxpayers and the public deserve basic safeguards before such a valuable community asset is privatized,” the union’s California branch said in a statement last week.

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