Libraries And Outsourcing, Oh My

Dick Eastman just linked to this article from the New York Times, about an emerging and interesting trend: municipalities outsourcing library management to private companies. Good thing or bad thing?

Hard to tell from this piece, which relies heavily on quotes from a private contractor and a mayor who supports privatization, steaming the story along on the premise that Privatization Equals Efficiency. But it’s thin on concrete examples of what towns would get for their privatization buck. How exactly does this improve the lot of the  library consumer? Would it make it possible to restore cuts in hours of operation, for example?

Another irritating aspect of this article is that it reduces arguments against library privatization to “libraries are just different” (and un-privatizable). I have a funny feeling that there are skeptical arguments out there that reach beyond, “GAH! … but … it’s the LIBRARY! A SACRED TRUST!”

Look, I don’t equate my library with Lourdes, but I do recognize it as a free public resource in a world where sometimes it seems the only thing free and public left is going to be the restrooms, and not so many of those at that. Practically speaking, a lot of taxpayers in my town depend upon a free library as a meeting and research space.

So how does a for-profit company fit into the municipal library’s mission to be a free, public space where toddlers are read to, seniors mingle, students do research with databases? What’s in it for the private managers, and what comes out of my hide as a taxpayer and consumer? What, for that matter, is meant by “outsourcing”? It could mean cataloging, or management, or materials selection (i.e., purchasing books/media for the collection).

The answers could be depressing or exciting. But I can’t say you’d find them in this particular article. Oh well: Chalk up another issue for the watch list.

Further reading: The American Library Association has been writing about the pros and cons of outsourcing for some time; some of their material can be found at their website.


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