Danger in Privatizing Nevada County Libraries?

warningDave Moller, in today’s Union, reports on the looming budget shortfall in Nevada County’s library system, and the stark alternatives for dealing with it:  “privatization or crippling budget cuts.”

Moller’s article reads as though a number of budget-cutting strategies and other creative ideas are very much in play, but county Executive Officer Rick Haffey’s memo to the Board of Supervisors concludes with a much more definite and specific recommendation:

“Therefore, we are recommending that the County seek proposals for a qualified operator to deliver library services at the current service level within the existing resources. If we receive a qualified proposal(s) we will negotiate a contract for the Board’s consideration before December and  implement a contract at the very beginning of the calendar year. We need to convert the delivery of service to a contractor as soon as practicable so as to preserve as much of library resources as possible or it will necessary to reduce services substantially. Our current County Librarian would be retained to oversee and administer any contracts and to advise the County on Library matters.”

I assume that the term, “qualified operator” (as I emphasized in the quote above) refers to an organization such as LSSI (Library Systems and Services, LLC), the for-profit library management company that implemented “the first large-scale library privatization in the nation” in Riverside County, California.

I urge the Council to exercise great caution before adopting this proposal, and — no matter who the “qualified operator” turns out to be — take time to study criticisms such as this one by Matt Sylvain, Assistant Librarian at the Claire T. Carney Library, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth:

Library Professional Speaks Out on Possible Library Privatization”

There is literature on the outsourcing of library services that provides us with reasons to be suspicious of LSSI’s claims. In his article “The Outsourcing of Public Library Management” LSU Professor Robert Ward found that “achieving gains in efficiency, and citizen satisfaction, are questionable.” In his research, Dr. Ward discovered that in the LSSI-run Riverside, California library system, the library’s budget rose 18% from FY 1997-98 to FY 2001-02. Meanwhile services such as circulation decreased significantly, and the unit cost for service delivery increased by 58%. Paying more and getting less is neither more efficient for the municipality, nor is it more satisfying for citizens.

There are additional reasons to question and doubt LSSI’s ability to increase efficiencies and satisfy residents. The Fargo, North Dakota library system, for instance, terminated its contract with LSSI for allegedly being delinquent in paying bills. If this isn’t bad enough, as a private firm, LSSI does not have to be transparent. It does not disclose its budget and the residents it serves do not know how their money is used. One thing the residents do know, however, is that under LSSI, some of their municipal tax dollars will go to LSSI executives in Germantown, Maryland.

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  1. […] made that assumption myself in my article on October 9th, “Danger in Privatizing Nevada County Libraries?“, after reading Dave Moller’s piece in The Union on the same day, “Library faces […]

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