Library: Privatization or Contract for Services?

empty_pocketsIn opening remarks before his presentation on October 13th to the Nevada County Board of Supervisors, Richard Haffey tried to refute the widespread assumption in our community that he is recommending “privatization” of the county library system.

I 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 privatization or drastic cuts, report says.”

Jeff Pelline also picked up the term in his entry on October 13th, “County to tackle library privatization on Tuesday.”

The Nevada City Advocate, also on the 13th, ran a story titled, “Supervisors vote to consider private management of county libraries,” which included this observation:  “In a response to the Nevada County CEO’s proposal to privatize the library system, a former Nevada City councilman is asking supervisors to keep the Doris Foley Historical library off the list.”

Many citizens who spoke at Tuesday’s Board meeting emphasized their objection to “privatization.”

So, what led all of us to assume that “privatization” is being proposed? Apparently Haffey’s own words in his staff report  to the Board (dated October 1st):

“Therefore, we are recommending that the County seek proposals for a qualified operator [my emphasis] to deliver library services at the current service level within the existing resources.”

The singular form of reference in the phrase, “a qualified operator,” carries the strong implication that what is being recommended is to contract with a single private entity for the management of the library system as a whole.

And section 5.2.4 of the RFP makes clear that the intention is  to preserve only the job of County Librarian, while restructuring all other jobs in the library system as employees of  “the Contractor:”

“At the commencement of the contract, Contractor must provide an employment interview to all current Library staff. Contractor is not obligated to hire current staff, but is encouraged to consider these individuals for employment.”

All of this sounds like what is commonly thought of as “privatization.”

Nevertheless, Rick Haffey, in his effort to refute the privatization concept at Tuesday’s Board meeting, offered these comments in his opening remarks:

“In my staff report I do not use the word, privatization … ”

“I want to make sure that people understand that privatization – in its truest form – is a misnomer for what’s being recommended here … ”

“Some people may think that we’re going to sell the libraries to a company to run … ”

“That is not the case. I want you to know that this is an effort to save our libraries rather than to privatize them and give them over to a private corporation … ”

“This is a request for proposals for contract for services … and we contract for services for many many county services … ”

“This is an effort to save our libraries … “

So, what’s the difference between “privatization” and “contract for services,” and does the distinction even matter? It may not.

The library privatization study group for the town of Dartmouth, Massachusetts, in its report, defined privatization and outsourcing this way:

“Privatization is the shifting of library service from the public to the private sector through transference of library management and/or assets from a government agency to a commercial company.”

“Outsourcing is the contracting out of functions that would be otherwise performed by library employees either because they choose not to perform the function or do not have the ability to provide what is needed.”

“It is important to note that when budget, policy control and property ownership remains with a government entity, there is no privatization but only contracting out for services or outsourcing. Therefore it can be concluded that there are no public libraries in the country that are privatized, rather some have outsourced particular functions.”

“LSSI is currently the only company that outsources the management of public libraries.”

For these reasons, the Dartmouth document refers throughout to “privatization/outsourcing.”

It’s clear from the Nevada County RFP that indeed budget, policy control and property ownership will remain with the county. Thus, Rick Haffey’s comment before the Board that “privatization – in its truest form – is a misnomer for what’s being recommended here” is — according to this Dartmouth definition — true.

And yet the popular understanding of the concept of privatization is that it consists in the outsourcing of the management, not just of assorted functions such as cataloging and copying, etc.

When I corresponded with Matt Sylvain, the Assistant Librarian at the Claire T. Carney Library at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth on this point, he observed:

“I think your Board’s executive officer has a point when he states that he’s not pursuing privatization in the truest sense of the word.  Although on some level it is really a game of semantics, and it is one that helps him since ‘privatization’ may carry a stronger negative connotation than ‘outsourcing.’ “

I expect this game of semantics — “privatization” denied by officials, but asserted by critics — will continue in our own community so long as the popular understanding of privatization persists in our imaginations as an increasingly discredited notion.

What will continue to be crucial is that we all have a clear understanding of the details. Who will keep their jobs, who will not, what functions will be outsourced, and at what cost?

Will the outsourcing of the management of the Nevada County Libraries result in an overall cost savings, apparently the motive for pursuing this idea in the first place?

The Dartmouth study, after examining all of the library systems that contracted with LSSI, concluded:

“There is no evidence that outsourcing of the public library operations has saved any of the communities involved any money. The impetus for outsourcing is usually dissatisfaction with the service provided by the current management.”

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