Outsourcing: Turning a Negative into a Positive

January 10, 2011

Over the past few months, I have been contacted by a variety of media. Quite a few of my interviews with them were about the privatization of libraries. Interest in this subject was initiated by LSSI, a private-sector firm with contracts in place to manage the operations of nearly 70 public library branches, whose president was quoted in the New York Times as saying, "A lot of libraries are atrocious" and "Their policies are all about job security. That’s why the profession is nervous about us. You can go to a library for 35 years and never have to do anything and then have your retirement."

As ALA’s president, I have met with dedicated library staff throughout the country. This unfair and inaccurate remark, during a heated election season with public employees often a target for candidates, demanded a response. I am glad that the New York Times published my letter of rebuttal. However, the interviews about privatization have actually been a great opportunity to provide information about libraries and library staff, including the level of education and training the profession demands, the vital role played by our institutions in their communities during these difficult economic times, and how technological advances are being used to provide users with the information and services they need, when they need them.>

Cultivating the best

This is not the time to shortchange libraries or the people who work in them. We need the best, the brightest, the most creative, and the most innovative individuals as school, academic, and public librarians. We need to get them and we need to keep them. Salaries and benefits should match credentials and the expectations of the workplace.

The terms "outsourcing" and "privatization" have been used interchangeably. In fact, they are quite different. With outsourcing, management and staff are firmly in control of the parts of a library’s operation being assisted by the private sector. Privatizing libraries means turning over policy-making and operation to an outside firm. There are dangers in doing so. As just one example, will a private-sector firm stand up for core values such as intellectual freedom and risk the continuation of its contract?

The issue of privatization is not going away. Over the next few months, it is important for ALA’s members to inform themselves about the reasons for our Association’s policy of publicly funded libraries remaining directly accountable to the publics they serve.

Visiting library schools

I have been able to attend and present at a number of state library conferences clustered in the fall and to talk with colleagues across the country. This has truly been one of the great joys of my presidential year. In the winter and spring, I will be reaching out to library schools nationwide to share with students the lessons I’ve learned from 36 years in librarianship and what I wish I had known when I began my career.

"Why I Need My Library"

The "Why I Need My Library" contest, one of my presidential initiatives, will launch during ALA’s Midwinter Meeting. Aimed at teens in two categories, ages 13–15 and 16–18, the contest will give the winning creators of YouTube videos substantial prizes to be donated to their school or local public library and gift cards as an added incentive. I hope that you will encourage young people to participate and showcase their talents as advocates for libraries. 

ALA President ROBERTA STEVENS is on leave from the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Visit robertastevens.com. E-mail: rstevens@ala.org.


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