Who’s the Boss?

Does private management have a place in public libraries?

July 12, 2011


The survival of many public libraries has been threatened as their funding has dried up in recent years. City and county officials are casting about for a lifesaver, and some have snagged a promising catch in the form of private companies that take over the management of public libraries. A September 26, 2010, New York Times article describing this occurrence in Santa Clarita, California—the first city with a relatively healthy library system to privatize its management—triggered a heated debate in the library community.

The Library Research Service (LRS), a unit of the Colorado State Library, picked up on this debate and developed a 60-Second Survey to gauge the library community’s thoughts on the topic of privatizing public library management. LRS’s 60-Second Surveys are short and to the point. Narrow by intent, these online surveys capture the perceptions of respondents on a single timely topic. They are publicized through local, regional, and national library discussion lists, blogs, and other channels. As a result, most respondents have some connection to the library profession.

For the privatization survey, a series of questions asked respondents to identify whether they thought public or private management would achieve better outcomes in regard to various services. LRS posted the survey online for a four-week period in November and December 2010. A total of 2,509 respondents completed the survey, representing every state and several foreign countries. More than half (58%) worked in public libraries, 17% in academic, and 10% in school libraries. About half of the respondents were in supervisory positions: 25% were directors and 26% were managers or supervisors.

Accompanying the responses were 1,500 comments—some quite lengthy—that offered more nuanced insight into respondents’ varied thoughts on privatized management. Not only does this level of feedback support the obvious conclusion that privatization of public libraries is a controversial subject, but it also reveals the many different angles from which people connected to libraries view it.

The main goal of this study was to assess the perspectives of practicing librarians on privatization. However, we also interviewed Mark Smith, a vice president of library operations at Library Systems and Services (LSSI), the primary private company in the United States offering library management services, to provide insight into the private sector’s perspective.

The debate

Privatizing public library management has been on ALA’s radar for more than a decade. It created an Outsourcing Task Force in 1997 to advise the Association on outsourcing and privatization and adopted a policy statement in 2001 opposing “the shifting of policy making and management oversight of library services from the public to the private for-profit sector.”

Given this precedent, it is not surprising that library professionals are skeptical about relinquishing management to a third party. When asked to choose between two options—whether public library management should remain in the public sector to avoid a focus on profit or whether management should be privatized if it means providing better services at lower costs—a full 87% of survey respondents agreed with the former. Outsourcing cataloging or processing to third parties has by now become common practice for many American libraries, but the prospect of turning over responsibilities as community- or library-specific as management and collection development to the private sector raises significant questions about who retains authority over what, and whether the library’s mission and users will remain top priorities.

Survey responses revealed that many library professionals fear that privatizing management would adversely affect public library services. “The mission of the library would be absolutely compromised through privatization, including patron privacy and access to a nonbiased canon of information,” one respondent remarked.

When choosing whether they thought public- or private-sector management was more likely to achieve a list of outcomes for public libraries, at least 3 in 4 respondents identified public-sector management as the best way to improve the quality of library services, increase the relevance of libraries’ collections, employ qualified staff to meet community needs, and protect patron privacy. Public-sector management drew even more support—from nearly 9 out of 10 respondents (88%)—when respondents considered the library’s ability to serve all the members of its community and the strength of the library’s connection to the community it serves (Chart 1).

Chart 1. What type of management is more likely to achieve the following outcomes in public libraries?

Chart 1: What type of management is more likely to achieve the following outcomes in public libraries?

The types of positions respondents held made a difference in how they answered these questions. Directors were often the most likely to indicate that both types of management—public and private sector—were equally likely to achieve the above outcomes. This pattern was most pronounced when it came to the protection of patron privacy (Chart 2).

Chart 2. What type of management is more likely to protect patron privacy in public libraries?

Chart 2: What type of management is more likely to protect patron privacy in public libraries? By position.

Librarians are right to count matters such as collection relevance and patron privacy among their major concerns, as they are central to any public library’s mission. According to Mark Smith, a private company must consider these matters as primary interests as well.

In an email interview, he explained that the policies of each LSSI-operated library, including patron privacy and collection development, are set by the library’s governing body, not LSSI. LSSI and the libraries it operates are bound by state statutes to protect the confidentiality of patron records. The company does offer support in policy-making when requested, and Smith said LSSI recommends that the libraries formally adopt the ALA Library Bill of Rights.

“We encourage our library staff members performing selection to buy materials broadly to serve the diverse reading, listening, and viewing interests of each of our library communities,” Smith commented. “We regularly provide justifications for purchases to our city and county partners when materials in the collection are challenged.”

A survey respondent who worked for a privatized library system noted that the process and outcome for assessing challenged materials in his or her library “were exactly what they would have been” before the management switch.

One apprehension that repeatedly arose in survey comments was whether a large national company could remain in touch with the needs of local communities or if it would produce “cookie cutter” libraries. This is a concern about which Smith said he was aware. “LSSI-operated libraries must be highly responsive to community needs because if they were not, our contracts would end,” Smith maintained. “We are held accountable to a higher standard than most public library managers, not only because we are governed by annual agreements, but because there is an unusually high level of scrutiny within the library profession of everything we do.”

Although respondents expressed major concerns about the impact of privatization on the issues discussed above, they were more likely to recognize its potential benefits on outcomes such as reducing costs and increasing efficiency. More than two-thirds of respondents thought that private management was just as likely as, if not more likely than, public management to achieve these outcomes (Chart 3).

Chart 3. What type of management is more likely to achieve the following outcomes in public libraries?

Chart 3: What type of management is more likely to achieve the following outcomes in public libraries?

The best of both worlds

Is it possible there is a middle ground in this debate?

Survey results indicated that while most respondents opposed outright privatization, they were open to incorporating business practices into library management. While a little more than half indicated that public libraries should be run like a public service, a sizeable percentage (42%) thought that they should be run like both a public service and a business (Chart 4). Notably, just 2% of respondents thought public libraries should be run like a business. Taken together, these findings show that the library community—as represented by those who responded to the survey—at most wants to tweak the public service model, not abandon it.

Chart 4. Should a public library be run like a public service or a business?

Chart 4: Should a public library be run like a public service or a business?

Interestingly, about half (52%) of the respondents in supervisory positions (director or manager), who presumably would be most aware of the complexities involved in running a successful library, indicated that libraries should be run like both a public service and a business. In comparison, only about one-third (35%) of respondents in nonsupervisory positions agreed with this statement. Similar response patterns for those in supervisory roles were found for all of the survey questions, suggesting that serious consideration should be (and already is) given to how the business model can be best applied to public-sector management.

While nearly three-fourths (73%) of survey comments contained pro–public management sentiments, close to one-fourth (23%) were either pro-private or discussed alternatives to the black-and-white, public-versus-private debate. For example, several respondents suggested incorporation as a private, nonprofit entity (such as the New York Public Library) or implementation of business practices into libraries’ current management structures.

“Ultimately, I think libraries should be publicly managed, but they really need to learn some lessons about efficient and cost-effective management from the business sector,” one respondent commented. “We gripe about budget problems, but rarely are willing to make the tough decisions that would be better for libraries in the long run. We need to find a way to be sustainable, not just solving the money crisis for another few months.”

What happens to the staff?

For better or worse, privatization may offer cost savings by centralizing services and streamlining processes for libraries that are struggling financially. Many of the survey respondents expressed concerns that additional cost reduction results from cutting services and shrinking salaries; more than 8 in 10 respondents (82%) thought that job security and benefits would be negatively impacted by privatization, and two-thirds were concerned about job prospects for MLIS librarians (Chart 5).

Chart 5. What type of impact do you think privatization would have on the following items?

Chart 5. What type of impact do you think privatization would have on the following items?

“I work for a privatized library,” one survey respondent wrote. “They save money by paying us less. When qualified staff leave, they replace them with unqualified staff for much less pay. The only reason customers don’t notice a decrease in quality soon after privatization is because the staff cares and tries really hard to provide good service. In a few more years, the rot will show.”

While it is unknown if this respondent works for an LSSI-run library, Smith likewise addressed issues of service, qualified staff, and compensation. “We minimize staff time and material resources in processes that do not contribute to providing direct library service,” Smith explained. “This does not mean we eliminate services that are deemed too costly, as is often suggested. The primary factor driving management decisions should be service—how to provide the best possible library service for the least cost. That is the definition of efficiency.”

Part of running an efficient library is hiring the right people for the right jobs. Smith acknowledged that some library work requires an MLIS librarian and noted that LSSI must offer competitive salaries for librarians with the degree in order to attract qualified candidates to those positions.

What qualifies a candidate to fill a position—particularly in management—is a subject increasingly discussed by many in the library profession. A number of survey respondents commented on the importance for MLIS education programs to include curriculum typically covered in business programs, including budgeting, personnel management, and facility management. “I get that university master’s programs are trying to cover a lot of ground, but in today’s world we’re shooting ourselves in the foot by not also teaching marketing and financial management to our future leaders,” one survey respondent remarked.

Certainly many librarians are prepared to meet the challenges of implementing business practices in a public institution, but doubt has contributed to an air of mistrust that pervades nearly all angles of the discussion surrounding privatizing public library management. In spite of these professional concerns, some survey respondents tried to turn the conversation back to the focal point of all library work: the users.

“It really doesn’t matter what I think—it’s what the communities providing funding think that counts,” one respondent proclaimed. “What has a community defined as ‘better?’ It’s up to us to make the case, and if public agencies can’t make the case that they can do a ‘better’ job for their communities, then privatization will be a trend that will continue growing.”

JAMIE E. HELGREN and LINDA HOFSCHIRE worked together at the Library Research Service at the Colorado State Library in Denver during Helgren’s now-completed research fellowship there. Helgren, who earned her MLIS from the University of Denver during her service at LRS, can be reached at jamiehelgren[at]gmail.com and Hofschire, research analyst for LRS, at Hofschire_L[at]cde.state.co.us.