You Can't Judge A Book Loaner By It's Cover
September 28, 2010 5:31 PM   Subscribe

Coming soon to a library near you, outsourcing. LSSI is now the 5th largest library services provider in the US. The ALA is surprisingly neutral on this issue. "In general, there is no evidence that outsourcing per se has had a negative impact on library services and management. On the contrary, in the main outsourcing has been an effective managerial tool, and when used carefully and judiciously it has resulted in enhanced library services and improved library management. Instances where problems have arisen subsequent to decisions to outsource aspects of library operations and functions appear to be attributable to inadequate planning, poor contracting processes, or ineffective management of contracts."
posted by Xurando (45 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Well, it is the American Library Association as opposed to the American Librarian Association...
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:35 PM on September 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

I was going to say exactly the same thing.
posted by twirlip at 5:36 PM on September 28, 2010

It seems to me that this is really, in essence, a pay cut for the library employees disguised as 'outsourcing'. I'm sure LSSI keeps most of the library clerks as long as they accept the new contracts.
posted by demiurge at 5:42 PM on September 28, 2010 [4 favorites]

They had a version of this article in the paper around here.
I can't find a copy of it, but it said that even with spending $3 million on the outsourcing contract, the city was going to save that much over running the libraries itself.

That's a huge savings in today's economy.
posted by madajb at 5:47 PM on September 28, 2010

So much for defending public interests.

Libraries and librarians do a good job of standing up to ideologues that try to control and restrict the content of materials in our libraries. So, when someone with too much time and way too much "moral" outrage tries to get a book of the shelves libraries are really good at not caving to the pressure.

Of course for-profit companies are notoriously controversy averse. So, the next time that someone thinks some content is inappropriate, I'm sure the company will waste no time in removing the content.

posted by oddman at 5:52 PM on September 28, 2010 [9 favorites]

This might not be the best solution ever, and it really sucks for librarians, but I think it's better than having cities with no libraries whatsoever. It's a sacrifice, but maybe one that's worthwhile in some places.
posted by inmediasres at 5:58 PM on September 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Of course for-profit companies are notoriously controversy averse. So, the next time that someone thinks some content is inappropriate, I'm sure the company will waste no time in removing the content.

There's no reason that an exemption to this rule couldn't be written into the contract. In fact, I think it'd be a damned good idea to have "This library will not censor or remove a book from its shelves. Ever." written down in a legally-binding document.

As far as I can tell, LSSI provides things like HR and long-term guidance. In these areas, economies of scale are very easily apparent, and I don't see this as being a particularly bad thing. Most of the negatives can/should be avoided in a carefully-worded contract.
posted by schmod at 6:00 PM on September 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Love that people are volunteering MORE at for-profit libraries. Idiots.
posted by cyndigo at 6:02 PM on September 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

LSSI CEO:"You can go to a library for 35 years and never have to do anything and then have your retirement. We’re not running our company that way. You come to us, you’re going to have to work.”

posted by scratch at 6:07 PM on September 28, 2010 [13 favorites]

The backlash against public-sector unions begins.

To be honest I'm surprised it didn't take longer. I'd expect to see more of this. There's a pretty big perception that public-sector unions are all about job security and entrenchment for the lucky members at the expense of the general public. It's pretty clear that unions are at the core of LSSI's sales pitch, although he doesn't say the word specifically:
“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. We’re not running our company that way. You come to us, you’re going to have to work.”
Ironically, I think unionized employees -- particularly public-sector unionized employees -- are increasingly regarded (by non-union workers low on the socioeconomic totem pole, anyway) as a sort of rent-seeking elite, having lucked their way into jobs that are de facto perpetuties, and therefore tearing them down is becoming an unsurprising populist vote-winner. This is just one aspect of that phenomenon.

Public sector employees and their unions need to fix that image problem, or pray that the economy and unemployment recovers quickly.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:20 PM on September 28, 2010 [15 favorites]

Incidentally, the third link (a ten-year-old study funded by an ALA grant, not a current ALA position statement) isn't talking about exactly the same thing as the first link. There's already a ton of outsourcing in public libraries -- most cataloging is not done by your local library, for example, and vendors shoulder a lot of the work of collection development in many places; it looks to me like the study is mostly about that sort of thing. The NYTimes article, on the other hand, is about firing existing library staff altogether and replacing them with non-unionized employees working for a private company.

I'd be curious to know what LSSI's record is when it comes to (1) responding to non-binding information requests from the cops and Homeland Security; (2) sharing patron information with other third parties; (3) dealing with homeless people and other so-called problem patrons; (4) responding to book-banning requests.

There's no reason that an exemption to this rule couldn't be written into the contract. In fact, I think it'd be a damned good idea to have "This library will not censor or remove a book from its shelves. Ever." written down in a legally-binding document.

Do you really think that's what happens? I think a library board that hands its libraries over to a private company is unlikely to take such a radical stand. Library policies about this sort of thing usually leave a certain amount of room for judgement calls by library staff, which means that an aversion to controversy on the part of the employer is a major factor, since the staff are accountable to them. Ditto for other areas where it's important for library staff to take a stand.

Love that people are volunteering MORE at for-profit libraries.

I love that the NYT takes this as a sign of success, when in fact it's a sign of inadequate resources.
posted by twirlip at 6:21 PM on September 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

Most of the negatives can/should be avoided in a carefully-worded contract.

Of course, cities are famous for their carefully-worded contracts protecting public workers and institutions....
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:23 PM on September 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

Public sector employees and their unions need to fix that image problem, or pray that the economy and unemployment recovers quickly.

Even if the economy recovers, public employee pension liabilities (especially for public safety employees who can retire with full pensions before age 50) are already destroying state and municipality budgets. People are not going to be willing to postpone their own private sector retirements a decade in order to pay for the Florida condos of retired cops (or librarians). That's all going to blow up in the next decade.
posted by orthogonality at 6:26 PM on September 28, 2010 [5 favorites]

Are library workers generally unionized in the US?

It seems like this kind of outsourcing is usually just a case of labour arbitrage to get around unions. Get rid of all the unionized workers, replace them with non-unionized workers at half the wage and you can pocket a good chunk of money as profit and still provide the labour for less money. Sure, there are economies of scale and such, but usually the union factor is the main difference.

The thing is, I'm not sure how you can stop this. I don't think the public is going to demand that the library workers are unionized. It might be better for the unionized workers to take a 20% pay cut rather than be replaced with non-union workers, but that doesn't seem feasible. Other than raising the minimum wage to make this a non-issue, I don't see an path out of these situation that works well for everyone.
posted by ssg at 6:30 PM on September 28, 2010

My kingdom for an edit window!
posted by ssg at 6:32 PM on September 28, 2010

I'd be willing to bet large sums of money that I don't have that there aren't a lot of librarians flush with enough entitlement time-bomb slush funds these days to buy a condo in Florida, let alone most other places. If ever there were any such librarians.
posted by blucevalo at 6:50 PM on September 28, 2010

I'll think whatever jessamyn does.
posted by Joe Beese at 6:59 PM on September 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

She outsourced her comments on this thread to me.
posted by twirlip at 7:19 PM on September 28, 2010 [5 favorites]

As a former head of cataloging, I'm not surprised. I was told more than once by the Dean of our academic library, the head of reference, the head of acquisitions and multiple reference librarians that cataloging was so easy and we were wasting valuable taxpayer dollars by insisting the majority of the cataloging be done by librarians. The idea of outsourcing and buying "shelf ready" books came up at least once a semester. And while I was deeply opposed to the idea, I was willing to consider it as an option if it made sense.

For us, the major issue was that our system was Dewey based and generating Dewey Cutter numbers for the books would be difficult for those not familiar with the library. Every time I brought this up in meetings, I was asked, "Just how important is it that there not be two different books with the same call number?"

I can only speak for my personal experience, but it seems that in the last decades, cataloging has been sidelined both in library schools and in practice. It is being downgraded at almost every turn by librarians and adminstrators that think it could be easliy replaced by outsourced records and paraprofessionals. When my catalogers were skipped over for reference librarians on digital projects because no one saw a "need of that cataloging stuff with the internet," I saw the writing on the wall. I think that librarianship has lost sight of one of the essential ways you provide access to information...coding, sorting, and cataloging that information in a logical and easy to understand way. Heck, maybe outsourcing will solve it, but I doubt it. Libraries are a valuable resource, and librarians and those that know how to use them have some massively vital skills that can be applied to almost anything, it just remains to be seen if it will be.
posted by teleri025 at 7:26 PM on September 28, 2010 [8 favorites]

Looking up some of the libraries mentioned in the article, it appears they're open on Sundays. Sorry to be so craven, but I would definitely sell out to the Man if it meant I could get my library open on Sunday again.
posted by Esteemed Offendi at 7:33 PM on September 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Is it bad that I checked out LSSI's job postings? Member of the MLIS club here, who checks for (basically non existent) local librarian positions in vain on a semi-regular basis.

There is some interesting discussion on library outsourcing (both the main blog post and the reader comments) here.
posted by medeine at 7:39 PM on September 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I understand how the business works. Take the paid for infrastructure financed with public money, cut staff costs by reducing salaries and backoffice and using your leverage with suppliers since you are now ordering 100 copies of Twilight instead of 10.
The rational p/l accountable middle manager side of me that looks at the budget and wants to maximize service to customers gets it.

Still this is terrible. They tried this with the county hospitals and the result was higher healthcare costs and ridiculous things like marble lobbied atrium and useless body scans instead of low cost physicals and an emergency room. They did this to college bookstores and bow textbooks are $300 each. We did this with army cooks and truck drivers and now KBR make a mint while our troops get food poisoning. This idea never works for more than a year or two.

I've got a better plan it's called tax the rich. We could pay for all these things and more by making people with over $2million/year in income pay 61% income tax. That's still 10% lower than under JFK. Those dollars in that rich persons bank account are backed by your blood. You want to be rich, you gotta be willing to pay for it. If you can't afford it maybe you should just he content to be middle class.
posted by humanfont at 7:45 PM on September 28, 2010 [21 favorites]

2004 article from Library Journal: When LSSI Comes to Town.

From the same issue, LJ on LSSI background, including financing and political issues.

LJ Insider update, dated 9/28/10 (after publication of NYTimes piece).

LSSI is a privately held company. It would be interesting to know:

- the annual compensation package for the CEO and the Chair of the Board of Directors/COO (his wife)
- the annual compensation package for members of the LSSI board of directors
- annual company profits (not just the P/L on a single contract; initial contracts are often lowballed and costs raised in subsequent years)
- employee turnover (not just at libraries LSSI has taken over, but at company HQ)
- number of contracts managed remotely from company HQ compared with actual hours charged to each contract
- what kind of oversight is provided by these municipalities over the execution of the contracts (since the company is at some distance away), and what kind of penalties (if any) can be invoked for unsatisfactory contract performance.

Islington Capital Partners lists only two companies in its portfolio, one of which is LSSI, and Bloomberg Business Week shows the interconnectivity between the two companies here.

“A lot of libraries are atrocious,” Mr. Pezzanite said. “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. We’re not running our company that way. You come to us, you’re going to have to work.”

Um, this is about somebody else's job security.
posted by apartment dweller at 7:48 PM on September 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

“A lot of libraries are atrocious,” Mr. Pezzanite said. “Their policies are all about job security."

Right, because excessive job security is ruining this country.
posted by clockzero at 7:52 PM on September 28, 2010 [8 favorites]

gah why don't I ever preview
posted by clockzero at 7:52 PM on September 28, 2010

My city (Santa Clarita, CA) voted last month to leave the Los Angeles County Library system and use these assholes. And by "city", I mean 4 of the 5 council members. During the public meeting, resident after resident went up to speak against it. But, that night they voted 4-1 for it anyway.

Here was a typical response to the news.

We weren't some po-dunk city that didn't know how to run it's libraries. We were part of one of the biggest library systems in the world. Now were going to fire all of our librarians and looe access to the rest of the LA County system. All because a bunch of racist bigots screamed about their tax dollars leaving the city and going to help some underfunded parts of the county like Pamdale.
posted by sideshow at 8:09 PM on September 28, 2010 [5 favorites]

Right, because excessive job security is ruining this country.

In certain sectors, it's not helping, and is serving to undermine government workers who are hardworking, good at their jobs, and work for the good of the public.

I'm quite liberal, although I don't buy into the mantra that the government owes jobs to its citizens. Workers should be protected and compensated fairly, but they should also be held accountable to a reasonable standard.

This debate was front-and-center during the campaign for DC mayor this year -- our current mayor is attempting to reform our considerably-worse-than-third-world school system, and ordered the firing of poorly-performing teachers (for pretty much the first time ever in DCPS history). Ultimately, it cost him his re-election.

The public sector has painted a huge red target on its back, and I'm afraid there's little that can be done at this point to save it from the populist furor.
posted by schmod at 8:13 PM on September 28, 2010

As an ordinary, moderately-well educated, decently-intelligent library patron, I didn't really understand what librarians do until I started frequenting this site. To me it just seemed like they shelved books and showed people where to find things. I always found it baffling that librarians had to have a master's degree. I have learned a little bit more about librarianship from MetaFilter, but I still don't really understand what the discipline involves or why it requires graduate study to master.

I think there are a lot of nice, well-intentioned people out there like me, who don't know what librarians really do, and don't see a lot of harm in being more efficient and saving tax money. So when a company like this comes along and says, "We can save you money and continue to give you the service you rely on," that sounds pretty good.
posted by jeoc at 8:30 PM on September 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

A mixture of private and public is usually best. Those arguing from ideological purity ie. must remain public, must be all private .. are not being pragmatic and I tend to distrust.
posted by stbalbach at 8:33 PM on September 28, 2010

I'd prefer a system in which no corporation profits from providing a public service.
posted by yesster at 8:59 PM on September 28, 2010 [7 favorites]

...appear to be attributable to inadequate planning, poor contracting processes, or ineffective management of contracts.

Yep, that's what makes outsourcing difficult, alright.

Why do so many organizations equate identifying a problem with making the problem go away?
posted by underflow at 9:13 PM on September 28, 2010

While the company says it rehires many of the municipal librarians, they must be content with a 401(k) retirement fund and no pension.
And there you have it. It's not really about saving money, since they are, after all, out to make a profit. It's about saving the asses of city governments who have been underfunding pension funds for years, if not decades, and are afraid to cut those of cops and firefighters because of the political backlash (closely connected to the likelihood that they have powerful unions and/or lobbying organizations, even if the librarians don't).
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:17 PM on September 28, 2010 [6 favorites]

The rational p/l accountable middle manager side of me that looks at the budget and wants to maximize service to customers gets it.

There's no reason why a library couldn't do these things before getting taken over by LSSI. They don't necessarily have to wait to get outsourced to run things efficiently.

E.g., they could work with other libraries and do bulk orders, leveraging an economy of scale (many libraries already do this); they could take pay cuts down to levels comparable with the private sector; they could use vendors the same way that LSSI does. And one would imagine they'd probably be able to the job better overall given the same amount of money, because they'd know their patrons and community needs better, and more importantly they wouldn't be taking any profit margin.

That's the challenge, right there. The budgets of the cities where LSSI has gotten contracts should be public, so it shouldn't be very hard to get a ballpark idea of what they charge.

And it's not just the challenge for libraries, it's the challenge for just about any part of the public sector that's looking at being outsourced. Actually, it could probably go for anyone whose job is at risk of being outsourced. You need to take a look at what the vendor is doing differently that allows them to offer not only a cost savings, but also support themselves at the same time. If you can emulate them and get close to their cost structure (within their profit margin -- meaning the more 'greedy' they are, the easier they are to beat), then it often won't make sense to outsource anymore.

As long as a compensation gap exists between the public and private sectors for similar jobs there's going to be a huge incentive for outsourcing schemes. I agree with orthogonality that this gap is probably not sustainable in the long run, but see two ways it could be unwound where it exists: either public sector employees will take pay/benefit cuts to bring themselves down to market parity voluntarily (or offer some sort of increased level of service/performance to justify the additional compensation) and save their jobs, or they can hang on until the public 'fires' them by bringing in outside contractors/vendors. The latter seems to be the common route right now, but there's no iron law that says it has to be that way.

afraid to cut those of cops and firefighters because of the political backlash

Police and fire services are not immune either. Although most outsourcing schemes that I've seen actually involve paying adjacent municipalities for services, it's still the same general idea. Ambulance and EMS have been farmed out to private companies in many areas for years.

In this particular instance it may be libraries getting it today instead of police/fire, but cost pressure isn't limited to any one area.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:54 PM on September 28, 2010

For fuck's sake:

“There’s this American flag, apple pie thing about libraries,” said Frank A. Pezzanite, the outsourcing company’s chief executive. He has pledged to save $1 million a year in Santa Clarita, mainly by cutting overhead and replacing unionized employees. “Somehow they have been put in the category of a sacred organization.”

Well, yes, I do indeed think that libraries are sacred, and I'm offended by this statement. I'm weird about books, in the way that's portrayed in Time Enough At Last. The public libraries in the US were pretty much a creation of Ben Franklin, so yeah, there is indeed something about the library system that is quite integral to the history of the country, and this moron, the head of the company trying to take over libraries, is showing us the depth of his understanding of historical facts, oh Fucking Joy. I can just guess how he really feels about libraries and librarians, oh right, they're all slackers looking to such on the federal tit, those fat cats. What a fucking load - how much does this guy take home, what's his payout on all this? Oh, right, no public accountability, another fine attribute of privatization.

In this insane world, the one thing I can rely on, turn to, engage in, be part of and enjoy, are books. A for-profit entity wants to privatize a critical public institution, one dealing in freedom of speech, and we're all willing to hand over the ability to squelch, censor, and filter the contents of public libraries to a bunch of faceless hired goons? Public money built those libraries, and now they're to be handed to private concerns? Bullshit.

As others have pointed out, we've seen how the privatization of public institutions (like the broadcast spectrum and military) has turned out in other aspects of our society. This is a very bad trend, a further erosion of the very fabric of the American experiment, and it makes me really sad and angry.
posted by dbiedny at 10:14 PM on September 28, 2010 [9 favorites]

That was an amazing quote, the one about not really working for 35 years and then cashing out (hello, Mr LSSI guy? Would you like my job? Really? Today I worked from 7am to 10pm, with a short break in the middle. Fuck you very much).

they could take pay cuts down to levels comparable with the private sector

My god, what do you think we get paid? We already make far, far less than private sector. The national median salary for librarians (professionals with master's degrees!) is currently shy of $56,000. I'm just going to let that statistic speak for itself.

Librarians are chronically underpaid (and what a surprise, libraries are chronically underfunded). In many ways, there's a strong similarity to the plight of teachers: low pay, required master's degree, low levels of public respect, lack of familiarity with just what 'they do all day,' and an overriding sense that the job could be better done by someone cheaper and less qualified.

There's a number of librarians that are unionized, but even more who are not (see: the battle in academic libraries to get tenure and equal status with professors). Librarians, again like teachers, are one of the worst paid master's degree holding professionals groups in the United States.

Librarians do not, as a general rule: shelve books, check out books, check in books, take money for library fines, or deal with any of the other myriad duties of the circulation clerks (who don't even need a high school diploma to do their job in some states). I understand plenty of public libraries and some academic libraries have their librarians do these functions. I think it unwisely blurs the lines between librarian and paraprofessional, but I'm losing that fight.

Librarians DO: answer reference questions, decide what books, magazines, etc would best suit their community (depending on how much of collection development has been outsourced and/or centralized, of course), babysit your kids in storytime, develop and teach classes on literacy, citizenship, and computer skills, work within the tight constraints of budgets handed down from on high to develop and maintain electronic resources, and maintain and service the computers that the public relies on.

I'm sure I'm missing things, and I'm focused here on the reference and public libraries side of the equation, but I think people should know this. Not every skill, but by god, it should be immediately obvious who the clerk with the high school diploma is and what their function is and who the professional with the master's degree is and what their function is. My mother is a library paraprofessional and I hold paraprofessionals in high esteem (they make the library go 'round), but I don't think it's too much to ask that the public be able to distinguish between their jobs!

Libraries (and librarians) fail to promote themselves effectively to the community. The community fails to comprehend the value of libraries to the community as a whole. It's a vicious circle and what results is this travesty, with libraries being taken over and pensions going poof. Join your local library board, Friends of the Library, city council, or other venues if you'd like to see change.
posted by librarylis at 10:25 PM on September 28, 2010 [9 favorites]

“A lot of libraries are atrocious,” Mr. Pezzanite said. “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. We’re not running our company that way. You come to us, you’re going to have to work.”

I was once closely involved with a public library system as an appointed policy adviser. Librarians work very hard; it's not an easy task. Check out repetitive injury syndrome for librarians; it's high.

The problem with libraries is that they are run by municipalities, where efficiency and innovation are usually bad words. In the case of public libraries, who suffers from this malady? Librarians, and their patrons - and the community.

Many cost-benefit studies have been performed over the last decade, showing that every dollar invested libraries *universally* (so far, in the studies performed) results in more than one dollar return to the supporting municipality.

That said, it is a major tragedy that libraries and librarians are under the ultimate control of municipal policy makers, who are mostly well-meaning, but incompetent. Libraries could be so much more innovative, with librarians leading the charge, but they're stuck in the doldrums of public policy makers, and now, hard times. If we lose out public libraries to outsourcers, we will lose the spirit of the librarians who make our public libraries the exception institutions that they are, and can become.

Mr. Pezzanite, although probably a wealthy man, is ignorant. What a tragedy that someone like that is responsible for the deployment of library services all over America. Heaven help us.
posted by Vibrissae at 12:40 AM on September 29, 2010

So...when the fuck will someone start outsourcing CEOs?
posted by Thorzdad at 4:45 AM on September 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

I would hate to see my local public library outsourced, since it employes several "unemployable" people. The library has to follow federal law and does not discriminate (age, gender, race). What I find especially commendable in the branch that I patronize is the fact that a person who has Down syndrome is employed as a shelver. She is slower, but always cheerful and friendly.

Can you imagine LSSI hiring a disabled person?
posted by francesca too at 5:01 AM on September 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

The failure of the library world to emphasize management is coming home to roost. It has long been a problem that a librarian who is great at librarianship suddenly gets promoted to management and sort of flounders. Their experience and skill is specialized - cataloging, reference, IT, etc - and they have little exposure to budgeting or management. As a result, they are set up to fail, their libraries suffer management issues and budget woes.

So the group that pulls the purse strings (town, county, university, whatever) brings in people with management skills, but no library skills, to take control. These people then make decisions based on the bottom line with little understanding or appreciation for the library's role in the community.

I've heard that my MLIS school has done away with its required management class. Instead, they claim that management will be taught in conjunction with the rest of the required courses. So there might be a 'management day' in a Reference class or something, I guess. Stupid, stupid. But then again, it does make sense given that when I took said required management class, I was the only person in there who had an eye towards that field. The rest of my classmates were checking off a requirement in between their archival, cataloging, reference, or youth librarianship specializations. They had no interest in budgeting or outcomes, which is fine - up until they get promoted for being good at their jobs and suddenly find they need those skills.

Libraries need advocates, yes, and most librarians have a lot of zeal for libraries. What they also need is the ability to speak the language of bureaucracy, the ability to quantify the library's benefit to the community, and the skills to be a leader in an organization, not a field.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:23 AM on September 29, 2010 [6 favorites]

There are too many professions that are beholden to the cult of the masters degree. Rather than pick on the Librarians though who arguable have shown some intellectual rigor, let's go to the board rooms and pick on the MBAs. Many of the things provided by these programs could be done at a lower cost through apprenticeships and professional certifications. I'd rather see PMP and JCP on a resume instead of an MIS.
posted by humanfont at 5:53 AM on September 29, 2010

The budgets of the cities where LSSI has gotten contracts should be public, so it shouldn't be very hard to get a ballpark idea of what they charge.

What a company charges as its price (in order to get a contract) and what it actually costs (to operate a library) may be two quite different things.

Attention needs to be refocused—not on the salaries/benefits of librarians and library workers before or after privatization, but on the company that is getting these contracts. And you won’t be able to do that, because it is privately held.

- Are there other competitors in the same kind of business (replacing municipal librarians and library workers with contractors), or are these contracts awarded on a sole-source basis? If so, where's the competition?

(There has been ‘outsourcing’ by libraries for a long time—book jobbers, online public access catalogs, cataloging services, periodical vendors, IT services—but those remained under the supervision and control of local library management).

- How much of the company’s total revenue is derived from these municipal “replacement” contracts and how much from other library outsourcing work? Are the latter types of contracts indirectly funding this business area expansion, and does that mean that determining the true cost of the contract is therefore hidden from public scrutiny?

- What kind of financial resources does the company have in reserve? What happens to the library, patrons, and library employees if it can’t make payroll? Since entering the library privatization business, has the company ever been late in making payments to other vendors?

- Does the CEO have an MLIS? Did the CEO graduate from college? What percentage of company employees (including those who manage these kinds of contracts remotely) have an MLIS?

- What kind of public accountability is built into this model? Who, at the local level, can the library public (who is paying for this, after all) turn to for insight about the execution of the contract? (The company opposed a Florida state rule requiring local library administrators.)
posted by apartment dweller at 6:15 AM on September 29, 2010

This library will not censor or remove a book from its shelves.

Libraries remove books from their shelves all the time for non-nefarious (i.e., non-content-related) purposes. It's called "weeding" in the profession.

Where do you propose that a library keep all the unused, decaying books that they can never ever get rid of, by your standard? I'm sympathetic to the intent behind this statement, but as written it's overly broad and has significant unintended consequences.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:31 AM on September 29, 2010

It's too bad that library schools didn't take seriously all the talk about the information economy. If they had, they would be running the economy, rather than being its most pathetic victims.
posted by No Robots at 8:11 AM on September 29, 2010

From a 2004 Library Journal article about LSSI:

-- Pezzanite said, "I get the impression from time to time that we’re considered to be the Darth Vader of the industry."

-- An LSSI VP stated that libraries should be run more like bookstores and questioned the value of reference and cataloging.

-- The same VP argued that libraries should be more like public radio and raise private funds to fund operations.

-- Fargo Public Library terminated its contract with LSSI after the company let bills go unpaid and after LSSI put pressure on the library to find ways to generate revenue and not spend out the library's budget.

As for cost savings, LSSI took over libraries in Jackson County, OR in 2007 and passed down 15% in "general handling costs" to patrons as fees, while cutting open library hours in half and decoupling all library staff from the state pension system as well as de-unionizing them.

Think tanks like the Hudson Institute argue that LSSI "simply provides efficient, non-nonsense, business-like management" against resistance from "vested interests like unions."

Some bloggers have read the New York Times article and love it -- "Let's hope this trend continues," reads the head of one University of Michigan professor's blog post, while one of his commenters chimes in, "I think now more than ever an outfit like LSSI is the perfect replacement for useless and overpriced city employees." A Reason Foundation blogger states, "My children enjoyed story time just as much under private management."

LSSI now is trying to take over the Stockton/San Joaquin library system. Pezzanite stated in a column in the Stockton Record, "LSSI will hire advanced-degree librarians and knowledgeable staff -- giving preference to all who are now employed under the current system -- at the same salaries, and provide generous benefits packages including a 401(k) plan; health, vision, dental and life insurance; and educational reimbursements."
posted by blucevalo at 8:13 AM on September 29, 2010 [4 favorites]

I'll try to see the other side's point of view :-)

The reason libraries are a drain on municipal coffers is their obstinate insistence on non-profit status. It's like a little commune where everyone shares and goods are free. I can't count how many times I've seen a mother with multiple kids in tow, checking out a dozen books at a time. It just reeks of entitlement and irresponsibility. Libraries do issue overdue fines, which do confer some sense of accountability; but they're really just taxes that flow back into the bureaucracy. A properly set rental fee, however, could generate profits and dividends for shareholders. (How can an enterprise be worthwhile if you can't even invest in it?)

Encouraging reading, in any case, is problematic unless you exert tight control over the books available. Otherwise, the public develops critical thinking, well-roundedness, and other undesirable traits. Prodding people to watch more TV, as we've seen, is better: TV is a much more effective media for propaganda. TV watching should continue to be encouraged and subsidized.

The for-profit library can quickly monetize some assets that current libraries, for whatever reason, leave uncultivated. Interstitial advertising in online catalogs is an easy and obvious win. Endcap displays in bookshelves is another. The spine, where patrons look for call numbers, draws eyeballs; and the back cover can be an ad every patron takes home with him. The biggest opportunity of all, of course, is the patron's browsing and checkout history ... a gold mine of information from which target advertising can be focused.

In short, let's take the "liberal" out of "library". Let's just say... it's long overdue. (cue David Caruso putting on his sunglasses)
posted by kurumi at 8:18 AM on September 29, 2010 [7 favorites]

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