News / USA

Check Out the New Library Sign: 'For Profit'

Some communities outsource control of local book-lending branches

During the economic downturn, library systems feel lucky to stay open with full service, let alone open beautiful new buildings like the stunning Indianapolis Marion County Central Library in Indiana.
During the economic downturn, library systems feel lucky to stay open with full service, let alone open beautiful new buildings like the stunning Indianapolis Marion County Central Library in Indiana.

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Ted Landphair

You'll almost always find four public services run by local governments across America: police and fire departments, the agency that fixes the streets and cleans the sewers, and the public library.

Notice that we said almost always. That's because the fifth-largest library system in the United States isn't local at all.

And it's not fully public, either.

Libraries are not only as American as apple pie, they're as local as the town square. But that's changing, at least a little.
Libraries are not only as American as apple pie, they're as local as the town square. But that's changing, at least a little.

It's a group of 14 library systems from Tennessee to California that are run by a private, profit-making company called Library Systems & Services, or L.S.S.I. This company has been given control of systems that were struggling to find enough money to stay open.

But L.S.S.I.'s latest contract, for $4 million, puts it in charge of a system in Santa Clarita, a Los Angeles suburb in southern California, whose libraries are holding their own financially.

To achieve profitability, Library Systems & Services typically slashes costs drastically, in part by replacing unionized workers.

L.S.S.I. chief executive Frank Pezzanite told the New York Times that a lot of local libraries are, in his words, atrocious.

Libraries are expensive to operate and maintain. They're now full of computers as well as books and maps, and it takes a lot of people to keep them staffed.
Libraries are expensive to operate and maintain. They're now full of computers as well as books and maps, and it takes a lot of people to keep them staffed.

"Their policies are all about job security," he said. "That's why the profession is nervous about us. You can [work at] 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."

Responding to outrage expressed in many quarters over the outsourcing of its three library branches, Santa Clarita's acting mayor, Marsha McLean, assured citizens that giving up control of the library was essential to cutting costs during economic hard times.

She stressed that the city's libraries would still technically be public, since the city owns them and anyone in town can still come in and check out books for free.

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