Posted by: Brad Nixon | September 29, 2010

Checking Out of the Library

Regular readers will know that Under Western Skies is a big fan of public libraries (for example, our National Library Week series, beginning HERE). The New York Times reported this week about a pending action in Santa Clarita, CA, a few miles north of LA, to withdraw its libraries from the Los Angeles County Library system and outsource their operation to a private, for-profit firm. As the Times reports, although numerous public library systems have taken this step as an alternative to closing libraries when confronted with severe budget cuts, the Santa Clarita proposal would be the first case of a purely voluntary, non-emergency action.

You may wish to read the article and consider your position on this matter. CLICK HERE.

This business of outsourcing library operations to the firm, L.S.S.I. gets under my skin in a number ways. On one score, it’s nothing more than union-busting. Is the city going to outsource their transportation department or their maintenance, so they can get rid of the Teamsters and the SEIU there, too? A centuries-long spirit of American anti-intellectualism has forced not only librarians, but teachers, too, to unionize in order to combat a general public view that knowledge workers such as they are not doing “real work.” Teachers are embattled everywhere by inane testing limits set by politicians, who apparently believe that since kids are sitting in those classrooms, teachers should be pouring knowledge into their waiting ears faster and more effectively.

Librarians are another step down the evolutionary scale from teachers, despite the fact that many of them gain their certification through Masters Degree programs and are the heart of a library. They’re not just there to reshelve books or scan the DVD you’re checking out. At their best, librarians are the intellectual engine that decides which books go on the shelf, which ones are to be retired, and can provide impressive guidance on finding information in a wealth of fields of knowledge. They’re not a commodity, they’re in limited supply, and they’re never going to be overpaid, even in my wealthy community.

Note the line in the Times article, “Under the new contract, the branches will be withdrawn from county control and all operations — including hiring staff and buying books — ceded to L.S.S.I.” Not many members of the public may have considered what happens to something like the process of selecting items for inclusion or retention in a library collection if the process is governed by a profit motive. It’s possible — admittedly, not guaranteed — that such decisions will not be made by skilled librarians who understand their community and current trends in fields ranging from children’s literature to history and philosophy to music. Instead, it’s possible that they’ll be made by a committee that considers primarily the cost of acquiring assets, and which also will cut deals with the publishers and distributors of products spread across many of the library systems L.S.S.I. operate, giving cost and the bottom line primary focus. Not the way to run a knowledge-based institution.

I am no particular fan of unions, per se. Not every librarian is a stellar performer, just as not every worker in any business is always outstanding (we hope the brain surgery departments are exceptions, but I don’t think they have to unionize, either). This move, though, does seem to me to be a significant point in America’s continuing discussion about public vs. private support for knowledge, education and equality.

The Times quotes at least one library volunteer in Shasta County who is continuing to eagerly support a library that has been through this process. Ask any librarian or library administrator or municipal officer who oversees libraries: volunteers are almost always crucial to keeping the institutions going; they do work that libraries cannot afford to staff; they generate operating funds and special funds via book sales and other events, and they serve as ambassadors for the library within their communities. I live in a very well-to-do suburb of Los Angeles that has its own library system, not part of the County’s system, and they have excellent libraries and librarians. They also have an outstanding Friends of the Library organization that raises sufficient money to allow the main library to be open on Sundays: that is a singular accomplishment. (I’ll insert here a note that budget cuts have forced LA County’s system to close most of its libraries on Saturday and operate only 5 days a week. I’ll say no more on that subject right now).

I cannot imagine what is UP with those library volunteers who keep volunteering at a for-profit firm. I fully understand their devotion to the cause of public literacy, and it’s admirable. Certainly, at the very least, a volunteer group should sit down and say to L.S.S.I., “Here are the conditions you WILL meet if you expect to have a single hour of our time, or a single donated book.” And those conditions should be extremely demanding. Otherwise, let the volunteers turn their efforts to the local hospitals or schools, while sending a clear message to their municipalities that beds that have been made must also be lain in. There are no volunteers here at my place of business, helping me get my filing done or take phone messages. Of course not. It’s a publicly held, for-profit organization. You’d have to be somewhat wacky to volunteer here. The same may need to pertain with L.S.S.I. libraries, oh Santa Clarita Council.

Libraries matter to communities, and not just to the children. Keep your eyes and ears open for a chance to support yours.

By the way, the movie I referenced in yesterday’s post came from the library, on VHS. If you still have a VHS player, don’t overlook those shelves of VHS movies at the library .They won’t last forever, and your library probably won’t be able to afford replacing ALL of them with DVDs, and some gems will be gone.

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Responses

  1. Thanks so much, Brad, for your impassioned response. As someone who chose to become a librarian in middle age, I embarked on this second career because of my own passion for public service and the opportunity to dispense a modicum of knowledge to those who can use my help. I make a helluva lot less money than I did in the private sector, in which I worked for 23 years. Part of the unwritten social contract I signed was that I would at least be somewhat rewarded for my efforts by becoming eligible (after 5 years, that is) for a solid pension plan. I may not work enough years in my second career to earn much from said pension, but I am counting on it being there in a way I have found I cannot count on the various 401(k) plans I contributed to while in the business world. So, I agree with your point that LSSI (which is staffed by many competent, even excellent, librarians) is definitely engaged in union-busting and, for that reason alone, I am disturbed by what events in Santa Clarita portend.

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  2. Brad, I appreciate knowing that others on the Peninsula are aware of the pros and cons of the LSSI/private vs public debate where it regards knowledge & information professions. Intellectual freedom IS at stake when the profit motive becomes involved.
    Librarians’ salaries compare with those of Foresters (just check the Bureau of Labor Statistics) yet we have at least one–some of us two– years of graduate studies to prepare us for the work. Reducing pensions/ union busting seems an extremely destructive trend which will drive talented people away from the profession and result in a brain-drain to other, more lucrative fields. I see that happening already in Education, and our society will eventually pay a price that will weigh more heavily than the short-term savings.

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  3. Not only is intellectual freedom at stake, but the strength of our culture and nation are at stake as well.

    To dispense with public libraries in favor of libraries controlled by profit and thus, by political/social /religious agendas will be to dispense with a VAST amount of accessible information deemed unfit for one reason or another. It would begin a slow decline of our strength as an educated, free, and independent nation.

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