Public upset over outsourcing of US libraries

Company now operates 82 public libraries in 6 states, seeks 24 more in California county

LOS ANGELES • A Maryland company that runs public libraries has more than doubled in size in the past decade as governments seek savings. Bibliophile residents complain an investment in knowledge and culture is being milked for profit.

Library Systems & Services (LSSI) is running into opposition as it seeks to add the 24 libraries in Kern County, California, to its portfolio of 82 in six states, allowing the county to shed a unionised workforce of 118. The county north of Los Angeles would be the largest addition for LSSI since the firm got into the book business in 1997.

The only coast-to-coast operator of public libraries has capitalised on a recession-driven trend of contracting out government functions.

"This is meant to increase business profits and drive down quality," said Mr Esdras Quintana, a 14-year library information technology employee and member of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

"We need to invest more in our libraries. Turning over our libraries to LSSI would not be an investment. It would be an abandonment of a precious public asset."

Officials in Kern County, an oil-producing and agricultural region of 850,000, entered into conversations with LSSI last year.

Even though Kern County has ordered departments to seek budget cuts over seven years, administrative officer John Nilon said the library move was not about reducing the system's US$8 million (S$11.2 million) annual budget. Rather, he said, it is about restoring hours and programmes.

"What's behind this is just a desire to improve library services," Mr Nilon said during a public forum last week at a library in Arvin, a town where a third of the 20,000 residents live below the poverty line.

STEP IN RIGHT DIRECTION

Libraries shouldn't be in the business of making profits. However, what they've got going on here with this company, they must be doing something right. This library is open seven days a week. They have everything here, and it shows.

MR TIMOTHY DOE, a part-time painter

Arvin's library is closed on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Many of the 40 residents who attended pleaded with Mr Nilon and other officials in English and Spanish to expand hours, buy books and upgrade technology. When Mr Nilon asked for a count of people opposed to private management, 28 raised their hands.

Today, LSSI is the fourth-largest library operator in the US, after public systems in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles County. Of the 82 company-run libraries, 47 are in California.

Mr Riko Mendez, political director for the SEIU local representing workers from San Jose to Kern County, said that LSSI's model is to cut salaries and benefits, rely on volunteers and make money by selling library-branded pens and other products.

The company's Valencia library in Santa Clarita, a Los Angeles suburb, bears no outward signs of being privately run. LSSI's logo is absent from signs and materials. Patrons said they had no idea a private company was running it.

"I cannot believe that!" said Mr Timothy Doe, 64, a part-time painter working on an art project in a community room.

"Libraries shouldn't be in the business of making profits. However, what they've got going on here with this company, they must be doing something right. This library is open seven days a week. They have everything here, and it shows."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 03, 2015, with the headline 'Public upset over outsourcing of US libraries'. Print Edition | Subscribe