Poor In Private

A privatized library is one that resides outside of the control of the community and ultimately is unresponsive to its needs. -Meg Klinkow Hartmann

In some ways, libraries are in the business of being poor. If, at year’s end, you can show that your library has exhausted all its resources, you stand a better chance of getting more money next year. If the fiscal year ends and the library still has cash in pocket, those who allocate funds will be less sympathetic to your cause. Part of being a good director lies in sustaining and growing an effective library without profit until all the money is gone.

American librarians have been able to do this for a very long time–a point that makes it all the more frustrating to consider the unfortunate results of privatized library management.

In the February 2011 installment of the Illinois Library Association’s Reporter, South Holland Public Library director Meg Klinkow Hartmann shares her criticisms of library privatization. Grounded in the author’s reading in and personal experience with privatization issues, “Show Me the Money: Privatization and the Public Library” is an informed look at several ways in which privatized libraries fail their communities and, in some cases, fail as profitable entities.

My own experiences and observations have led me to be skeptical of the promises offered in privatizing or outsourcing the management and staffing of libraries. For the community these can be summarized as minimal library services, collections, and professional staff. From a staff perspective, privatization means loss of a job or poorer health care and retirement benefits, lower salaries, and more work.

The management company profits while the staff gets poor, the collection gets poor, and the community gets poor. The scenario is the kind that inspires one to go headlong into a George Bailey-style sermon on how fair pay, four walls and a roof make us more contented workers and better citizens. But we’ve heard it all before. This business of eliminating and lowering expenditures to increase or stabilize profits is as old as industry itself. We expect it in the private sector.

The standard business model has been very difficult to apply to institutions in the public sector because it doesn’t belong there. Schools and libraries are loss leaders, yet every year we allocate as much public funding as possible for their operations and growth. Why do we do that? Because they are the educational institutions that are most fundamental to our communities and to our culture. As such, they should be nurtured, not ransacked.

If we take anything at all from private business models–and we do–perhaps we should start by copying some of their marketing strategies. Creative marketers can help answer questions about what libraries and librarians do. Marketing releases the thoughtful librarian from the academic vacuum chamber we call Libraryland and allows her to inform the taxpaying masses about the things we write on blogs, read in journals, and talk about at ALA twice a year.

Fortunately, as Hartmann points out, there are no private library management systems in place in Illinois today. Considering the destructive nature of these one-dimensional systems, it should move us to find the means by which all states can make the same claim.

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About Steven V. Kaszynski
librarian, editor, contributor

One Response to Poor In Private

  1. Ellen says:

    Sorry, I didn’t see this sooner. I don’t get what people are thinking with privatizing libraries. I’ve worked in public and school libraries for 17 years (yes, I am old) and I never thought I would see some of this. Especially in California, where the governor (ahem!) has basically ruined libraries and schools. All you have to do is look at what is happening in privatized libraries and you know that you should seek other avenues. BTW, thanks for the “It’s a Wonderful Life” clip…one of my favorites!

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