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Public-Private Partnerships Are Quietly Hollowing Out Our Public Libraries

Private companies contracted to “streamline” public libraries are doing it at the cost of decent-paying union jobs.

The for-profit, private company Library Systems and Services is a major threat to one of our most beloved, democratic and socialistic institutions.

“This library is full of losers,” an HR person said to me as I signed my letter of resignation from my public library job. “A bunch of losers who just take, take, take. Good for you for moving up in the world.” I was truly shocked by her disdain for my coworkers.

The HR person approved of my resignation because I was leaving an assistant position to take a professional one at another library, joining the ranks of other degreed librarians after graduating from library school. But her comment dripped with scorn toward all the people who simply showed up to work each day, collecting their modest paychecks and serving the public. Indeed, her comment reflected a more widespread attitude that I’ve found among administrators (members of the professional managerial class) within the public sector: Many are capitalist groupies who see unionized employees working for the government as leeches. This anti-worker sentiment within the administrative ranks of many public libraries has made it easier for one of the most nefarious grifts in the U.S. economic system to take hold: the public-private partnership, a Reagan-era arrangement in which private industry “partners” with the public sector, claiming to be able to deliver more for less in service to the public.

Just the name makes me sick — the slick, corporate double-speak of it and the way partnership implies that these arrangements aren’t an insidious attack on public institutions. Perhaps the most nauseating of these assaults on the commons is one that has been silently infiltrating one of our most cherished public spaces: public libraries.

Library Systems and Services (LS&S) is a for-profit, private company that has been quietly infiltrating public libraries since 1997 when it successfully negotiated a contract to privatize the county library system in Riverside County, California. In the ‘90s and through the first decade of the 2000s, LS&S operated using a business model that will be familiar to anyone who follows local government issues in the U.S.: a private company descends on a municipal or county government that is in financially poor shape, and offers to take over (or “outsource”) management of a public service, like a library, for a fraction of the cost. This business model changed slightly, and alarmingly, about a decade ago.

In 2010, LS&S made headlines by securing contracts to privatize public libraries in affluent, economically healthy municipalities, rather than in struggling, economically marginalized communities. Flexing into a new type of market, the sky is apparently the limit for LS&S, which according to its own website has shockingly morphed into “the 3rd largest library system in the United States.”

If this is true, LS&S is a major threat to one of our most beloved, democratic and socialistic institutions. Operating unchecked, LS&S stands to make enormous profits by destroying decent-paying, unionized jobs, de-professionalizing an already struggling profession, and reducing library services to anti-human, vertically integrated content silos that do not reflect the values of local communities, all while remaining completely unaccountable to taxpayers.

How does LS&S manage to cut costs while operating services? On the backs of workers. When companies like LS&S privatize public goods, old contracts — and unions — are thrown out. Workers, even PMC workers like degreed librarians, cease earning annual salaries, solid benefits and government-backed pensions, and are instead given comparably lower hourly wages, private retirement accounts, and have no collective bargaining power or ability to file grievances. LS&S claims to be a public good — by saving communities taxpayer money — but it is actually destroying good-paying, union-backed jobs and paving the way for more private takeovers of public goods.

And for some people associated with the company, this almost appears to be a vendetta against working people. Consider the comments of LS&S founder and former CEO Frank Pezzanite. As reported in The New York Times, Pezzanite said that “a lot of libraries are atrocious … their policies are all about job security. You can go to a library for 35 years and never have to do anything and then have your retirement.” Sounds an awful lot like most CEOs, hedge fund billionaires and other capitalists who make trillions in profits off of the labor of workers!

Additionally, as a private company, LS&S is able to circumvent transparency laws that taxpayer-funded governments are required to follow. In a nutshell: taxpayers fund LS&S-managed libraries, but have no ability to find out how LS&S operates. Freedom of Information Act? Nope — doesn’t apply to private companies. Public accountability? An interesting question. Normally, if a company does something you don’t like, you can boycott it. But if people boycotted a public library? Well then, I suppose local governments would have good, measurable data to use to justify further slashing budgets. LS&S is completely unaccountable, and we have no way of knowing how they conduct themselves internally, even as they manage a taxpayer-funded service.

And there is cause for concern in the way LS&S conducts itself, beyond just the alarming idea that one of the most beloved public institutions in American life is under serious threat of quiet privatization.

An activist engaged in public library advocacy told me that a dozen of the vendors that public libraries use to purchase books in bulk are actually owned by LS&S, so “many libraries are paying LS&S already and don’t know it.” I haven’t been able to independently confirm this claim, but it is something that investigative journalists should look into. If it’s true, his is even more sinister than it appears on its surface: this sort of vertical integration could set an extremely dangerous precedent that further erodes the public’s ability to control the information it consumes, not to mention which types of information resources are purchased by its tax dollars.

Furthermore, it’s worth taking note of who actually owns LS&S: Boston-based private equity firm Islington Capital Partners, whose co-founder, Paul Spinale, worked for Bain Capital during Mitt Romney’s tenure at the infamous firm. So just let that sink in: The same arch-villains known for siphoning taxpayer-funded government bailout money into their own pockets now have majority control over a private company that manages 80 public library systems in the U.S. and which loudly and proudly claims to be the “3rd largest library system in the US.” Even LS&S’s current CEO is a veteran grifter who previously worked for the Scantron Corporation, a company whose business model is arguably responsible for the anti-human practice of standardized testing across the education spectrum.

LS&S’s methods are not unique, but that doesn’t make them any less atrocious. It claims to take failing or shoddy public institutions and miraculously turn them around through its superior understanding of how things should be run — the same-old, same-old of private interests trying to edge out public goods. Think of Louis DeJoy and his seemingly intentional mismanagement of the U.S. Postal Service. While LS&S hasn’t been quite as disastrous for the public libraries, it represents a similar threat to the public interest: corporate takeover of public spaces. If LS&S can demonstrate that it is able to work enough corporate magic on enough libraries, then conservatives and libertarians (not to mention corporate Democrats) could be armed with over 20 years of corporate-engineered data to justify further privatization of public spaces.

What’s clear is that LS&S is not performing any actual miracles. It is destroying unionized jobs, denigrating and demoralizing workers, and contributing to the myth that unionized public sector workers are lazy, inefficient and unworthy of the benefits that they receive.

So where is the American Library Association (ALA), the professional organization that advocates for libraries and librarians, accredits library schools, holds two annual conferences and collects membership dues from nearly 60,000 librarians? Sadly, the ALA is sending mixed signals.

On the one hand, the ALA has gone on the record as staunchly opposing the privatization of public libraries, even publishing a list of talking points for communities that come up against entities like LS&S: “ALA affirms that publicly funded libraries should remain directly accountable to the public they serve. Therefore, the ALA opposes the shifting of policymaking and management oversight of library services for the public to the private for-profit sector.”

But if the ALA is so opposed to what LS&S is doing to public libraries in the U.S., then why did it bestow its prestigious John Cotton Dana Award (which bestows $10,000 grants to winning library programs) to the LS&S-run Riverside County Public Library in 2005? Or what about its inclusion of LS&S as an ALA-sanctioned scholarship funder? And why isn’t the ALA sounding a three-bell alarm at the national level, leveraging its considerable power and mobilizing its tens of thousands of dues-paying members?

Let me level with you: professional librarians come in all different flavors. Sure, you’ve got plenty of left-leaning, social-justice-oriented folks who are interested in things like serving marginalized communities, providing equitable access to the internet, and supplying quality reading materials and programming to children, teens and adults from all communities.

But this profession is also full-up with a whole other group: the gatekeepers; the library police; the librarians (and often administrators) who have a radically different agenda, and whose professional and personal ethics align a lot more closely with the pro-corporate, anti-union, anti-human ethics of private industry.

I’ve been in libraries for nearly a decade and have worked in four different organizations (including two large metro library systems) and I have encountered far more of the latter group than the former. Unfortunately, many librarians are happily welcoming their new corporate bosses rather than joining a unified effort against privatization.

It’s worth noting that librarianship as a whole is an extremely homogeneous profession that is over 80 percent white, and LS&S promises to continue this white domination within the industry: Just take a gander at the faces on display on LS&S’s Our Leadership page.

In the absence of institutional intervention or public outcry, LS&S will continue to gobble up public library systems as it works toward its de facto goal of proving that private is better than public.

Most recently, the company has its sights set on the St. Johns County Public Library in St. Johns, Florida. According to a petition and a post from the local news affiliate, the county commission has begun talks intended to move the county towards a partnership with LS&S. This county’s situation is a great example of an underlying problem that LS&S is great at exploiting. According to the St. Johns County Public Library director, the library budget of $6.8 million represents only 2 percent of the county budget. LS&S will make the case that even 2 percent is too much. And this is a proven LS&S tactic.

Take the company’s flagship case study, the Riverside County Public Library System. According to LS&S, the library was funded completely by a meager 1.15 percent ad valorem property tax when the company took over management of the system. LS&S likes to tout that this number hasn’t gone up once in 18 years under its management and yet services have basically doubled. But here’s the thing: this library was already tragically underfunded, with per-capita spending “in the lowest quartile of peer libraries,” according to a 2010 article in Library Journal. According to the same article, extra revenue was generated through leasing building space to a tenant in a large, under-used library administrative building and also through revenues generated from a new development in the county.

LS&S is not working miracles. It is slashing employee pay and claiming credit for savings that it doesn’t have much to do with, such as a county government leasing existing office space, and separate county funding sources generating new income for the library. But when LS&S comes to town, it’ll make the case that the meager amount of funding your public library operates on is actually too much.

I have an alternate proposal.

Instead of working toward maintaining or shrinking already miniscule budgets, local governments, armed with talking points and data from ALA-accredited librarians, should begin forcefully advocating for a significantly larger slice of the pie. Rather than selling libraries off to the highest bidder who promises to deliver more for less, let’s attack this problem at its root by taking away the weak point that LS&S is so great at exploiting — this public perception that public goods like libraries shouldn’t have large budgets. Follow the lead of public library advocacy groups like EveryLibrary and advocate for giving public libraries more money, and you take away the only real leverage LS&S has. And why not? When LS&S comes around, saying, I can give you more for less, it would be nice to look at them and say, No, thanks. We have plenty.

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