As a resident of Escondido, a professional librarian for 28 years and a concerned public citizen, I wish to express my opposition to any plans to shift the operation of the Escondido Public Library into private hands. This would be a very bad move for the City and the Library for many reasons:
1. Ever since their establishment nearly 300 years ago, public libraries in the United States have been the embodiment of the Constitutional rights of free speech and open access to information without which no democracy can survive. It is the responsibility of government, not private business, to provide, protect and preserve these basic Constitutional rights. And it is the public employees who work in libraries that ensure that mission is a reality. A statement on the Escondido City website says that “the library is and will always be a public library, as will the building, the land, and the collections.” According to the site, the plan if followed through would be “simply” to have the library run by a private company and not public employees. That is the problem. It’s important to realize that it’s not the building, land and collections that are of concern. It’s not those “things” that matter most. It’s the democratic principles of free speech and access to information that are most important. Public libraries and the collections and services they provide which have been established at taxpayer expense, have always been, and always should be, a non-profit, government responsibility. They should not be turned over in any manner or for any purpose to a “for profit” business. I’ve heard some say this is a matter of money. That’s very sad. It is not. This is a matter of principle, not money. The democratic principles that free, non-profit public libraries represent are priceless and should never be outsourced.
2. As a taxpayer I appreciate the City’s desire to look for budget savings. However, from a practical point of view, the amount of public salary savings to be realized by handing over the few fully benefitted public library employees to private operators is miniscule compared to the entire City budget and what could be saved if Police, Fire, Public Works, or other higher salaried public employees were also outsourced. If finding substantial savings is truly the goal, then those other City departments and employees should be the first to be considered for outsourcing. Of course, outsourcing of those employees would also be absurd. Still it needs to be understood that the problems city governments all over the U.S. face with public employee retirement costs will not be solved by focusing on departments like public libraries that generally have the fewest full time and/or lowest paid employees. In fact, even shutting the Library down completely would save the City less than 4% in the general fund.
3. As for Library Systems and Services (LSS), the company the City is considering for outsourcing, they have only 82 library branches (buildings) under their control, most obtained from small cities that were nearly bankrupt and desperate for any solution to stay open. Fifty one of those 82 libraries are merely separate branches of the Riverside County Library system in California and the Jackson County system in Oregon. That’s only two counties in the entire US! All the remaining libraries represent just four additional states (Texas, Tennessee, Florida and Kansas). This is hardly a diverse cross-section of the US, as almost all of the libraries are located in small, rural and low-income cities. This lack of geographic, economic and ethnic diversity provides further evidence of how unpopular the concept of outsourcing library services is in the United States. Yes indeed, you won’t see any great cities with great public libraries such as Boston, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle or San Diego in the LSS portfolio. LSS is in business for libraries and cities that are down and out and desperate. The City of Escondido and the Escondido Public Library are thankfully not in that situation.
4. From a purely business point of view LSS is a very bad investment. There are over 9,000 public libraries in the US. And in 30 years of operation LSS has only been able to contract with 82 libraries. This is less than a 1% market penetration in a business where it has no competitors. This is a very poor business performance by any market standard and certainly not one worth investing in. As a small, private company not subject to SEC rules or openness of records, it is virtually impossible to get objective information about their financial stability, which further adds to the high risk of investing in LSS. Indeed, Escondido officials should not even consider sending our taxpayer dollars to an out of state company with such a dismal business record.
5. It needs to be understood by all that LSS is viewed as a pariah in the library profession. And for good reason. It’s seen as an opportunistic shark that eats up libraries struggling to survive financially. Once under LSS control, libraries are subjected to centralized, cookie-cutter management and new employees are hired at below market salaries and spread thin to provide a few more open hours to create the illusion of “better” service.
What LSS does is not supported by the American Library Association, the leading organization of library professionals in the US. The reputation of the Library and the City will be seriously damaged by entering into a relationship with LSS and that damage will cost the City much more than any potential salary savings. As has happened with other LSS libraries, the Escondido Public Library and the City of Escondido will become the subject of ridicule and even shame throughout the library profession for “selling out” to LSS. We will not even have the excuse that other libraries had that we were in desperate financial stress and had no other choice.
6. Partly due to loss of reputation and partly due to dislike of LSS control of the Library, volunteers will be less inclined to give their free time to support a for-profit business. People will also be disinclined to make monetary donations and most donations will no longer be tax deductible seriously inhibiting fund-raising efforts by the Library Friends and Board of Trustees. I’ve personally donated to public libraries my whole life, but would never donate a dime to a library that was run by a for-profit business and where government officials allowed such a situation to unnecessarily occur. Because of these negative views, garnering public support for a new library in Grape Day Park will be very difficult and getting significant donations from traditional library supporters, most of whom vehemently oppose such a shift from public to private operation, will be nearly impossible. If City officials are truly serious about a new and great Library in Escondido, then they cannot be serious about outsourcing to a second-rate company like LSS.
Finally, let me say that if City officials really feel there is a true financial need to outsource Library operations to save money please be imaginative in looking for solutions. Instead of LSS, consider joining the San Diego County Library system. They are one of the top-rated library systems in the entire US winning the 2012 award for Library of the Year awarded by Library Journal. It would be much more prestigious and productive for the Escondido Public Library and the City of Escondido to join the County library system than to be associated with a scavenger company like LSS.
And if you want to think well outside the box, consider reorganizing the Library completely into a non-profit public corporation similar to PBS. The Library Friends and Trustees could then oversee the operation. They’ve been very successful in raising millions of dollars over the years to support the Library. Such an independently run Library would then also be eligible for a much larger number of public and private grants, subsidies, loans and donations.
Although I currently work for the Escondido Public Library, do not think that I write this letter out of personal self-interest. Let me assure you that if the only way I could prevent the Library from falling under LSS control was to resign my position, I would do just that in a heartbeat. As a librarian with three decades of experience working in public service for libraries, I urge you to pursue a path that keeps our Library aligned with the 99% majority of public libraries in the United States that are still of the people, by the people, for the people, and managed and operated by public employees who have pledged to serve the people through their government and not a private corporation.