Public libraries find outside management
In recent years, many public libraries have faced the threat of closing or reducing services as the local governments that run them tighten their budgets. The difficulties have led some cities and counties to consider turning over their public libraries to private management companies.
In April, Jackson County, Ore., closed all 15 of its public libraries after the county lost $23 million from timber receipts after Congress failed to renew the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act. County officials twice attempted to increase taxes for additional library funding, but both efforts were voted down, says County Administrator Danny Jordan. With no options left, the county closed the libraries, laying off 81 employees. “In the interim, we got a one-year reauthorization of [federal] timber money,” Jordan says. With the extra funding, the county reopened the libraries, but officials wanted a long-term solution.
In October, the county contracted with Germantown, Md.-based Library Systems and Services (LSSI) to operate all 15 branches for five years for $27 million less than the county would have to spend to operate them in-house. The agreement calls for some of the libraries to operate at reduced hours, and the company hired about 65 former county library staff, Jordan says. “The feedback [from the public] has been largely positive,” he says. For example, because branch librarians have been granted greater autonomy, patrons’ requests for new programs are approved faster.
In January 2007, Moorpark, Calif., officials, after deciding to leave the Ventura County library system, contracted with the company to operate the city’s library through 2012. “Our city is growing, and [officials] felt the city could better fund the library. But, we also had never operated a library before,” says Moorpark Senior Management Analyst Jennifer Mellon.
Moorpark asked LSSI to create a transitional plan with the option for the city to take over operations in the future. Mellon says private management companies have an advantage because they can draw on corporate staff for many of their administrative functions, such as payroll preparation, and they can combine book purchases for multiple clients to obtain greater discounts.
Not all local governments with troubled library systems choose to outsource services. In 2005, Bedford, Texas, was forced to temporarily close its library doors after a tax rollback vote reversed an earlier 27 percent property tax increase. The loss came six months after the city had adopted an increased spending plan and put the city several million dollars over budget, Mayor Jim Story says. The library reopened a short time later for considerably fewer hours. “Under the circumstances, outsourcing started to look appealing,” he says, and the city seriously considered a quote for services.
Before deciding on the contract, however, the city hired a new library manager who restored the library’s original operating hours, added hours on Sundays, and increased circulation and children’s programs without staffing or budget increases.
After a heated campaign, the city decided to keep operations in-house. “I think in certain situations, [outsourcing] would be excellent, especially if a city is in dire financial straits or if they are starting a brand new library,” he says. “In our case, the shutdown forced us to really look at the way we had been running our library.”
— Annie Gentile is a Vernon, Conn.-based freelance writer.