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Cash-strapped communities across the country have outsourced services ranging from trash pickup to tech support. But in a trend that’s sparking debate around the country, more and more cities and towns are hiring outside contractors to run their public libraries. Some see the move as a savvy way to save money, while others worry about the implications allowing a private company to take control of the neighborhood library. We explore both sides of the issue.
- David Shumaker Clinical Associate Professor, School of Library and Information Science at The Catholic University of America
- Patricia Tumulty Chair, American Library Association Committee on Library Advocacy; Executive Director, New Jersey Library Association.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, James Q. Wilson died last Friday. We discuss the ongoing use of his broken windows crime prevention theory with his co-author George Kelling. But first, your local librarians have a lot on their plates, assisting patrons with research, running story times for kids, helping jobseekers fill out forms online. On top of that, many of them have to hire and manage personnel and explain their budgets to city councils or to boards of trustees.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut when communities have to curb spending, local libraries are usually one of the first places they go to make cuts. Some communities are turning to private contractors who promise to boost services and save them money to manage their libraries, a move that has some librarians and patrons up in arms. Joining us to discuss this in our Washington studio is David Shumaker. He's professor in the School of Library and Information Science at The Catholic University of America. David Shumaker, thank you for joining us.
PROF. DAVID SHUMAKERThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd joining us from the studios of WWFM in New Jersey is Patricia Tumulty. Pat Tumulty is the chair of the American Library Associations Committee on Library Advocacy. She's also the executive director of the New Jersey Library Association. Pat Tumulty, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. PATRICIA TUMULTYYou're welcome. Glad to be here.
NNAMDIThere are lots of changes underway at public libraries across the country. How has the demand for services mixed with the economic downturn changed things? I'll start with you, David Shumaker.
SHUMAKERIt's put public librarians in a position of really stretching and looking for not only basic ways to do more with less but also ways to be creative and innovative in their approaches because simply cutting and expecting everybody to do more isn't going to solve the problem.
NNAMDIIndeed, that's a statement that has always fascinated me, Pat Tumulty, doing more with less. How does that work?
TUMULTYWell, it's very difficult to accomplish. I think that David made a point that our librarians are very creative. But, right now, I think we're facing sort of the perfect storm when we have such an increase in demand on more libraries and, as you pointed out so well, that we're finding them at an unprecedented level of seeing libraries closing, particularly in our urban areas, which is a very difficult thing to see when people need these services so much.
NNAMDISixty-five percent of Americans, it is my understanding, had visited the library last year, yet U.S. mayors report that cutting hour staff or service at libraries was the number two budget cut, second only to maintenance and services at parks and gardens. Dave, when most of think about what exactly a librarian does, managing personnel and crafting budgets may not come to mind. But you say the reality is quite different.
SHUMAKERLibrarians do an amazing variety of things to contribute to their communities. And I think the main image that everyone has of the reference librarian sitting at a desk, waiting to be asked questions by whoever comes by is very much the tip of the iceberg, so...
NNAMDIWhat are some of the main managerial duties that public librarians are tasked with? And how do you prepare your library science students to take them on?
SHUMAKERWell, the starting point is what you want to accomplish for your community. What's the role of the library in the community? And how can you best meet the needs of the diverse groups and individuals within the community? So every community is unique, and it starts with that appreciation of the community.
NNAMDICare to add to that, Pat Tumulty?
TUMULTYWell, that's very true. The demands, though -- as you've been pointing out, a librarian is not the person who just sits behind the desk and answers questions. There's just a variety of things, particularly with our library directors, the kinds of complex roles that they have to have in their communities. Most of them are absolute community leaders. They're outside interacting with other community agencies, forming partnerships, working with community groups, developing new services.
TUMULTYCertainly, you can go to a library now, and it's just sort of the technological center of the community because people do not have access to the Internet. They come to the library, and we've taken on many, many new roles since I've begun my career as a librarian. Now, you find the librarians are teaching classes in how to use information access, doing e-books -- downloading e-books, becoming the community center for this whole variety of things, government information.
TUMULTYIn our state, you can't get a paper copy of your income tax form. You have to download it off the computer. Well, still, many people don't have that, so they have to come to the library. So there are these challenging community roles and expanding roles that we see our librarians doing.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're having a conversation about outsourcing library management with David Shumaker. He is a professor in the School of Library and Information Science at Catholic University of America. And Pat Tumulty, she is the chair of the American Library Associations Committee on Library Advocacy. She's also the executive director of the New Jersey Library Association.
NNAMDIPat Tumulty, I mentioned earlier the notion of trying to do more with less for services ranging from trash collection to security. And, apparently, cities across the country have found that hiring a contractor can save them some cash. But you say libraries should be off limits to that kind of arrangement. Why?
TUMULTYWell, I think, when you look at library budgets, there are fundamentally three parts to a library budget. There are hours. There's staff and the materials and computers. That's about what it is. And when a private contractor comes in to say to you, I can save you money, I can do this a million dollars cheaper, you have to ask how. Show me. Taking those basic components of the library, basic components on how I'm serving my community, how are you going to save me that much money?
TUMULTYWhat are the questions that you need to ask when you do that? Because -- and what is your -- most contractors are not doing this for the goodness of their hearts. There's a profit motive. So what is the percentage you are getting out of turning my library over to you? You have to ask those basic questions about what are -- what is the community getting for its dollars? And how, when you look at a basic component of a library budget, how can these cost realizations really be met?
NNAMDIPat, you make a distinction between outsourcing and privatizing that's pretty subtle but important. What separates the two when it comes to library services?
TUMULTYWell, I think privatizing is when you can -- when an organization, say, a city council, gives the entire library budget over to a third party. They say to the third party, here is my $1 million budget. You make the decisions about what happens. You make all the decisions. And, you know, tell me later at the end of the contract, maybe two or three years later. Outsourcing is a very defined kind of term for a specific service. You outsource perhaps, as you said, your trash collection. Perhaps you outsource your technology person in your library because you have a specific task and a specific need.
TUMULTYBut when you privatize, you're turning over the entire budget of a municipal service to a third party and asking them to do the management. You are putting up, in my mind, a sort of block between -- a library director is generally is responsible to either a library board or a municipal council. When you put the library director in this position, they become responsible to a third party, not directly to the community they serve.
NNAMDILSSI is the name of the company that's become associated with providing services from a private contractor to public libraries around the country. We extended an invitation to LSSI to have a representative join us on the broadcast, but they apparently couldn't find one to do so. LSSI currently operates community libraries in California, Tennessee, Texas, Kansas, Oregon, and Florida. According to The New York Times, LSSI is the country's fifth largest library system.
NNAMDIAnd one of the ways they seem to be able to save money is through centralized services, like payroll, attorney's fees and the like. We're talking about outsourcing library management and inviting your phone calls at 800-433-8850. That's 800-433-8850. If your community was considering bringing in a private contractor to manage your public library, how would you feel about it? 800-433-8850. You can also send email to email@example.com. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org and join the conversation there.
NNAMDILet's see if we can get Magalie (sp?) in Burke, Va. Magalie, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
MAGALIEHello. Thank you for taking my call. I have a question. I would like your comments about how this may or may not reflect our society's attitudes towards government where I feel like, at the federal, state and municipal levels, people expect the highest quality of public services. Yet it seems that they don't feel like they should have to pay for those services. They don't feel like they should have to pay, for example, competitive salaries for the workers who provide those services, that those things should, you know, almost come free. I'll hang up. Could you, please, comment?
NNAMDIWell, I'll ask our panelists to comment. But, first, I'd like you to be a bit more explicit when you say people don't think they feel they ought to pay for those services. Magalie, you think that, because the economic times are hard, and we talked about libraries being among the first services that are cut, even though they're being used more than ever, that people somehow feel that that can be done at no cost?
MAGALIEIt's -- I don't feel that way. But I sometimes get the sense from talking to, you know, other people that they're -- people complain about being taxed, you know. And they complain about, like, basically -- I -- honestly, I don't have a more sophisticated answer than that. It's just the sentiment that I...
NNAMDIWell, let me have David Shumaker and Pat Tumulty share their thoughts with you. First you, David Shumaker.
SHUMAKERSure. I'd actually start by saying that I don't think the picture is quite as one-sided as Magalie has stated it. I think that, in many communities around the country, when people are given the option through a local referendum or a specific ballot measure to support their public libraries that they actually come out and vote very favorably. So the public library is one of the most respected and beloved institutions in many communities.
SHUMAKERAnd I think communities often do support those libraries. That's not to say that they don't want the best possible value and the most effective use of the money for what they pay.
NNAMDICare to comment on that, Pat Tumulty?
TUMULTYI agree with David. I think he's brought up an excellent point that, when people get to vote on their libraries, we have seen a very positive connection between taking a library budget to the public and positive tax implications for the library. That, again, is when we have -- looking at the issue of privatization, we feel that you have to be completely honest with the community about what they're getting, how their tax dollars, particularly for the library, are being spent. How are they being spent? What is the profit? This brings to the public the kind of transparency that is needed.
TUMULTYAnd we think it's needed in all public services, but we're focusing today on our libraries, and, by bringing forth a question about how library budgets are determined and made, this is a critical issue for the pubic.
NNAMDIOur listeners might be learning about this issue of the private contracting of library services -- of public library services for the first time. But this issue has been on your radar screens for over a decade. How common has it become? And how likely do you think it is to grow, David Shumaker?
SHUMAKERThat's an excellent question. And, in fact, while there has been some increase, there are over 9,000 different public library jurisdictions in the United States running over 16,000 different public library facilities around the country. So public libraries are actually bigger than your Starbucks and your McDonald's. And yet, LSSI, while they've seen some growth, they're the only company doing the outsourcing of entire operations or the privatization, as Pat has termed it.
SHUMAKERAnd they're currently in, I think, a maximum of 20 jurisdictions around the country. So it's very small, and I'm not at all sure that we're really going to see any substantial growth in that.
NNAMDIWhat is your view, Pat Tumulty?
TUMULTYWell, I certainly -- as we started with the program saying how tax dollars, and certainly services, are getting to be questioned all over the -- all over the country, we have found that, I would say, in my own state, probably three or four times a year, I will be asked by a public library director or trustees that LSSI has called up their municipality and said, we can do this for you cheaper.
TUMULTYSo I agree with David. It has not caught on, but, certainly, the marketing of we can provide the same level of service for you at a reduced cost is a message that most councils want to hear. But, as David has pointed out, I think, when most of them explore it completely, they find it is not what they want to do for their communities.
NNAMDIWe've got to take a short break. If you have already called, stay on the line. We'll get to your calls when we come back. We're talking about outsourcing or privatizing public library management. The number is 800-433-8850. Has your city, town or county outsourced any services? Do you think the service you're getting is better, worse or the same? 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow, email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on privatizing or outsourcing library management. We're talking with Patricia Tumulty, chair of the American Library Association's Committee on Library Advocacy. She's also the executive director of the New Jersey Library Association. David Shumaker is a professor in the School of Library and Information Science at The Catholic University of America. And we're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Here is Kate in Washington, D.C. Kate, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
KATEHi, Kojo. This is a subject that is so close to my heart because I literally was like a little feral cub at the feet of librarians learning the library of Congress system so -- classification system, so, I mean, this is very near and dear. There are three things going on simultaneously that are particularly dangerous, and it involves the library as well: privatizing education, privatizing library and privatizing research. And what happens is, as we're in the knowledge economy and we actually -- people need to be able to have all these resources available to them.
KATEWhat we're seeing is a narrowing down of even the information -- almost close to propaganda if it gets too far gone. And it shrinks the thought, ideas and possibilities. Librarians are the -- really are like a bulwark against this kind of activity because the librarians are the go-between between the people and the community, their interests, their needs when they buy the books, you know, these kinds of things.
KATEAnd when we throw the green wall, the money wall up -- if I go out and I'm not on a virtual private network with an institution I belong to, and, all of a sudden I forget to turn the VPN on, I look around, and I've got something in my face that says I got to pay $35 just to get the article. So, you know, the library is critical in us maintaining our democracy. That's what I have to say.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Kate. Care to comment on that, Pat Tumulty, if -- go ahead, please, Pat.
TUMULTYAnd now, I -- thank you, Kate, that you brought up so many excellent points about what we are facing. And, certainly, we're talking about privatizing right now. But we're also facing, as Kate brings up, the points of information that's only available through the Internet for a fee, and, if our libraries don't provide that for us, people -- suddenly, one article is $35. We're also seeing the cost of e-books rising, so our libraries are not been able to offer those kinds of services.
TUMULTYI think you could do a whole new show on some of the challenges, the economic challenges that we're also facing in terms of providing information to the public.
NNAMDIWell, if a community is considering a switch to a contract for library management services, Pat, you helped put together a checklist of things for that community to consider before signing on the dotted line. What are some of the main things to think through that you think could be missed by someone who doesn't have direct library experience?
TUMULTYYes. The American Library Association, I was the chair of the committee on privatization, and we'd looked at a checklist so that a community could sort of work through the issues. As I said before, when someone comes and says, I can do this for you cheaper, you have to ask some really hard and tough questions about, for example, how can you do this? What kind of personnel will I have? Will my library hours be the same? Will I be having the same kinds of materials?
TUMULTYFor example, if I say book budget is $40,000, as Kate was pointing out, this -- well, I mean, I only buy, like, books from the dollar store. I mean, how am I going to realistically buy the best materials for my community on that kind of budget? So you sit and you look and you ask those kinds of questions in terms of you ask the relationship between the library now and its community. Will it have the same relationship with its friends' groups and funders? These are really critical questions in terms of how the library is going to interact in its community.
TUMULTYSo this checklist is really something -- again, when somebody comes in and says, I can save you money, you have to hold back and say, let me just look at this, really rationally work through this kind of checklist and look at these different issues, you know, have a rationale of what they're saying.
NNAMDIDavid Shumaker, so far, we've been talking only about public libraries, but you've spent most of your career working in so-called special libraries. Tell us exactly what those are and how typical is it for non-public libraries to be managed by librarians.
SHUMAKERWell, that's a very interesting point because librarians work in all types of organizations. Obviously, everyone's familiar with the school library and the academic library. And we also have librarians who work in corporations and government agencies. They might work with attorneys, or they might work in hospitals and medical schools with the clinical staff. And so librarians are working wherever knowledge is critical in our society and working closely with different communities.
SHUMAKERAnd when you do look at those types of organizations, you don't find outsourcing. As a matter of fact, when I knew I was going to come on the program, I reviewed what I have learned over the years. And I can't give you one good example of a completely outsourced private sector. Now, in government, in the federal government, they have outsourced library operations but not in the corporate...
NNAMDIBut it's not happening in the private sector where one would -- might expect it might be happening. At the most basic level, how do the missions for private libraries differ from that of public institutions, if at all?
SHUMAKERThe -- well, in a very broad sense, they don't differ. The mission is to apply our information management skills to meet the goals of the organization. And, you know, in -- when you're in a for-profit organization, that's very clear. You know it's to help the company make a profit. And if you're working with an R&D lab and the objective is to come up with a great new product, then how does the librarian contribute to that great new product? But in our communities, you know, the libraries are the learning organizations of the community.
SHUMAKERAnd if the role of the government is to provide for the health and welfare and, you know, the pursuit of happiness of all the citizens in that community, and if learning is critical to that mission of government, then, in a very real sense, that's the job of the library in partnership, as Pat said earlier, in partnership and collaboration with other organizations in the community to contribute to that well-being and that learning.
NNAMDII think Ken, who's on the phone in Washington, D.C., wants to share some thoughts along that line. Ken, you're the air. Go ahead, please.
KENOK, thank you. I used to teach at Catholic University and have a library degree and have spent my time in records management. But it seems to me -- and I'd like to ask the people to comment on what, I think, is the fundamental failure of the library profession. To claim that librarians are wherever knowledge is managed is just simply incorrect. There are records managers. There are archivists.
KENAnd I think the confusion about whether a library is an information source or whether it's a cultural place, like a museum, or whether it's an education place, like a school, is one of the reasons we keep the support for public libraries in the (unintelligible) is basically disappearing. And my experience has been that most informational knowledge people now are not librarians but come from other places.
NNAMDIMy question to you, before I ask the panelists to respond, Ken, would be -- you say, the confusion about what a library should be and then name three different categories. Could there be confusion because, in fact, libraries are all of the above?
KENYeah, but they don't say -- have records management functions, and they generally don't have archival functions. And they might have exhibits, but they're not museums as such. And they might have courses, but they're not educational. And they sort of -- the confusion inside the profession, a lot of it is because of the failure of the American Library Association, I think, to provide leadership to look at really integrated information profession that would encompass all of the various professions.
NNAMDII suspect both of our panelists will want to respond to you. I'll start with you, Pat Tumulty.
TUMULTYWell, I do feel a little confusion about his answer or dividing the profession into so many little boxes. I think, in a community, when they say a librarian, there is a very -- image of what that is, that, in a public library particularly -- now, he's talking about, do they do record management functions? Many of our libraries, when we talk about management, they have to keep certain number of records. Is that their expertise, per se? Well, probably not. But I think if you say to anyone on the street, what is your librarian?
TUMULTYAnd who did they do? And do they provide you with training and books and information? They understand what that person looks like. So I think his term kind of divides the profession rather than unites it. I think a librarian is a term that I'm proud to be. And I think it's a term that covers a lot of disparate, shall we say, skill sets that I wouldn't say that I would just have one over the other. And many of our librarians probably have a subset of the skills that he mentioned.
TUMULTYBut when you see a librarian in a public library, I think, people have a very clear understanding that this is a community leader. This is a community servant, shall we say, or community person who's working within their community. David?
SHUMAKERYes. Well, Ken's comment gives me an opportunity to say that we teach records management, and we teach archives management in our program at Catholic University. We have a specialized, well-defined track within the master's program in cultural heritage information management. And it teaches skills that are applicable in archives, both in business records management, government records management, as well as museums and other cultural institutions.
SHUMAKERAnd just one more point along the same lines, it's, I think, very significant that the current archivist of the United States and head of the National Archives and Records Administration is a librarian, is educated as a librarian, Mr. David Ferriero. So I think that librarians don't just work in libraries, and that's a key point.
NNAMDIKen, thank you very much for your call. We move on to Lloyd in La Plata, Md. Lloyd, your turn.
LLOYDHi, Kojo. I recently retired from a library system in Northern California that's narrowly avoided being privatized by LSSI. And it was difficult in trying to evaluate what LSSI could do versus what the city could continue to do in providing library service because, with LSSI being a private company, so much of their -- so many of their books were not released or made available for scrutiny. So they...
NNAMDIAnd when you say their books, you don't mean the books that were in the library. You mean their accounting books? Yes.
LLOYDYeah, their accounting books, yes, how they -- where they were getting their profit from, how they were spending the money. It was all very murky because they weren't -- being a private company, they were not required to make that information public. So it was trying to compare apples and oranges because it was really hard to see where they were coming from. But the only thing -- you know, Ms. Tumulty was right. I mean, you have to ask how -- they promised the moon. How are they going to deliver the service that they're promising?
LLOYDWell, all we could see is that is was going on the backs of staff in lower salaries and fewer benefits. And I think a lot of people were convinced that it was very difficult for LSSI or any company to privatize a library and not have some conflict down the line between the mission of a public library of service and providing information in a non-biased way, yet they're operating on a for-profit basis. And at some point, there's going to be a conflict.
NNAMDIPat Tumulty, that raises two issues for me. One is the issue of transparency. How important is it that the funding of the library, and if it's being operated by a private contractor like LSSI -- and I do remind our audience that we invited LSSI to join us for this show, but LSSI said it was not convenient for the organization to do it at this point. One, how important is transparency so that the people who are -- the users of the library and the taxpayers could know exactly how their money is being spent?
NNAMDISo I'll deal with that issue first and then get to the issue of its effect on personnel later, but, first, the transparency issue.
TUMULTYOh, transparency is absolutely fundamental. It was one of the things that we look at critically in our checklist. How do you justify spending public dollars if they are not completely transparent? Certainly, in every other aspect of government, certainly in my state, there are public contract laws. There are bidding laws. And, as I said before, now you're turning over the entire budget of a library to a private company and saying you spend it however you want.
TUMULTYYou have to be transparent. That is the absolutely fundamental role of a contract, I think, to the public and any service, particularly in library service.
NNAMDIThe other aspects of that that Lloyd raised was some people say that when a company comes in to take over management, the main thing that librarians are worried about isn't the ideals that uphold the public library system. It's their jobs. It's their pensions that they are concerned about. Do you think that that's fair, David Shumaker?
SHUMAKERThat's -- public librarians, like everyone else, are certainly going to be concerned with their economic well-being. That's a natural concern. They are also very concerned for the mission of the organization. You know, people working in public libraries could make a lot more money if they went and did other things. The salaries are not exorbitant...
NNAMDIYou mean nobody studies library sciences in order to become fabulously rich?
SHUMAKERNo. We tell them that on the first day of class, that if that was their reason for coming, they're -- they may be disappointed, especially if they're going into public libraries. So it is a calling for people, and I think that, certainly, you can't dismiss the economic concern and people's concern with their livelihood. But there's also a strong concern for the mission.
NNAMDIIs there any indication that the agenda of private contractors, Pat Tumulty, tends to focus on reducing numbers and compensation of librarians?
TUMULTYIn -- I don't have all the contracts, but, certainly, one of the first things that they generally do is take public employees and make them into 401 (k) s and those kinds of more private kind of pension processes. That is true. But going back to something like -- that David said in terms of what you want from a staff -- and, certainly, when you have a staff, you want to be able to compensate them fairly. A public library -- and I'm not making any disrespect to Barnes & Noble, but you should be having a staff that has enough longevity that works with the community on a long-term basis.
TUMULTYWhen you don't adequately compensate a staff, there's a lot of turnover. You don't want people who are just coming in and working three or four hours a week because you can get them at a cheaper rate, at a cheaper kind of thing. You want a staff that has a long-term commitment to the community, and that generally means you have to compensate them in some way. Most of the libraries that I work with, you know, work within the confines of their own municipal budgets and those kinds of salary increases. So they're not getting, as David said, fabulously wealthy.
TUMULTYBut they're getting compensated at a rate of other public employees within their communities. But when you come in and say, we're going to change your hours, we're going to reduce the number of hours, this creates sort of an atmosphere where you're not going to encourage long-term employees and long-term employees who have a commitment to your organization.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Patricia Tumulty is the chair of the American Library Association's Committee on Library Advocacy. She's also the executive director of the New Jersey Library Association. Pat Tumulty, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIDavid Shumaker is a professor in the School of Library and Information Science at the Catholic University of America. David Shumaker, thank you for joining us.
SHUMAKERIt's been a pleasure.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back: James Q. Wilson died this past Friday, but his work lives on. The use of his broken windows crime prevention theory continues. We will talk with his co-author George Kelling. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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