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Anger as a Private Company Takes Over Libraries
By DAVID STREITFELD
Published: September 26, 2010
SANTA CLARITA, Calif. — A private company in Maryland has taken over public libraries in ailing cities in California, Oregon, Tennessee and Texas, growing into the country’s fifth-largest library system.
Now the company, Library Systems & Services, has been hired for the first time to run a system in a relatively healthy city, setting off an intense and often acrimonious debate about the role of outsourcing in a ravaged economy.
A $4 million deal to run the three libraries here is a chance for the company to demonstrate that a dose of private management can be good for communities, whatever their financial situation. But in an era when outsourcing is most often an act of budget desperation — with janitors, police forces and even entire city halls farmed out in one town or another — the contract in Santa Clarita has touched a deep nerve and begun a round of second-guessing.
Can a municipal service like a library hold so central a place that it should be entrusted to a profit-driven contractor only as a last resort — and maybe not even then?
“There’s this American flag, apple pie thing about libraries,” said Frank A. Pezzanite, the outsourcing company’s chief executive. He has pledged to save $1 million a year in Santa Clarita, mainly by cutting overhead and replacing unionized employees. “Somehow they have been put in the category of a sacred organization.”
The company, known as L.S.S.I., runs 14 library systems operating 63 locations. Its basic pitch to cities is that it fixes broken libraries — more often than not by cleaning house.
“A lot of libraries are atrocious,” Mr. Pezzanite said. “Their policies are all about job security. That’s why the profession is nervous about us. You can go to a library for 35 years and never have to do anything and then have your retirement. We’re not running our company that way. You come to us, you’re going to have to work.”
The members of the Santa Clarita City Council who voted to hire L.S.S.I. acknowledge there was no immediate threat to the libraries. The council members say they want to ensure the libraries’ long-term survival in a state with increasingly shaky finances.
Until now, the three branch locations have been part of the Los Angeles County library system. Under the new contract, the branches will be withdrawn from county control and all operations — including hiring staff and buying books — ceded to L.S.S.I.
“The libraries are still going to be public libraries,” said the mayor pro tem, Marsha McLean. “When people say we’re privatizing libraries, that is just not a true statement, period.”
Library employees are furious about the contract. But the reaction has been mostly led by patrons who say they cannot imagine Santa Clarita with libraries run for profit.
“A library is the heart of the community,” said one opponent, Jane Hanson. “I’m in favor of private enterprise, but I can’t feel comfortable with what the city is doing here.”
Mrs. Hanson and her husband, Tom, go to their local branch every week or two to pick up tapes for the car and books to read after dinner. Mrs. Hanson recently checked out Willa Cather’s classic “Death Comes for the Archbishop,” although she was only mildly in favor of its episodic style; she has higher hopes for her current choice, on the shadowy world of North Korea.
The suggestion that a library is different — and somehow off limits to the outsourcing fever — has been echoed wherever L.S.S.I. has gone. The head of the county library system, Margaret Donnellan Todd, says L.S.S.I. is viewed as an unwelcome outsider.
“There is no local connection,” she said. “People are receiving superb service in Santa Clarita. I challenge that L.S.S.I. will be able to do much better....”
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