Public-Private Partnerships Are Quietly Hollowing Out Our Public Libraries

“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.

My resignation was approved by the HR person because I was leaving my assistant position to become a professional librarian at another library. After graduating from library school, I joined the ranks of other degreed library professionals. But her comments were filled with contempt for those who simply showed their support to the public by going to work every day. 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 disturbing of these assaults on commons is one that has silently infiltrated one of our most treasured public spaces: public library.

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 has changed slightly and alarmingly since a decade ago.

In 2010, LS&S made headlinesBy securing contracts for privatization of public libraries in wealthy, economically healthy communities rather than in economically struggling 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? Workers’ backs. When companies like LS&S privatize public goods, old contracts — and unions — are thrown out. Even PMC workers, such as librarians and degreed professionals, lose their annual salaries, solid pensions, and solid benefits. Instead, they receive hourly wages comparable to those of PMC workers, and private retirement accounts. They also have no collective bargaining power and cannot 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.

For some, it almost appears that the company is waging a war against workers. Consider the comments of LS&S founder and former CEO Frank Pezzanite. As reportedIn The New York TimesPezzanite stated 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. What if people boycotted a library? If people boycotted a public library, then I think local governments would have solid, measurable data to justify further budget cuts. 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. Let this sink in: These are the same arch-villains that we know. 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 modelIt is possible that standardized testing across all educational levels is an anti-human practice.

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, his illustrious career. seemingly intentional mismanagementU.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 work, demoralizing workers, and creating the myth that workers in the public sector are lazy, inefficient, and unworthy the benefits they receive.

The American Library Association (ALA), a professional organization that advocates libraries and librarians, holds two annual conferences, collects membership dues from almost 60,000 librarians, is no more. The ALA is sending mixed signals, unfortunately.

On the one side, the ALA has made it clear that they are against privatization of public libraries. 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 be blunt: professional librarians can come in many forms. 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.

This profession is also populated by a whole new group: the gatekeepers, the library police, the librarians (and sometimes administrators) who have a completely different agenda and whose professional ethics align more closely with the procorporate, antiunion, anti-human ethics in 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. Many librarians are happy to welcome their corporate bosses, rather than joining a united 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 LeadershipPage.

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.

The company recently set its sights on the St. Johns County Public Library located in St. Johns Florida. According to a petition, the company has its sights set on the St. Johns County Public Library in St. Johns, Florida. 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 at $6.8 million is only 2 percent of the county’s 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 studyRiverside County Public Library System. According to LS&S, the library was funded completely by a meager 1.15 percent ad valoremProperty tax was not included in the system’s management when the company assumed control. 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 additional revenue was generated by leasing space in a large, under-used library administration building to a tenant and also from revenues generated by a new county development.

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 alternative suggestion.

Local governments should not be attempting to shrink or maintain already small budgets. Instead, they should use talking points and data from ALA-accredited librarians to advocate for a larger share 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 example of advocacy groups for public libraries such as 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 more for less. It would be nice if you could look at them and say NThank you. We have plenty.