At 17,566, there are more public libraries in the United States than there are Starbucks coffee shops. And just like at Starbucks, patrons have access to free wi-fi. But unlike Starbucks, public libraries will usually provide the free use of a computer as well as internet access.
Perhaps it is their very ubiquitousness that makes them such a tempting target for libertarians like the Koch brothers and right -wing economists like the one who recently suggested a takeover of libraries’ functions by Amazon.
Forbes quickly pulled the controversial op-ed by contributor Panos Mourdoukoutas, an economist and academic who felt that many of the functions of the local library, like free Wi-Fi, and movie rentals are already being filled by places like Starbucks and services like Netflix. Why shouldn’t Amazon open stores to provide books to the public? His argument included the fact that public libraries cost taxpayers money (gasp). It would be so much nicer for him if he did not have to contribute a couple of hundred dollars every year to American literacy. The American Library Association reports that the actual annual cost is $36.96 per person.
So, in order to save the cost of a single hard-backed book, we should privatize our public libraries and let Amazon determine what we should read, Starbucks can decide what websites we can visit, and Netflix can select our movie choices for us. How cool.
After some scathing Twitter criticism, Forbes withdrew the article, claiming that the subject matter was outside of the author’s area of expertise. But it’s unlikely the concept it contained was ever a serious threat. No way in hell would the spoiled, vengeful, petty tyrant currently occupying the Oval Office ever allow Jeff Bezos to expand his empire. Ever.
Perhaps if Mourdoukoutas had suggested Barnes & Noble it might have had a slim chance (but not really). For now, the idea has been knocked down with all of the scorn it deserved. But it is only one attack. There are always more.
Similar to the push to completely privatize libraries is one that places the management of a public library in the hands of a private company. Library Systems and Services, Inc (LSSI) out of Maryland has management contracts with 83 libraries. According to Wikipedia (citing a Library Journal article):
The company started in 1982 with the MINI MARC cataloging system and custom software for libraries. It expanded into managing libraries at [sic] housed within federal agencies, an opportunity created by Reagan-era privatization policies.
It moved into management of public libraries during the 1990s; in 1997, it took over the Riverside County Library system in California. In 2016, Michael Hilzik, writing for the Los Angeles Times, reported that Kern County, California, was considering outsourcing its library management.
The issue really is about nothing but money. LSSI says that it doesn't impose its own library policies on its clients. A study for the American Library Assn. observed, however, that LSSI contracts subtly put the company in the driver's seat in mapping out long-term strategies for the libraries placed under its control, often because the public officials handing over their systems didn't understand enough about libraries to know where to push back.
The attempt here, as in the privatization of charter schools, appears to be one meant to destroy unions and enrich the top 1 percent. From the 2010 New York Times article on the movement to take over Santa Clarita libraries:
The company is majority owned by Islington Capital Partners, a private equity firm in Boston, and has about $35 million in annual revenue and 800 employees. Officials would not discuss the company’s profitability.
Just this month, Santa Clarita resumed management of its libraries at the end of its contract with LSSI.
The city added 25 new positions, Hernandez said. Regular library users will notice some new staff, but there will also be some returning staff — of the city’s 84 full-time and part-time positions, 31 will be filled by current library staff.
The interview process for the 54 part-time and 30 full-time positions was competitive — 894 people applied.
Turnover rates for LSSI’s 59 library positions were high during its contract with the city, Hernandez said. Thus, the city had a competitive application process to ensure the new staff would have a higher retention rate.
Local librarians are incredible people. They stand there all day long greeting patrons, answering questions, helping students, and teaching all who need to know just how to get online. They know their communities and can assist job seekers with applications and interviewing skills and databases of career openings. They can help small business owners find online assistance.
Local libraries are usually the first to open after a natural disaster to give help to their communities. Even without a disaster, they provide a heated place in the winter and an air conditioned space in the summer for elderly patrons who may not otherwise have a safe, comfortable place to read. Librarians create summer programs for children and can guide them into a lifetime of reading and growing through books.
And they often even know our names. They deserve, and have earned, our support. When a company like LSSI takes over a library, patrons are often initially unaware of a difference in the operation. But as staffing levels are reduced and the remaining staff is burdened with the additional workload, shortcomings appear. Turnover rates destroy the continuity that a community needs in its libraries.
According to the most recent Pew Survey:
Most Americans view public libraries as important parts of their communities, with a majority reporting that libraries have the resources they need and play at least some role in helping them decide what information they can trust.
There is also a growing sense that libraries can help people decide what information they can trust: 37% of Americans feel that public libraries contribute “a lot” in this regard, a 13-point increase from a survey conducted at a similar point in 2015.
This last part is important, and as the numbers of Americans who believe that public libraries can help them find information they can trust increase, we can expect additional attacks on our libraries. But the ability to distinguish reality from Fox News and other purveyors of misinformation and propaganda is critical for our future as a democracy. Especially now, when distrust in the media is encouraged by the Twitter rantings of a narcissistic crybaby who finds critical thought to be unfathomable.
When people begin to wake to the damage that Fox, et al have done, they will need some source of information that they can trust. We have to make sure they can continue to get it in a public library that remains impartial and beholden to no private investors, and only to the American taxpayers.