Friday, November 12, 2021

Serving As Daytime Homeless Shelters Has Hollowed Out America's Public Libraries...,

truthout |  “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.

The HR person approved of my resignation because I was leaving an assistant position to take a professional one at another library, joining the ranks of other degreed librarians after graduating from library school. But her comment dripped with scorn toward all the people who simply showed up to work each day, collecting their modest paychecks and serving the public. 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 nauseating of these assaults on the commons is one that has been silently infiltrating one of our most cherished public spaces: public libraries.

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 changed slightly, and alarmingly, about a decade ago.

In 2010, LS&S made headlines by securing contracts to privatize public libraries in affluent, economically healthy municipalities, rather than in struggling, economically marginalized 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.”

 

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