If you scan the pages of town newspapers, you will notice that the public library across the nation is becoming an endangered institution. Some libraries have been cutting hours, others are at risk of closing the door forever, and some have been forced to reduce valuable services that have been offered to their host communities—all mostly due to budget cuts. Often—and predictably— libraries in low-income neighborhoods are the hardest hit, compounding the already-existing education deficit for underserved children and adults
As a bibliophile and proponent of a literacy-rich culture, I do think that community libraries are a valuable resource. But I do not think we should be holding rallies and beg for more public funding. Rather, if we want to give these bastions of literacy a fighting chance, privatization is our best option; there is still a demand for community libraries and the best way to sustain them and maximize the services that they render is to take them out of the public sector—altogether or simply outsource some core functions.
First let me defend the claim that libraries are still a relevant and valuable resource worth saving—and not just some relic from the pre-Amazon era. It would be useful to highlight who exactly is still utilizing library services in the age of Kindles and $0.99 e-books. Is it the not-so-tech-savvy person, who relishes the tactile experience of holding a printed book, or luddites who insist that e-books and reading stuff on an electronic screen is kind of making us dumber?
While the tech-resistant is a good candidate, it turns out that Generations Y and Z are frequenting libraries as much as the older generations. According to this Pew Research Internet Project Report—published last week— the youngest tier of Millennials (high schoolers) are more likely than their elder counterparts to believe that “more important information is not available on the internet”— despite growing up in what is arguably the most tech-saturated era of all time.
According to the same report, 16-17 year-olds are more likely than their elders (including the college-aged) to read printed books and borrow them from libraries. Underscoring the persistent of libraries, this slightly older piece by Millionaire Corner reports that an overwhelming majority of Americans—of all ages, presumably—believe that “closing their local public library would have an impact on their community.”
So the community library is not an underutilized institution. It doesn’t look like people are ready to completely ditch their plastic library cards in favor of downloading books for a personal and ever-expanding (virtual) library of their own— not yet, anyway.
To be clear, we are talking about public libraries, which are dependent on local and state sources of funding— and the occasional lending hand from the federal government. This means that there are people who are footing the bill for services that they do not use—and may opt out of having to pay, if they had the choice. This also means that when municipalities are trying to tackle over-bloated budgets, library services get the hatchet job— to the dismay of locals who rely on these services for their educational and social needs.
While not a panacea, I think the privatization of libraries (or, at least, their core services), is the feasible and pragmatic solution.
The privatization—or, more appropriately, the outsourcing—of library services would at least allow local libraries to continue running, at a lower cost to tax-payers (ideally, there should be complete privatization and no cost to tax-payers… but we are not there yet). And outsourcing, where it has been tried, has expanded the range of resources for those who want it.
The town of Upland in Ontario, Canada decided to outsource library management to a private company back in June. Not only has outsourcing allowed the library to continue running despite budgetary challenges, but patrons have been able to enjoy longer hours, more open days, and an expansion in circulated materials. The town’s contract with the Maryland-based Library Systems and Services, LLC is expected to save taxpayers about $1 million over the next five years.
Despite protests from library employees and some patrons, the city council of Santa Clarita negotiated a similar contract with LSSI in 2010. Two years later, in 2012, the library system increased branch hours, purchased more computers, and visits went up.
The libraries remain in local hands and, thus, still rely on local and state funds—but to a lesser degree. But insofar as community libraries are still pretty far from being obsolete, the privatization of services meets the demand and saves tax-payer money in the long run.