Md. com­pany qui­etly builds it­self a li­brary em­pire

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY BEN WOLF­GANG

Cash-strapped cities and lo­cal gov­ern­ments across the coun­try, hav­ing pri­va­tized ser­vices such as trash col­lec­tion and prison op­er­a­tions in ef­forts to make up bud­get short­falls, are in­creas­ingly eye­ing an­other ser­vice as a prime can­di­date for out­sourc­ing: the neigh­bor­hood li­brary.

To save money, coun­ties and cities in Cal­i­for­nia, Kansas, Ore­gon, Ten­nessee and Texas have out­sourced much of their op­er­a­tions to Li­brary Sys­tems & Ser­vices LLC.

The Ger­man­town, Md.based com­pany over the past sev­eral years has qui­etly built up what amounts to the na­tion’s fifth-largest li­brar y branch net­work, trail­ing only the sys­tems run by ma­jor cities such as New York and Chicago.

As the com­pany ex­pands, many li­brary work­ers are re­sist­ing the shift and oth­ers are chal­leng­ing whether a ser­vice long as­so­ci­ated with civic iden­tity and pride should be run with an eye to the bot­tom line.

LSSI cuts costs in part by pro­vid­ing cen­tral­ized ser­vices such as ac­count­ing and hu­man re­sources. In most cases, li­brary staff, for­merly em­ploy­ees of the city or county, go to work for the com­pany — al- though typ­i­cally with­out the same lev­els of ben­e­fits and re­tire­ment sup­port they re­ceived as pub­lic-sec­tor work­ers.

Books, mi­cro­film and other ma­te­ri­als re­main the prop­erty of the lo­cal govern­ment, and boards or li­brary foun­da­tions still set pol­icy and con­trol the over­all di­rec­tion of the sys­tem.

While lo­cal gov­ern­ing bod­ies main­tain some con­trol, LSSI takes over de­ci­sions such as which books to buy or li­brar y hours. The com­pany says it usu­ally can main­tain or even ex­pand the hours of op­er­a­tion.

The av­er­age li­brary pa­tron will see lit­tle dif­fer­ence.

“When you walk into one of these places, you’re not go­ing to see a dra­matic change. You’ll see a lot of the same peo­ple work­ing there, a lot of the same books on the shelves,” said Molly Raphael, pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Li­brary As­so­ci­a­tion.

Ms. Raphael’s as­so­ci­a­tion op­poses for-profit busi­ness con­trol over li­braries. De­spite a fa­mil­iar feel in­side the li­brary, the ALA says, any form of pri­va­ti­za­tion can pose prob­lems.

“Pub­licly funded li­braries should re­main di­rectly ac­count­able to the publics they serve,” reads a por­tion of the ALA’s pol­icy on out­sourc­ing and pri­va­ti­za­tion.

In Cal­i­for­nia, some law­mak­ers want to give res­i­dents di­rect con­trol over the fu­tures of their li­braries. A bill await­ing a vote in the state Se­nate would re­quire the pub­lic’s ap­proval and a clear demon­stra­tion of cost sav­ings be­fore a lo­cal gov­ern­ing body could hire LSSI. Among the bill’s big­gest boost­ers: the pow­er­ful Ser­vice Em­ploy­ees In­ter­na­tional Union, whose mem­bers of­ten staff the li­braries tar­geted for LSSI pri­va­ti­za­tion.

“Tax­pay­ers and the pub­lic de­serve ba­sic safe­guards be­fore such a valu­able com­mu­nity as­set is pri­va­tized,” the union’s Cal­i­for­nia branch said in a state­ment two weeks ago.

Lo­cal lead­ers in Stock­ton, Calif., con­sid­ered pri­va­tiz­ing but ul­ti­mately de­cided against it, in part be­cause of con­cerns raised by city res­i­dents, Ms. Raphael said.

Those mis­giv­ings may have been driven by con­tro­ver­sies in Fargo, N.D., and Jersey City, N.J., along with other com­mu­ni­ties that signed con­tracts with LSSI only to ter­mi­nate them early. In Fargo, the li­brary board voted in 2003 to can­cel the two-year deal af­ter just eight months, cit­ing con­cerns about mount­ing bills, ac­cord­ing to the trade pub­li­ca­tion Li­brary Jour­nal.

An­other rea­son com­muni- ties should think twice be­fore mak­ing the switch, ac­cord­ing to the ALA, is that salaries of li­brary work­ers are mat­ters of pub­lic record while the wages of pri­vate em­ploy­ees are not sub­ject to right-to-know laws.

Dis­putes also have erupted over the def­i­ni­tion of the ser­vices. LSSI refers to them as “out­sourc­ing” and re­jects the term pri­va­ti­za­tion, while Ms. Raphael views out­sourc­ing as the use of con­trac­tors for tasks such as plac­ing plas­tic jack­ets on books or clean­ing re­strooms.

Re­gard­less, some com­mu­ni­ties see their li­braries as more ap­peal­ing tar­gets for sav­ings than po­lice de­part­ments, fire de­part­ments or other agen­cies that pro­vide es­sen­tial ser­vices.

Since the eco­nomic down­turn of 2008, Ms. Raphael said, the idea has only grown in pop­u­lar­ity.

LSSI doesn’t seek out clients. In­stead, the com­pany waits for cash-strapped gov­ern­ments to re­quest its ser­vices, said CEO Brad King. He told The Washington Times that LSSI typ­i­cally signs a three-or five-year con­tract with a lo­cal govern­ment, and the price of­ten de­pends on what of­fi­cials think their tax­pay­ers can af­ford. LSSI, he said, makes a de­lib­er­ate ef­fort to keep fa­mil­iar faces be­hind li­brar­i­ans’ desks.

“The com­pany of­fered jobs to more than 98 per­cent of the in­cum­bent staff mem­bers who ap­plied,” he said. “Of those of­fers, more than 95 per­cent were ac­cepted.”

In most cases, he said, LSSI matches or ex­ceeds salaries.

Frank A. Pez­zan­ite, who co­founded the com­pany in 1981 and now serves as ex­ec­u­tive chair­man, was far more caus­tic in a New York Times ar­ti­cle last year dur­ing a fight over LSSI’s con­tract to run the li­brary sys­tem in Santa Clarita, Calif., the fourth-largest city in Los An­ge­les County.

Mr. Pez­zan­ite told the news­pa­per that many mu­nic­i­pal li­braries are “atro­cious.”

“Their poli­cies are all about job se­cu­rity,” he said. “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 com­pany, Mr. King said, plans to ex­pand. With strug­gling economies, he said, more com­mu­ni­ties are likely to make the switch.

“We’ll keep our eye fo­cused on sat­is­fy­ing our cus­tomers, and the fu­ture will take care of it­self,” Mr. King said.

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