Should our public libraries be outsourced? Guess what? It's already happening.

Should our public libraries be outsourced? Guess what? It's already happening.

Summary: What do you think? Should private companies take over our public libraries?


The Fair Lawn Public Library, courtesy of Google Street View. Funny, it seems smaller than I remember.

As I've gotten older, fewer and fewer things have remained sacred. Ball players, once heroes, are now juiced-up freaks. National leaders, once inspiring, are now corrupt, ineffective old men and women.

Even Apple, once the company for the rest of us, sometimes seems like it's being run like Cupertino's own twisted, latte-drinking version of the Gestapo.

But libraries, especially home town public libraries, those were sacred.

It's been decades since I visited the Fair Lawn Public Library (I live far away), but my earliest reading memories are there. To this day, 40+ years later, I have a memory of the smart, wise, amazingly patient, white-haired Mrs. Burdick, who was willing to guide me -- then a young boy -- to knowledge, whether it was Robert Heinlein or Khalil Gibran (Heinlein stuck with me forever, and Gibran remains a bad memory of an unpleasant school assignment).

Books and libraries were different in the sixties and seventies than they are today. Today, you can go onto the Internet and order virtually any book you want, and it'll be in your hands as soon as tomorrow -- or even in minutes if you're willing to read it electronically. Vast storehouses of information are available behind Google's nearly instant interface.

But in the sixties and seventies, when I was a boy, books were finite. There were the few our parents owned. There were the slightly larger collections in the school library and the small bookstores we had (B. Dalton was the big dog, and it was about an eighth the size of a typical Barnes & Noble).

The real storehouse of knowledge, books, tapes, and all sorts of other wondrous information was the public library. To a boy of eight or ten, the public library was the entire world, the promise of the future, and an as-yet-unwritten bucket list, all rolled into one. To me, then, the library was my Warehouse 13.

Five published books, four decades, and thousands of articles later, I have never forgotten Mrs. Burdick. She was as much The Library to me as the library itself.

But the times, they are a'changin'.

What if we were to outsource our public libraries (or at least the operation of them)? What if all the kind and wise Mrs. Burdicks of the world were replaced by employees of a private company, brought in as hired guns to run libraries, not necessarily with an eye to towards inspiring our citizens, but to saving budget dollars?

Are our public libraries sacred? Or should we be willing to privatize them and outsource their operation just like any other costly operation? After all, libraries are expensive to run -- and with the Internet and ebooks, libraries aren't the central information distribution resource they once were.

When I was five, my proudest possession was my library card. Five year old monsters today are digital natives. They're comfortable with iPads and the Internet and would be baffled at having to wait for mommy or daddy to drive them to the library when they wanted to know something.

Like all other civic services in a down economy, libraries are suffering. According to David Streitfeld, writing in The New York Times, a former software company named Library Systems & Services has taken over library systems all over the United States and has, effectively, become America's fifth largest library system.

The company often comes in to turn around library systems that are failing. But now, according to Streitfeld's article, LSSI is taking over healthy library systems, furloughing some of the workers, and only rehiring those willing to give up their cushy government pensions.

Sadly, furloughs seem to have hit my old home town library as well. According to the library's Web site, "Furlough Fridays have begun. The library will be closed and staff furloughed every Friday from Sept. through Dec. due budget cuts necessitated by the shortfall in Fair Lawn Boro revenue."


Aside: I've talked a lot about Street View before, but can I tell you just how astonishing it feels to be able to pick a location, like my old library, and within seconds, have a picture I can show you? I know, it's just the Internet. But, darn, sometimes touching the future just rocks me back and reminds me how amazing this technology can be.

What do you think? Should private companies take over our public libraries? Given the Internet, are public libraries even relevant, or are they dinosaurs of the sixties and seventies, doomed to go the way of bell-bottoms beehive hair? TalkBack below.

Topics: Hardware, Browser, CXO, Enterprise Software, Outsourcing, IT Employment


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • RE: Should our public libraries be outsourced? Guess what? It's already happening.

    Ultimately this is not a question about the "best" way to manage libraries. The issues run much deeper to the meaning of "public good."

    Are libraries expensive? Yes! and getting more so. Just look at the prices of licenses for magazine subscriptions and e-book licenses for libraries. For the last several years, the rate of increase has been several times the general rate of inflation--a fact to which the general public and decision makers are totally oblivious.

    The point of libraries returns to the Mrs. Burdicks of the world--those wise and seasoned guides through the ever-increasing mountain of knowledge that we find ourselves buried under (these people are expensive too; personnel has always been the biggest cost in any library system).

    What David's post doesn't even touch on is the undeniable fact that librarians have always turned tangible assets into intangible assets--the same as museums, parks, green spaces and such. The very intangible assets that contribute to the "public good."

    As long as we're abandoning libraries to the corporate bean-counters, why don't we just follow suit with our other municipal public assets? That's the real question.
    • RE: Should our public libraries be outsourced? Guess what? It's already happening.


      Replace the word "librarians" with the word "teachers" and it's revealed to be what it is; feel-good rhetoric that has no bearing on reality. Teachers are supposed to do that job for kids, too, but thanks to the eternally inept gov't, they don't. They constantly scream for more money, increasingly engage in indoctrination rather than education, and also increasingly act as babysitters rather than educators.

      "libraries" should increasingly become warehouses of "backups" of the massive amount of information available on the internet.

      When I want hard copy, I don't go to the library anymore. I go to Barnes and Noble. Whose employees have always been as you've described "those Mrs Burdicks of the world".
  • RE: Should our public libraries be outsourced? Guess what? It's already happening.

    For persons of means such as David, the library may have been replaced by the Internet but many others, especially those new to this country, the library is still the gateway to America.

    Libraries are right now helping people find work, connect with family members, and educate themselves. Librarians are right now sorting through the large amount of garbage on the Internet to find and deliver factually correct information to people who need it. Libraries are right now acting as one of the few "third places" in America that don't require you to have any money.

    Generations ago business and civic leaders understood that free public libraries were not just an amenity but an investment that would help create better citizens. Investing in the public good - what a quaint and strange idea that seems today.

    Pulling out the experienced, dedicated, and highly-qualified staff and replacing them with Home Depot-like employees (think smile, name tag, and no clue how to help you/don't care/not getting paid for this/etc) will give the appearance of service without delivering the results.

    Even people who don't have a need for the public library - I'll ask you that question again after you've been laid off a few months and need to take your kids somewhere that's free - benefit from public libraries.
    • RE: Should our public libraries be outsourced? Guess what? It's already happening.


      I agree. Libraries are a true social good. People in SF demand to know why people in Placer want lower taxes, when the mountain and valley regions get more welfare dollars. It's because the infrastructure dollars go to the coast, and they'd rather be working than taking welfare. Libraries aren't welfare, they're infrastructure, and a real American takes infrastructure over welfare every time.
  • RE: Should our public libraries be outsourced? Guess what? It's already happening.

    One of the reasons we liked Jean Luc-Picard of Star Trek: Next Generation so much, was he was often found in his quarters with an actual very old classic book in his hands! I'm tempted to get a Kindle with the entire catalogue of the Great books of Western Literature on it, strictly because of the cost factor, but.......... you can't beat the sensory interaction with and actual book!
    Besides, you can drop it and it won't break..not the first time anyway.
  • RE: Should our public libraries be outsourced? Guess what? It's already happening.

    The turn of the 21st century will be remembered as a time when government was outsourced to the highest bidder (or highest briber). We see it now from our military to our prisons.

    If these private companies can make a profit providing public services, then why can't the municipalities?

    The truth of the matter is that if you scratch the surface of any outsourcing deal, you're going to find friends of the politicians underneath.

    We're headed the way of a third world country here in America, with institutionalized corruption and corporate government. It can't be a good thing.
    • It always existed

      @omb00900@... The only difference with the old model is that they had to find a place in the organization for the corrupt people to work or grant large contracts to them. Now the corrupt pilfer by providing low standards of service at an inflated price for the whole organization, not just parts. Same outcome really.
  • Online libraries lending ebooks

    That is what is going to be in the future. The question is how will the time bomb (self deleting after the "lending period" ends) work and how can it be 100% OPEN and FREE.
  • RE: Should our public libraries be outsourced? Guess what? It's already happening.

    If public libraries are privatized, they are no longer public, right?
    v r
  • Redefine libraries, or close them all

    The online world is a direct threat to the traditional library.<br><br>Financially, trying to run a library makes no sense. Outsourcing it even less. But that's where the value of education should be added. If you link a monetary value to a library, all should be closed. <br><br>Being online 24/7 might lead you to ask if they are still needed, but its easy to forget the value it adds to the lives of those without broadband or the social impact of interacting in the real world with other people.<br><br>Maybe libraries should shift more to an internet cafe-type service, but with Mrs. Burdick helping kids to locate the correct books and information online and getting children/adults to engage with other people on similar subjects.<br><br>Traditional libraries still have a big value, but they are loosing it fast and turning it over to corporates that struggle to see money in public services... thats certain death. Governments should stick to their responsibilities, but seriously need to redefine the role of the library to keep it having an impact.
  • Libraries are more valuable than you might think

    I visit the library approximately twice a week, and spread my visits out between three or four libraries in our area. My job allows me to visit the library at various times of day, and the library is never less than half full. Many times, all tables are occupied. Why go? First, my kid can read an entire book in one day. Since paperbacks start at $7, and hardbacks at $25, getting them free at the library saves me large money. Second, internet access is free. I can stop and type up a report or respond to emails without having to drive the greater distance to my office. My friend who recently was out of work spent a great deal of time at the library researching for jobs and applying online - he could not afford internet at home.

    Two additional comments:
    First, the cars in the parking lot are not as nice as the ones at Starbucks. If we lose libraries, those affected are not the Starbucks crowd, and they need the resources which the Starbuckers take for granted.
    Second, I live outside the metro area, and actually have to pay an annual fee for library use. It is still very much worth it. I'm not advocating pay-per-use; instead, I am demonstrating that I am not simply praising something which costs me nothing.
  • It's a shame we have not outsourced them sooner.

    As with my local Post Office and Motor Vehicle office, our public library workers are slow, rude and lack any concern for public perception of their job performance.

    Most libraries are horribly wasteful and inefficient. If we can outsource the operations only, to a private firm that is held responsible for the level of service that it delivers, and save the tax payers cash in the process, then how is this a bad idea?

    At a time when the government is charging more and more silly fees, like trash collection fees, fees to have your alley snow plowed, and even wheel taxes, how on earth can anyone not be all for a reduced cost for once?

    The attitude that so many people have, that all business is evil corrupt and greedy, and that Government is filled with saints and charity workers who can do no wrong, is a very dangerous one.

    If we are ever going to get spending and dept under control in this country, that point of view needs to be put in check immediately.
    Spoiled Pork
    • RE: Should our public libraries be outsourced? Guess what? It's already happening.

      @Spoiled Pork


      Maybe the government should outsource health care. Oh, wait, too late... the government just took over health care.
      • RE: Should our public libraries be outsourced? Guess what? It's already happening.

        Finally, the reply I was looking for! Doesn't anyone find the odd humor in the fact that we are outsourcing the things the government has ran for years, stating it would be more efficient to have the private sector manage it YET we want the government to run the banks, health care, and insurance industries... What a vicious cycle a bunch of idiots have put us in without using any common sense!
    • RE: Should our public libraries be outsourced? Guess what? It's already happening.

      @Spoiled Pork
      You need to contact your city or county, whom ever owns the library about the service they provide because I work for a city library and we strive for excellent customer service. Also your comment about most libraries being wasteful and inefficient... why do you say that? Most libraries try to stay up-to-date in technologies and services. You get books, movies, magazines and internet use for free...what more do you want? Library services help all forms of the community, its just ignorant people like you that don't see that and think anything linked to the government is corrupt!!!!
    • RE: Should our public libraries be outsourced? Guess what? It's already happening.

      @Spoiled Pork

      When you are outsourced, I'm sure you'll be happy that another wasteful and inefficient worker has been removed from the Capitalist free-for-all!

      Rick in Phoenix
  • RE: Should our public libraries be outsourced? Guess what? It's already happening.

    WE don't pay less taxes. The purpose of tax is to allow the government to provide services that are not profitable in the financial sense but desirable for the community. The community has therefore already paid for the service. Even considering outsourcing/closing down the service is tantamount to theft.
  • RE: Should our public libraries be outsourced?

    Great post, bless Ms. Burdick! It's not the management it's individual care and desire. I live in Washington DC with a laughable school system (it's a major source of middle class jobs for people with poor skills) and illiterate librarians (they carry guns). After dealing with a horribly outclassed public servant, a friend memorably said, "Oh well, she's not service oriented." Would a different organization do any worse?
  • No, they shouldn't ... but they will!

    At one time, we thought of a library as the storehouse of all human knowledge. If it was worth knowing, it could be found at your municipal library. Period.

    School libraries were more referencial in nature - using Library of Congress cataloging instead of the less complex Dewey Decimal System but beyond that, there wasn't much difference.

    Bookstores were always commercial - offering a subset of "popular" materials - based upon sales, not the value of the information.

    For decades now, libraries have been pressured to respond to consumer likes and dislikes. Libraries have resisted public calls for banning books, and government calls for keeping records of who is reading what.

    Privatization of libraries will end all that. Librarians were not just keepers of information, they were protectors of freedom of information.

    Professional librarians will be replaced by employees with little or no training in Information Science.

    Information Technology (the WorldWideWeb) puts vast stores of data (much of it MISINFORMATION) at our fingertips but there is no one to help the end-user discern whether what they find is fact or fiction, truth or lies.

    Without trained librarians, there is no one to help the user to separate the wheat from the chaff.
    M Wagner
  • RE: Should our public libraries be outsourced? Guess what? It's already happening.

    I don't see how a private company could do worse than the federal government at anything.

    Don't blame businesses for the mindless, unhelpful, drone employees at most retailers... it's your fault. In the 1970s, starting with autos, price became not only king, but god. Almost overnight everyone was brainwashed into thinking that price was more important than quality, so, to survive, businesses changed their business models. Change your buying habits, and their business practices will change in response.

    I really want to see the library system out of the hands of the federal government, especially now that that government is pushing to have a "kill switch" on the internet.

    I'm desperate for a source of archives of information that the gov't does not control or even influence.