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

What do you think? Should private companies take over our public libraries?
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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