Is Privatizing Libraries Really Such a Bad Thing?

Toronto is outraged. Rob Ford is suggesting that we close, or worse, privatize libraries. *gasp*.

Let me start by saying this: I think closing libraries is a terrible thing to do. We must ensure that people have easy access to books in their own communities. I am not putting this under debate.

Privatizing libraries is a whole other matter. Knee-jerk fears of capitalism aside, what exactly is wrong with privatizing them? Privatization generally means more money available, more efficient administration, and more accountability to the customers, i.e. those paying the fees. The Toronto Star says that:

A recent contract offer to San Joaquin County in California promised up to 47 per cent longer hours, 21 to 34 per cent lower costs, and $800,000 more spending on books and materials.

And that “Circulation, library visits, and library programs all continue to increase,” in Riverside, California. Both the Star and the Globe and Mail (notably, papers on two very different ends of the political and quality spectrum) both report that Riverside made a profit of $80,000 from privatizing the libraries, and both generally present privatization as a positive influence.

The only objection that I’ve seen that has made sense to me is that privatizing libraries would mean limiting access to books. This is a valid concern, but there must be ways around it. Paid memberships are not necessarily a given – the library could make money through advertisement, or by raising late fees. If they are a necessity, then there are ways to open access up, like making payment necessary only for taking books out, not reading in-library. The important thing here is how, not whether we privatize.

Another good objection is that libraries are community hubs. But this does not necessarily need to change in a privatized situation. Indigo runs more, and better organized and advertised, author readings, and many of the places that do end up being community hubs are actually private: think local coffee shops (lets not forget that indie coffee shops are still for-profit, and unlike your beloved hipster coffee place, libraries could still potentially be free places to gather). People in communities with privatized libraries seem to agree, according to the Globe and Mail:

Priscilla Donovan was hired by LSSI in Leander, Texas, to run the town’s library four years ago.

“As far as I know everybody’s really happy – most people have no idea [that it’s privately run]. It’s still a library. We don’t wear LSSI uniforms or anything like that,” she says.

On the other hand, libraries which are somewhat privately run, such as University libraries, are in my experience better managed, have much larger collections, and shorter waits for highly demanded books.

So, besides being the Big Bad Capitalist Wolf, is privatization really a bad thing?

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