Riverside County Libraries Shelve Old
County is first in nation to hire private firm to manage system
By Samuel Autman
Copyright, 1999, Copley News Service
RIVERSIDE - Every week since 1995, Doug Goulbourn has scanned the aisles for books at the Glen Avon Library in a subdivision here called Jurupa.
Not much has changed in that time. It's always quiet. The librarians are helpful. And books are plentiful.
But two years ago, right under his nose and without his noticing, Glen Avon and 24 other libraries in the Riverside County system became part of the first large-scale library privatization in the nation.
"I was not really aware of that," Goulbourn said when asked about the shift in management. "There has not been any real change I could put my fingers on, really. Everything has seemed pleasant, and so are the librarians."
That is exactly what Library Systems & Services Inc. would like to hear. Riverside County turned over management of its system to the Maryland-based company after struggling with shrinking budgets.
But the change has not gone unnoticed in library circles, where the news rippled like shock waves from a Southern California tremor.
Although the San Diego County Library system is not looking to privatize, Library Systems & Services is one of several organizations officials have contacted regarding a future public-private partnership at the Rancho San Diego Library, to be built two years from now.
Earlier this year, San Diego County voters defeated Proposition L, a five-year sales tax increase intended to raise $423 million for the region's 79 branch libraries. It failed to get the needed two-thirds approval. Since then, some of the region's libraries, most notably the systems operated by the city and county of San Diego, have been seeking alternative funding sources.
In Riverside, Library Systems & Services Inc. says it has taken the same $5 million annual budget as existed before it took over the library system, and increased library hours by 34 percent and boosted the book budget from $180,000 to $360,000.
While the company points to its successes, not every librarian is convinced that the privatization of the Riverside system has been beneficial.
"LSSI (Library Systems & Services Inc.) is making money," said Christine Lind-Hague, president of the Public Library Association, a division of the American Library Association.
"Nobody runs a business out of the goodness of their heart. That's called a charity. That's not what they are doing. LSSI is making money off that deal. I say the community could do it themselves."
Added Patricia Glass Schuman, past American Library Association president: "It changes the idea of what is a public library. If a private corporation is going to squeeze a profit out, where is it going to come from? Libraries are not the kinds of agencies that waste money."
Some of those engaged in the debate speculate that Library Systems & Services is willing to take a loss for the first few years until it lands more lucrative privatization deals.
"Librarians all over are shook up by this," said Gary Christmas, head of the Riverside County system. "You would think they would like it with more books and services we are providing."
|Samuel Autman is a staff writer for the San Diego Union-Tribune, in which this article appeared on July 6, 1999. It is reprinted with permission of Copley News Service.|
Gordon Conable, West Coast administrator for Library Systems & Services, said any private company has to follow a long-term business plan. Meanwhile, the company has signed agreements to manage public libraries in Calabasas and Jersey City, N.J.
"We think it's cost effective," Conable said. "The county is getting a good return on its investment. We think the public is also getting a good deal. We think we can provide a valuable service to any jurisdiction. We can deliver library services, and effectively."
Library Systems & Services is a subsidiary of the Follett textbook publishing company, founded in 1873. Library Systems & Services, founded in 1981 by former public librarians, provides management services for private libraries and such organizations as the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress and the Boston Public Library.
The city of Riverside had run the county's library branches since 1911. Things went into a financial tailspin when the state diverted a portion of the property tax to public schools in the early 1990s. The library budget was slashed from $10 million.
Glen Avon Library assistant Dawn Meister remembers those hard times. She was laid off and called back four times during that period. Meister bounced between seven different libraries in the system.
"Pink slips were sent out," Meister said. "Some of them were rescinded. Some were not. Morale was not good in those days."
Thomas DeSantis, deputy county executive officer, said that when the funding started to diminish, the county decided to put operation of the libraries out to bid.
Library Systems & Services won the bid competition. Its mandate was simple: Maintain or increase the library service for the same budget.
"It's like water in a lake," DeSantis said. "When the water recedes then you can see all the cracks. So we just put a new bottom to the lake."
Neither DeSantis nor Conable likes the term "privatizing." They call the switch "outsourcing."
Libraries have long hired outside agencies for computer, printing, cataloging, cleaning and other services. So contracting was not new.
And because the books, supplies and buildings all remain under the control of the Riverside County Board of Supervisors, DeSantis does not consider this arrangement a privatization. If the board becomes displeased with LSSI's performance, it could let the company go.
Once the takeover was official, the company inherited roughly 60 employees whose salaries remained the same. But their retirement and benefits packages changed.
Except for Christmas, who remained a county employee as head of the system, all the librarians no longer qualified for the state Public Employees Retirement System, but have privately funded 401K plans.
Library users, however, detected little change in their local branches.
Thirty-five miles south of Riverside, patrons of the Temecula Library use one of the busiest libraries per capita in California.
Chris Adams of Murrieta was walking out the door recently clutching some books for her children. She has come to this branch twice a month since 1992.
In the last two years, she started to notice something.
"There were more reference computers," she said. "They started to have better hours."
She didn't seem bothered at all that the library system was run by a private company. "I am just glad they were able to keep it open. It looked for a while like they were going to close it down."
And Sophia Hogan of Temecula has come to this branch twice a month with her children, Emily, Sonja and Tommy.
She noticed a few years ago that the library started to give her an itemized list of all the books her family checked out. Hogan seemed indifferent to the subject of privatization.
"It has not had any negative or positive impact as far as I am concerned," she said.
Rosie Vanderhaak, head of the Temecula Library, said the books, facilities and policies were all the same, as far as the users were concerned.
"Would they care? No. In our mind the county is setting the policies and LSSI is just following through," said Vanderhaak. "It's really the county who is running the place. LSSI is just administering it for them."
|Library Systems & Services won the bid competition. Its mandate was simple: Maintain or increase the library service for the same budget.|