“There aren’t many truly public places left in America,” Jennifer Howard writes in Humanities Magazine. “Most of our shared spaces require money or a certain social status to access. Malls exist to sell people things. Museums discourage loiterers. Coffee shops expect patrons to purchase a drink or snack if they want to enjoy the premises.
“One place, though, remains open to everybody,” she continues. “The public library requires nothing of its visitors: no purchases, no membership fees, no dress code. You can stay all day, and you don’t have to buy anything. You don’t need money or a library card to access a multitude of on-site resources that includes books, e-books and magazines, job-hunting assistance, computer stations, free Wi-Fi, and much more. And the library will never share or sell your personal data.”
Lately libraries have taken on even greater importance—serving meals to children in the summer, when school-based lunch programs close down, serving as pop-up clinics to address local health needs, and helping to close the digital divide that plagues urban and rural communities alike.
But also lately, libraries have increasingly become targets for privatization.
Even the robber baron Andrew Carnegie never attempted to own the libraries he funded across the country. Today’s robber barons are Carnegies-in-reverse, siphoning money away from libraries through privatization schemes. Patricia Shuman warned about this as long ago as 1998 and in 2001 the American Library Association adopted a policy to oppose such schemes. But a private company continues to push a privatization agenda, often taking advantage of the current assault on history, diversity, and racial justice. That’s what what happened in Huntsville, Texas, where the city council voted to outsource the Huntsville library’s operations after some residents objected to a book display themed around Pride Month.
In the last decade, the one-time software company behind the privatization push, Library Systems & Services (LS&S), cofounded by CEO Frank Pezzanite and backed by the private venture firm Argosy Capital Group, doubled its size and took over 17 library systems in five states. Running over 80 branches, it’s now the nation’s fifth-largest library system.
In my book The Privatization of Everything, I wrote about what happens when the company comes to the town library.
When LS&S takes over, it receives a set fee from a local government. The corporation gets control over the collection, services, and programs. Most important, it takes over staffing. Librarians at these facilities are no longer public servants; they serve at the pleasure of LS&S. Although it has been building its portfolio since the late 1990s, LS&S has met with little competition; its CEO likes to brag that it boldly goes “where angels fear to tread,” namely, into local fights with committed activists who love their libraries and librarians. The LS&S proposal to privatize the Prince William County, Maryland, library would have achieved its promised savings by laying off 20 percent of the staff, trimming benefits, and cutting pensions. The library trustees said the proposal was “unfair to employees” and rejected it.
In Keeping Public Libraries Public,A Checklist for Communities Considering Privatization of Public Libraries, published a dozen years ago, the American Library Association outlined the issues surrounding the privatization: quality of library services, loss of local community control, governance, loss of control of tax dollars, and collection development.
It also pointed to the loss of community involvement with foundations, nonprofits, and Friends groups. It could have also added voters to that list.
The vast majority of Americans value—even treasure—their public library. In last November’s election, Ohio voters, who continue to tint the state ever-redder, nonetheless approved 18 of 19 library levies (the 19th was narrowly defeated). In fact, in the previous three election cycles, 100 percent of Ohio library levies met with voter approval.
The Ohio Library Council’s Michelle Francis told the local public media station that people gained new appreciation for libraries during the pandemic, when the libraries served as community hubs providing a variety of services, including distributing more than 2.5 million free, at-home COVID-19 test kits, and offering additional digital products.
“From helping students catch up from learning loss to assisting job seekers with technology training, libraries continue to innovate and meet the needs of their communities,” Francis says.
When the public library is no longer public, when its funds end up neither on the shelves of their local libraries, nor in the pantries of the local librarians, but in the pocket of privatizers like Frank Pezzanite, it won’t just hurt the community, it’ll weaken one of our most important public things: democracy.
Photo by Daniel Mannerich