Local Group Fights Privatization of Their Library
By Michael Stillman
A group of citizens from Santa Clarita, California, is fighting back against the city's plan to turn operation of its public library over to a private corporation. Santa Clarita's plan has stirred passions throughout the land as it could serve as a blueprint for the privatization of public libraries everywhere (see The Executioner's Song in last month's issue of AE Monthly). However, in Santa Clarita, the issue is more personal where a group known as Save Our Library is fighting the city's plan.
In August, the city council announced that management of its libraries would be turned over to Library Systems and Services (LSSI), a Maryland based firm that specializes in operating public libraries. Their services have not always been welcomed by existing librarians and patrons. However, previous cases where they have been called in involved libraries that were in deep financial trouble. Santa Clarita is different in that there was no impending financial crisis when the council chose to turn library management over to LSSI. Presumably, this was seen by them as simply a cost-cutting measure.
Save Our Library sees it differently. According to a lawsuit they recently filed in the California Superior Court for the County of Los Angeles, Santa Clarita will be obligated to pay the County of Los Angeles, which currently operates the libraries, the value of its buildings and personal property (including books) to withdraw from the county system. They see it as a money loser. On the other side, according to an article in the New York Times, LSSI's Chief Executive Officer has pledged to save the city $1 million per year, primarily by replacing unionized employees and cutting overhead. According to the Times article, the CEO expressed a fair amount of disdain for employees of some public libraries, saying policies are all about job security, that employees can go to work for 35 years and never have to do anything, and then get to draw retirement. Anyone employed by LSSI, he said, will have to work. Evidently, he believes many public librarians don't.
The suit filed by Save Our Library also indicated that the City Council threw its plans at the community with little warning. It claims that only a few months ago, it proposed the city take over operation of the library from the county. Then, in August, the Council suddenly announced it would seek a firm to which to outsource its library's operation. However, the group produced evidence that the Council had already been negotiating with LSSI for several months and that the only bid to operate their libraries came from that firm. While this may (or may not) appear unseemly, and LSSI's attitude toward public library employees troubling, depending on your point of view, this suit comes down to an unexpected issue - personal privacy.
In their petition to the court, Save Our Library argues that the California Constitution provides that, among its citizens' inalienable rights, is the right to privacy. They believe that turning over data about what books patrons borrow, what information they access on computer terminals, and other information about them to a private company is a violation of that right to privacy.
They also cite the California Public Records Act which provides, "All registration and circulation records of any library which is in whole or in part supported by public funds shall remain confidential and shall not be disclosed to any person, local agency, or state agency except..." Two of the three exceptions clearly do not apply here - one dealing with the patron him or herself requesting the information, the other under court order. Presumably, the City Council will argue the third exception, that the records can be disclosed to "a person acting within the scope of his or her duties within the administration of the library." One can guess that the City will argue that the private corporation librarians will be acting no differently than do the public librarians today, who are equally covered by this statute. Save Our Library anticipates this argument by saying that putting personal information in the hands of a private corporation "dilutes" the protection. Though the law makes no such distinction, we imagine SOL will point to other personal data, such as social security numbers, tax records and the like to which public authorities have access but that are protected from private eyes. Even if the court finds the exception applies to LSSI, plaintiffs can be expected to still make a vigorous argument on constitutional right to privacy grounds.
Some people may not see privacy as the most important issue here. How important is it to keep your library information private? To this question we can point to heroic attempts by librarians to keep personal records private from federal government investigators who hoped to learn more about its citizens by seeing what books they read. Library privacy is no small matter. Of course, there are other important issues concerning libraries at play in this case, but the plaintiffs cannot argue policy decisions, even bad ones, as they were made by their elected representatives. They are limited to legal wrongs. Still, many see turning over their libraries to for-profit entities, whose primary aim is not to serve the public, but make money for themselves, as being the wrong road for a historically public institution such as a library. It is a place to serve the public, to offer access to knowledge, entertainment, and perhaps social interaction. There are lots of places where such benefits can be obtained from the private sector. Is there no room for one that is operated solely for the benefit of the community?