The Executioner's Song - What the Privatization of Public Libraries might hold
What happens when a private company is in charge? Cost and function are analyzed. Things that aren't getting used get moved to the cheapest location possible; then removed entirely. Senior staff members, feeling they deserve a pay increase for time given, are fired or refused promotions. No one's job is necessarily safe at a certain age.
The privatization of libraries feels innately wrong to me, possibly because the idea of turning a library into a business sounds a lot like removing core values from an important cultural concept. Has America gotten so cutthroat that we are going to put libraries in the hands of for-profit companies and let them decide the future of them? Clearly it has as it's already happening. Maybe this is the plan? Towns can't bear the idea of witnessing the end of their libraries, so they bring in someone else to do it for them? That would be more than disgraceful.
Library Science was already a declining field, and for librarians, the prospect of being replaced by a younger and cheaper alternative is not a pleasant one. Historically, the library was an emotionally satisfying career choice - and a reliable source of income. It was safe. But between these privatizations and the shift towards digital information, I'd hardly call it that.
For the libraries to avoid this executioner's song, they need to evolve. Already, they are adapting, becoming the significant provider of free Internet access. Other than paying a physical visit, many of the sources available in a library are also available online solely through the library system, allowing people access without being there. They've also taken a new role in the childcare system as official childcare is cut back. There are many roles the library fills and can fill that don't involve books. Other possibilities include merging with local historical societies (already been done), or potentially becoming the main source of printed material as digital distribution continues to make strides in the marketplace. Even with the technological world flying at the speed of light, there will still need to be hard copy records and volumes kept. There may not be as many libraries as there are today, but we will still need repositories of information - servers and databases crash, the power goes out - that are consistently accessible and reliable.
In this day of Internet and iPod-isolationism, a trip to the library and talking to real people might be just what many caught up in the digital waves really need. I can't think of anything that replaces the experience and personal touch of a veteran librarian, nor the presence of other people in the library. The social aspect of the library seems to have taken a backseat to the rush and bustle of people's every day lives, but at the library you never know who you're going to meet; on the Internet, it's a lot less likely you'd ever meet at all. Libraries are a human concept, separate of business and the motivation of money and more money. By turning it over to that sector, I'm afraid we will lose the inherent humanity that libraries have come to represent.
Update: reader Don Ricketts was kind enough to write in to let us know that a group known as Save Our Libraries has filed a lawsuit in an attempt to halt the transfer of operation of the library to a private corporation on privacy grounds. We'll have an update in the next issue of AE Monthly.