Keep Seminole County Florida Libraries Public!

As the economy continues to worsen small communities are looking for new ways to save money and reduce spending.  In Seminole County Florida which faces an estimated $19 million county budget shortfall this may mean privatizing the public library system to reduce the $6.7 million dollar operating costs. While it is almost impossible to deny that the library system, which has lost about 30 of its 100 employees, is facing financial difficulty many worry how the inevitable profit motive inherent in privatization will affect the way libraries respond to community needs.  As one member of the county’s library Advisory Board pointed out, “Our democracy is founded on free public information for everyone.” In other words, libraries are a fundamental necessity for a thriving democracy where information is essential to making intelligent decisions that affect the lives of the entire community.

The company in question, Library Systems & Service, LLC, (LSSI), is the sole “bidder” for the contract, and has not refuted that it will meet its profit driven bottom line by continuing the practice of using as little of the money given to them by the county as possible. To do so, they typically reduce staff by 20 percent, break up any union representation, and reduce medical and other benefits including sick and vacation pay.  Additionally, the employees lose their pensions because they are no longer state or county employees and instead receive a 401(k) package of lower quality. Since most modern economists include benefits, particularly health benefits when calculating workers salaries it is disingenuous for LSSI to claim, as they have, that they will rehire librarians at comparable wages.

Despite claims by LSSI that book-buying, hours and fees would be handled by local officials (what would be left for them to handle) previous contracts have shown that they reduce the selection of books, increase fees and reduce the hours, in at least one instance allowing a library to only be open for 8 hours a week. All of which decreased circulation i.e. it decreased the ability of the public to obtain reading materials vital to a healthy community.  Also, I find it highly unlikely that a full-time librarian will receive a comparable annual salary to work in a library with drastically reduced hours thus once again highlighting how LSSI intends to make a profit by reducing the wages of librarians. It seems all too likely that LSSI will try to replace librarians, who often have master’s degrees in library sciences, with workers who have little more than a high-school education and are willing to accept fast-food level wages.  But a library is not a book store it requires more knowledge than simply knowing about the latest Stephen King novel or what is the best new teen book about vampires.

Other issues highlighted by opponents include:

·    The Maryland based company will be making profits off of local taxes without any transparency over how those taxes are being spent. With as much as 80% of the library funding come from taxes, the only thing residents will know is that they are paying executives who live in Maryland.
·    Volunteer support will diminish. Teens who volunteer for civic hours will no longer be able to do so due to the for-profit status of the library. For example, Approximately 150 teens per year contribute at least 75 hours each to the libraries. These teens volunteer to qualify for a Bright Futures Scholarship by performing puppet shows, shelving books, creating crafts, assisting with the summer reading programs and much more. This venue will be closed to them under privatization.
·    Local charities may no longer wish to donate funds since their money would go to increase the profits of a private business.
·    The county will see a further reduction in services for children such as story time and in-house child literacy education.
·    Fear of censorship because decisions for programming and book selection that are currently made by the staff who serve the county’s patrons will now be made by a third party vendor who is looking to cut corners and make a profit. It is hard to imagine that a corporate entity will go out of its way to take strong stances regarding controversial material.

The critiques of opponents are not just straw men; their concerns are based on reputable studies. 

For example, Matt Sylvan reported in South Coast Today that “Professor Robert Ward, author of “Outsourcing of Public Library Management” wrote that “achieving gains in efficiency, and citizen satisfaction, are questionable.” His research showed that in the LSSI-run Riverside, Calif. library system, the library’s budget rose 18 percent from fiscal year 1997-98 to FY01-02. Meanwhile, services such as circulation decreased significantly, and the unit cost for service delivery increased by 58 percent.”

As Sylvan stated, “Paying more and getting less is neither more efficient for the municipality nor more satisfying for citizens.”

Moreover, Sylvan points out that, “Outsourcing also does nothing to help the town library retain state certification, which enables the town to receive state funds, and allows patrons to borrow materials from other communities. And contrary to the study group’s claim “that after a new 3-year period at a lower budget, that certification could in fact be again possible,” the municipal funding requirement does not “re-set” if a town underfunds its library system. In other words, certification requires that a municipality increase its library budget by 2.5 percent over a three-year moving average. If a municipality underfunds its library, the 2.5 percent increase is based on what the budget would have been if the library had been adequately funded; it will not be based on the smaller amount that would be provided to LSSI.”

Charles Pace, a former LSSI staffer and current director of Fargo Public Library saw firsthand the tensions that occur when the public good competes with profits.  Despite the positive initial phase of LSSI’s oversight of the Fargo Public Library System, the focus soon turned strictly to ways to “generate revenue and not spend out the full library budget.”  When profits were not sufficiently high, LSSI had to request a 28% budget increase thus eliminating most of the significant savings their management was supposed to bring. Needless to say Fargo no longer uses LSSI.

It is apparent that a profit minded institution will have different concerns and attitudes about the services they provide. Public libraries operate within their budgets to meet community needs, private companies try to operate below their budget and serve only the needs they feel they need to in order to keep the contract but making a profit remains their top priority not serving the public good.

In 1999 the American Library Association (ALA) created an Outsourcing Task Force to study privatization. Based on the outcomes the ALA council adopted a stance opposing outsourcing, stating that libraries are “not a simple commodity” but “are an essential public good” that should be “directly accountable to the public they serve.” How can a private corporation whose profit sheets are not public be held accountable for their spending of taxpayer dollars?

Following this viewpoint, the Winter Springs City Commission voted on July 13 to send a resolution to Seminole county opposing privatization. Not only did the commission come out against privatization it also called for increased funding even though the city itself does not have its own public library. So even though the funds would not benefit their immediate community the commission believes enough in the public good wrought by libraries that it is willing to see county money shifted towards providing that good.

One reason to increase funding would be not only to maintain current services but to bring back Seminole County Library’s literacy outreach programs which reached over 26,000 children annually but fell victim to earlier budget cuts. These programs help give young children with limited resources the equality of opportunity denied them by the harsh realities of their social economic situation.

As author Ray Bradbury once said, “I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.” That libraries provide service to all members of the community particular those with the least resources in need of the most assistance is still true today. For example, Libraries are the most significant institutions where the immigrant community has an opportunity to learn about their local community and acquaint themselves with the United States.

Dennis Boyle, writer for the Orlando Examiner, pointed out how the issue of censorship in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 might be all too relevant to the discussion over privatization.  Boyle’s article noted how the Seminole County Library kept J.H. Hatfield’s controversial biography of George W. Bush, Fortunate Son, on its shelf even after public outrage over the book caused the publisher to recall 70,000 copies. He also notes that the library also carried, “John O’Neill’s and Jerome Corsi’s Unfit for Command, about John Kerry, and Corsi’s Obama Nation, about Barack Obama.”   As Boyle stated, “you may decide that none of the above is worthy of your reading time, but you can still smile with me that such books are available free of charge to anyone who chooses to read them.”

I personally cannot help but worry that profits will inevitably dictate the selection of books and the protections librarians have for making controversial selections.  And not to unfairly disparage LSSI but I highly doubt that they have the people’s interest at heart. Looking at their business history, I cannot help but think of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine: Disaster Capitalism. Granted nothing verging on a true disaster has struck Seminole County but it is obvious that LSSI focuses on counties that are in deep financial straits in hopes that their desperation will convince them to sign a contract. This way, when people complain that services are lacking, wages are reduced and access is limited LSSI can claim that their limited offering is better than having no library at all. Public goods cannot be summed up purely on a dollar value.

Libraries provide a value beyond a monetary worth of services and goods. Public libraries are crucial to the public good. They level the playing field for immigrants, the poor or just about anyone who wants to read more books than they can afford to buy.  Not to mention giving small businesses the resources to gather information to compete and grow in an increasingly competitive global economy.

More importantly, libraries have long been considered democratic bodies built on the cornerstone of information diversity, transparency and intellectual freedom. Libraries exist because our society values the free flow of ideas and opinions. They promote access, equity, and personal growth. America’s public libraries should be valued for their comprehensiveness, currency, openness, and multiplicity of viewpoints. None of which do I believe will be honored by a corporation driven by the need to make a profit. The public library system has been an effective public institution for over a hundred years, why now turn to a profit based system that will inevitably be concerned with profits over people?

If you care passionately about this issue please try to attend the Seminole County meeting to make your voice heard:

When-July 28, 2009 from 1:30 to approximately 4:30
Where-Seminole County Board of County Commissioners Chambers, 1101 E First Street Sanford, FL

Sign the Petition

Other ways to let your voice be heard:

Contact your County Commissioners

Find yours here and click on their name for email and phone contact information.

If you prefer to send a letter:

Board of County Commissioners
Seminole County Services Building
1101 E First Street
Sanford, Florida 32771
County Manager, Cynthia Coto

Deputy County Manager, Joseph Forte
State Representatives:
Find your representatives and their contact information by entering your zip code at Project Vote Smart

Scott P


George S.
Past Member 8 years ago

We won! Seminole County Public Libraries will stay public!!!

Dale P.
Dale P8 years ago

As we can clearly see privatization is, at best, synonymous with censorship and, at worse, synonymous with complete intellectual suppression.

Barb H.
Barb H8 years ago

People need the opportunity to read and grow that non-censoring gives them. That will inform them as they inquiry about learning and encourage the people to higher education. I am one of them.

Debbie Z.
Debra Z8 years ago

Another example of union busting! :(

Libraries were established so that free information would be available to all citizens, both rich and poor.

Privatizing libraries would also result in censoring books, magazines, etc. that boards would find "inappropriate."

I'm sure the politicians of Seminole County can find ways that would be less detrimental to its citizens to close budget gaps .

Stacey R.
Stacey R.8 years ago

It is up to us to keep this nation running when the politcian's who swear to protectus fail... as they tend to do. There is no reason, no matter where in the country you live, to not support this cause. Freddom of information IS essential to our democracy.

edward s.
edward s8 years ago

It is the duty of every government of every nation to provide free and open access to educational advancement. Of course when hard times strike library facilities are often seen as a candidate for economies. If cuts are necessary, then it is a simple matter to allow children continued free library access, while adult wage earners pay only for their own usage of library facilities. Children should NEVER under any circumstances pay for access to reading material. NEVER - no exceptions !

Gale Johansen
Gale Johansen8 years ago

the rest of the comment... threshold to knowledge and that is a purpose sacred to democracy. From Benjamin Franklin, who many would say is the father of public libraries to Andrew Carnegie and beyond America has embraced the idea of free and public libraries. Please take your place among such giants and keep your library system public and free. Thank you.

Gale Johansen
Gale Johansen8 years ago

These are the comments I included when I signed this petition...
I am not a citizen in your jurisdiction but because of the importance that I attach to the existence of public libraries that are free and of high quality I felt the need to write. Libraries should not be looked at as part of some financial bottom line, but as a necessary part of a healthy democracy. And while I recognize that many levels of local governments are suffering greatly in this recession please find a way to keep your libraries funded and operated by your local government. Perhaps a partnership can be forged with the citizenry to form a support group in the form of "Friends of the Library" or if such a group already exists perhaps it can explore new and/or additional ways to financially support the library during these exceptionally difficult economic times. And while the economic difficulties make it harder for me to donate to deserving groups I would be glad to donate to your libraries if it would mean that they would be kept as part of government services and not privatized.
No one knows exactly what services the public library provides that will make the difference in the life of any particular individual. From simply allowing a child to fall in love with learning to helping the recent arrivals in our country learn about their adopted land and its language and customs to allowing a family to enjoy library programs, books and entertainment provided at little or no cost the library forms the thres

Margaret Crowe
Margaret C8 years ago

The town of Bridgewater, MA ended up closing its library completely for a while. Then reopening with only very limited hours.

Sue K.
Sue Kamm8 years ago

What no one else has mentioned is the effect of privitization on library workers. They will doubtless lose civil service protection (if they have it). I don't know if LSSI will continue benefit packages the library workers have from the county, but since they're more concerned with the bottom line than with providing good library service, it wouldn't surprise me out of a year's growth if salaries and/or benefits for library workers decreased.

I suggest that library staff do a systems analysis of the work they perform. It could be that the library offers its services far more inexpensively than LSSI would.