CLA Conference 2012
Privatization of Public Libraries: How It Works and What You Can Do
Presented by: Nancy Bolt (Nancy Bolt & Associates)
Date: Tuesday, May 8, 2012
Conference Track: Mastering Management
Reported by: Barbara Bailey, Welles-Turner Memorial Library, Glastonbury, CT
An increasing number of municipalities are investigating privatization of the management of their public libraries. They think that it will save money. Currently seventeen public libraries in the country are privatized. Nancy Bolt, former Colorado State Librarian, owner of Nancy Bolt & Associates, a consulting firm, and one of the authors of Privatizing Libraries: A Special Report, published by ALA in 2012, presented a well-balanced overview of privatization is, how it works and what librarians and board members should do should their municipality consider privatizing.
Libraries have outsourced specific programs and services for awhile. Cataloging was one of the first functions outsourced. Collection management, in the name of approval plans, has been around for awhile. eBook services are a current example of outsourcing. Typically, outsourcing has a narrow focus and can be easily measured and monitored.
Privatization, on the other hand, is the transfer of library management and/or assets from a government agency to a commercial company. Usually the municipality starts the process by issuing a Request For Proposal (RFP.) The RFP, in many instances, contains limited information about the community and the scope and services of its public library, giving the contractor an enormous amount of power in defining the library community. In fact, much of the criteria are decided on after the contract has been signed. The library director and board may see the RFP until it has been released.
To avoid privatization, Bolt recommends:
- Shape up problem staff or ship them out.
- Get the board, staff and support groups to advocate for the library in the community.
- Build business partnerships.
- Have library plans (collection development, marketing, strategic, etc.) in place.
- Tout your successes.
Despite your best efforts, if local government still decides to proceed with a privatization RFP:
- Library director and board members should ask to review the RFP and make suggestions for inclusions.
- Criteria should be specific and measurable (number of hours library will be open each week, number of staff to be rehired, number of programs to be given each year.)
- With the help of the board and friends group, submit a proposal, addressing each component of the proposal.
Keeping the Public Library Public: A Checklist for Communities Considering Privatization of Public Libraries, ALA, 2011.
Outsourcing the Public Library: A Critical Discourse Analysis, Heather Hill, 2009.
Privatizing Libraries: A Special Report, Jane Jerrard, Nancy Bolt and Karen Strege, ALA, 2012.