Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Good news for California libraries and their patrons

California Governor Jerry Brown signed a lot of bills lately, many of them measures that will improve the quality of life for state residents. The highest profile law was an upgrade to the state Dream Act allowing undocumented state resident public college students to apply for state scholarships. ¡Que vivan los estudiantes and way to go Jerry!

Less noticed is that Brown has signed a bill to make it far more difficult for cash strapped counties and cities to hand their libraries over to for-profit companies. Along with public schools, libraries are one of our leveling institutions, a place everyone can go to seek information or entertainment, to use a computer, or even, if you are well behaved, to get out of the rain.

AB 438, by Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, requires private companies to prove they will save taxpayers money before they are allowed to take over operating a public library.

Contra Costa Times

You might not suspect there would be profit-seeking companies that think they can squeeze money out of formerly public libraries, but there are. How? Easy, get rid of the librarians. Oh yes -- and continue to recruit unpaid citizen volunteers.

There's an unexamined idea out there that private enterprise must be more efficient and cheaper than government management. But too often, this is simply false. Brad Plummer reported a study of costs and savings from privatization at the federal level from the Project on Government Oversight (POGO).

For its study, POGO decided to do something different than the usual method of comparing public- and private-sector salaries. Instead, the group scrutinized the actual contracts that were awarded to companies for specific tasks and compared them with what it cost the government to do the same job in-house. They looked at 550 contracts — all deemed “fair and reasonable”— for 35 different jobs across government agencies, from auditors and engineers to food inspectors and groundskeepers.

As it turned out, the private contractors cost more in 33 of those 35 jobs. On average, the service contracts paid private employees 83 percent more than the government would pay a federal employee doing the same job (and that’s even taking into account health care benefits, pensions, and so on). There’s a long debate about whether workers in the private sector actually make less than their federal counterparts, but it turns out this is all beside the point. The POGO analysis found that private contractors working with the government make, on average, twice as much as a comparable private-sector worker.

Besides, do we really want some unaccountable business looking over our shoulders when we read or research or view? Phillip Pullman, the author of The Golden Compass, envisions the library privatizers as greedy ghosts.

The greedy ghost understands profit all right. But that's all he understands. What he doesn't understand is enterprises that don't make a profit, because they're not set up to do that but to do something different. He doesn't understand libraries at all, for instance. That branch - how much money did it make last year? Why aren't you charging higher fines? Why don't you charge for library cards? Why don't you charge for every catalogue search? Reserving books - you should charge a lot more for that. Those bookshelves over there - what's on them? Philosophy? And how many people looked at them last week? Three? Empty those shelves and fill them up with celebrity memoirs.

That's all the greedy ghost thinks libraries are for...

And the secrecy of it! The blessed privacy! No-one else can get in the way, no-one else can invade it, no-one else even knows what's going on in that wonderful space that opens up between the reader and the book. That open democratic space full of thrills, full of excitement and fear, full of astonishment, where your own emotions and ideas are given back to you clarified, magnified, purified, valued. You're a citizen of that great democratic space that opens up between you and the book. And the body that gave it to you is the public library. Can I possibly convey the magnitude of that gift?

Leave the libraries alone! Never, never give them to businesses accountable only to the bottom line. There are other values.

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