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Keeping Public Libraries Public: A Checklist for Communities Considering Privatization of Public Libraries

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Privatization of public services, including libraries, has been an issue for many years. In the 1980s, the federal government began to contract with private companies to manage and operate federal libraries. Other special libraries also have a history of privatization. However, only in the last 10 years have city and county governing bodies considered privatization of public libraries.

For over 200 years, public libraries have earned the respect of the residents they serve. It is interesting to note that public library service began in the colonial United States through “subscription libraries,” available only to those who could afford to pay the fee necessary to support their existence. With the development of a free education system in the U.S., many communities expanded the concept of public education by establishing public library services for their residents through tax support. Public libraries were viewed as a public good—a common resource available to all, funded by public dollars and governed by local residents. These governing boards were given unique responsibilities within a municipality to act on behalf of the community. Trustees were charged with a public trust: overseeing the collective, public assets of the library and hiring the library director, who makes operational decisions for the good of the community and who is directly accountable to the governing body. Even in cases where trustees serve in an advisory capacity only, there is a strong recognition that libraries must be accountable to the residents that fund them. Has the view of the library as a common public good changed in the 21st century?

Recently, questions about the role of government have become the center of national debates. These questions have prompted some government officials to search for options to deliver public services. Officials may entertain the notion of privatization because the presumed cost savings and other efficiencies gained are appealing. Experience has shown that privatization of public services has not necessarily produced substantial cost savings.

As local officials review these choices, they should understand the full scope of services their libraries offer, and the impact that libraries have on their communities. They must also answer the following questions:

  • Can a private company maintain the level of public trust that has been earned by the local library?
  • Will the library director always make the operational decisions that are in the best interest of the community, even if those decisions reduce or do not contribute to the private company’s profit?
  • Can or should library services be provided through private companies?
  • Does the relationship between a public library and its community change when a library is privatized?
  • Does the role of the library as a public good change when the library is privatized?

The American Library Association affirms that policy making and management oversight of public libraries should remain securely in the public domain. This report is designed to help librarians, trustees, Friends, and other library supporters address the issue of privatization and prepare for any discussions about privatization that might arise in their communities.