Set aside the fact that a recent story about the privatization of public libraries isn't really news. Library Journal was reporting on the company featured in the Business section of the NYT, LSSI, in a series of stories back in 1998. Ignore the recourse to the usual platitudes about the public library, the bits about it being a sacred institution, symbolic of equity and erudition, "a portrait of civic harmony and engagement." Perpetuating this kind of baloney only equips LSSI's CEO with ammunition and an easy target. "There’s this American flag, apple pie thing about libraries," commences his analysis. American flags and apple pie (maybe moms, too?), it implicitly concludes, are mere commodities. Permit me, the suit humbly beseeches, to make an accounting of them for you.
It turns out the the CEO's gripe about the vacuous symbolism of libraries is a euphemistic prelude to his charge against their complete lack of productivity.
“A lot of libraries are atrocious,” Mr. Pezzanite said. “Their policies are all about job security. That’s why the profession is nervous about us. You can go to a library for 35 years and never have to do anything and then have your retirement. We’re not running our company that way. You come to us, you’re going to have to work."
This is the man who wants to (get paid to) run your community's public library. He offers no support for his vague swipe against libraries. Does he consider that a lot of businesses owned and operated by private equity firms are atrocious, too? Some are wicked. Some are even execrable. He points to no policies that favor job security, rather than service to the community, as if the two interests were necessarily at odds. He fails to specify what kinds of work one would have to do for him. He doesn't say what real library work entails. Equally importantly, he seems not to recognize the very real ways in which local libraries, directly operated by local governments, strive to suit the particular needs of their communities, working with their schools to coordinate programs, assisting their out-of-work residents to find employment opportunities, and identifying and satisfying the recreational reading and viewing tastes of their patrons. These are perennial and essential public library enterprises, and they require local leadership.
There are facets to this story that are more interesting than the literal report. Some are recounted in the comments, where the very first entry notes the effect on the library workers' standards of living. Another is the theme that libraries ought to be run like businesses. Pezzanite charges that public libraries, being government agencies, are operated inefficiently. This has not been the case in my experience. Public libraries and their staffs are almost obsessive re-users, recyclers, innovators, and shoestring budget ad-hoc-ers when it comes to accommodating resource constraints and patron demands. Really, businesses ought to be run like public libraries. But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the story is the tacit assumption that the local public library matters at all. It makes no mention of the threat to libraries posed by Sir Tim Berners-Lee's glorious, democracy-enhancing, image-of-freedom-invoking community, that clearinghouse of recipes for apple pie and images of Old Glory we call the World Wide Web! I count this as an encouraging development and good news for libraries.