Contracting out to manage an entire library or library system is the most extreme case of outsourcing. It is this type of contracting that has been most commonly labeled “privatization,” although technically management is no more “core” to librarianship than selection or cataloging, and perhaps it could be argued that it is even less. Nevertheless, recent decisions by some communities to contract with corporations to manage the provision of library services have resulted in considerable consternation within the profession.
In fact, management of library services by outside entities is a practice with quite a long history. Many firms in the corporate sector have secured essential information services by contracting with individuals, municipal libraries, or other corporations. Many communities have secured public library services for their citizens by contracting with other governmental entities—the county or the neighboring community, for example—or with local not-for-profit organizations, like women’s clubs or fraternal service organizations. Not since the demise of the social library after the development of publicly funded libraries in nineteenth century, however, have communities contracted with for-profit corporations to provide library services.
This study focuses on two very different forms of contracting for the management of library services. The first, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, is a large and diverse federal government agency. While NASA’s approach to securing library and information services is an extremely interesting and provocative example, circumstances of NASA’s operation are unique, and very little of the NASA outsourcing experience appears relevant to the general library situation.
More central to the concerns of the library profession is the case of Riverside County, California. The decision of Riverside County in 1997 to contract with Library Systems and Services, Inc. caused many expressions of dismay within the library profession. This contract, together with the Hawaii Baker and Taylor contract, was the proximate cause for the establishment of the ALA Task Force on Outsourcing and Privatization.
In order to understand how outsourcing has impacted the governance, staff development and cooperative endeavors of American libraries, it is necessary to review the rare libraries that have always been outsourced, or outsourced for decades, for comparison. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Scientific and Technical Information Administration libraries were selected for study because they are representative of those libraries that been contracted out for all, or almost all, of their history. NASA’s policy of contracting for library services began before the Office of Management and Budget concluded in 1983 that federal library services qualified for privatization (Office of Management and Budget 1983). After that, other federal libraries, including those in the system of the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of Energy, Department of Labor, the Bureau of the Census, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development have been contracted out to the private sector.
NASA was created by the National Aeronautics and Space Act (PL 85-568) in 1958 and started with employees and facilities from the old National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Today, NASA consists of NASA headquarters, nine centers, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (operated under contract to NASA by the California Institute of Technology), and several installations and offices in the United States and abroad.
In 1958, the newly formed space agency’s mandate from the Eisenhower administration was to lead the civil space effort. The agency’s charter gave it broad latitude to contribute to the nation’s general welfare and security and to preserve its role as a leader in aeronautical and space science and technology (Kraemer 1995). The agency was able to efficiently contract for labor and services, because in 1959, the General Services Administration authorized use of the Armed Services Procurement Regulations of 1947. This exempted NASA from the government policy of awarding contracts to the lowest bidder (Kraemer 1995). This policy of contracting has continued and is supported by the Office of Management and Budget’s OMB Circular A-76 Transmittal Memorandum 20 which states that the government should not compete with its citizens (2000). It requires that all government agencies contract “non-governmental” activities to the private sector.
The Cold War and the flight of the Sputnik satellite fueled the agency’s growth. President Kennedy challenged the nation in 1961 to send a man to the moon and return him safely, and the President and the Congress provided NASA with the funds to do so. As a consequence of the rapid growth and preference for contract services, the agency’s civil service personnel grew by a factor of three, while contract employees increased by a factor of ten. Throughout NASA’s history, between 80 and 90 percent of its budget has been spent on goods and services provided through contracts.
Because of its reliance upon contracting, the agency has developed efficient methods of soliciting and managing contracts. In 1993, NASA developed Acquisition Internet Service (NAIS), a web based electronic procurement information system for midrange contracts, to provide procurement information for industry and small business and to reduce contract administration costs. The agency estimates that 80 to 90 percent of NASA’s contract awards are in the midrange category. NASA employees at 10 field centers conduct the entire process of contract review and selections across the Internet (Cybernauts of Contracting 1997). NASA has relied upon clearly written contracts and a corps of professional employees deeply involved in technical details to guide the work of NASA contractors. As the emphasis of who performed the scientific research for NASA changed, the original NASA scientists became contract administers.
In 1990, NASA asked for a study to be conducted on the consequences of contracting out the bulk of its research and development work. The National Academy of Public Administration’s study made two significant suggestions. The first was that the government should not contract out decisions on what work is to be done, what objectives are to be set, what the results are expected to be, and the evaluation of the work. The second was that contracting out led to erosion of strength of an important NASA asset—a corps of experienced scientists and engineers (Kraemer 1995).
A subsequent change in contracting methodology has only increased the problem. Three years ago, NASA changed from contracts that specified a level of effort to be provided, a system requiring extensive monitoring, to performance-based contracting which monitors the contractor’s activity. Performance-based contracting can save the government money because it does not require as many professional management staff for monitoring. A concern has been expressed that skilled NASA engineers will leave to take private sector jobs, and the agency will lose its ability to monitor contracts (Dickey 1999).
This loss of experienced personnel could also happen in other parts of NASA, as employees leave for other jobs or choose to retire. The agency has reduced its civil service staff by over 5,000 employees since 1993, and total employment will continue to decrease by 1,500 to 2,000 employees by 2002 (U.S. Congress 1998).
For NASA, and its libraries, contracting offered attractive advantages to supervisors and executives. NASA was able to acquire a high-quality labor force because contractors were not limited to government pay scales, could recruit employees more quickly than could be recruited in accordance with civil service rules, and could remove unsatisfactory performance employees from their positions. Contract workers would have helped NASA administrators maximize the number of authorized workers in engineer, scientist, and technician classifications against employment ceilings. NASA’s total employment has declined from 34,167 in 1967 (U.S. Congress. House Appropriations Committee Hearings, 1973) to 19,259 in 1997, but the percentage of employees classified in engineering or technician positions has declined at a far lower rate (Office of Personnel Management, 1998).
Herbert S. White, NASA Scientific and Technical Information Administration Executive Director from 1964 until 1968, has written about additional reasons for organizations in general to outsource library services. The first is that it is cost effective to contract to an organization that has expertise in specialized tasks and second, it is an effective way to reduce backlogs and eliminate repetitive and routine operations (White 2000).
Overall supervision of NASA libraries is by the Scientific and Technical Information Division that acquires, processes, archives, announces and disseminates information for the scientific community. However, despite their common mission, NASA centers and facilities do not have a common organizational culture. This is because NASA combined three laboratories and two field stations from the 43 year old NACA, and rapidly added additional centers, each with its own history and traditions. Instead of creating a uniform culture, the centers have been described as behaving like rival universities with their own set of contractors, long range plans, and interests (McCurdy 1993). Since NASA libraries are governed by the center they serve, they also vary widely in methods of governance, population served, consortia participation, staffing, and collections. The differences are evident in the following comparisons:
- Staffing Models Some libraries, such as Goddard Space Flight Center, have both civil service and contract employees, while others, such as Johnson Space Center Scientific and Technical Information Center, are entirely contracted out, with a NASA librarian serving as a technical monitor (Pedrick 2000).
- Identity Not all libraries identify themselves as NASA. At least one library identified as NASA on the Headquarters web page maintained that it was part of another institution. The library and technical information center of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a contract installation operated for NASA but owned by the California Institute of Technology, considers itself as an Institute/JPL library, and not a NASA library.
- Population Served They serve different populations. NASA Headquarters Library, founded in 1958, serves NASA and contract employees and permits public use of the reading room. In addition to serving contract and NASA employees, two others offer limited access to the public, and another library allows “qualified researchers” to visit.
- Archiving Records Johnson Space Center Scientific and Technical Center’s records are archived at Fondren Library of Rice University in Houston, Texas. Sherikon Space Systems, Inc. archives records for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory library and technical information center offsite.
- Participation in consortia and networks NASA libraries participate in a variety of networks, but participation is also individual. Ten are members of Online Computer Library Center, Inc. (OCLC), six are members of PLC, four are members of the NASA Library Network, and one is a member of the AMIGOS group.
The agency’s struggle against cultural change and centralization has resulted in an aggregate of independent libraries with many contractors. There are several personnel management contractors for NASA libraries.
The library staffing model with both civil service and contract employees has the potential of creating two separate and unequal pay and benefit schedules for employees performing similar work. Federal employees have established salary tiers, union representation, grievance procedures and perquisites such as time off for blood donations, while contract librarians do not have job security or perquisites. The Office of Management and Personnel listed 10 NASA librarians in 1997. And, while individual salaries are unknown, the 1997 biennial report on federal white collar employment shows that the government-wide average salary for librarians in Occupational Code and Title GS-1410 Librarian was $53,895. This is significantly higher than the average 1997-98 federal contract librarian’s wage of $45,134 that was listed in the 1998 SLA Annual Salary Survey (Arnold 1998).
A modified version of the survey instrument used by the research team that visited the Riverside, California County Library System was used to collect information about the NASA libraries. Basic data from the directory entry for each library that was found in the American Library Directory, 1998-1999 was used for information about publications holdings, librarian and library assistant staffing, and to identify the supervisor or head librarian at each library.
Each supervisor or head librarian was contacted by telephone and asked to participate in the survey. The survey form was sent by electronic mail to facilitate completion and return of responses. All but two of the responding libraries indicated that the questionnaire would have to be submitted to a higher level administrator for permission to complete and return the questionnaire. Only two responses were received to the questionnaire. The low response rate does not permit the survey data to be used or reported with confidence that the answers are representative of all NASA libraries and their staffs.
The evidence we gathered seem to support the following conclusions:
- Contract employment is likely to increase as government officials conduct more commercial activity reviews to fulfill mandates of the Office of Management and Budget’s OMB Circular A-76 Transmittal Memorandum 20, which states that federal agencies should review activities that are performed by federal employees that are not inherently governmental and to contract with the private sector for the performance of such an activity.
- NASA has always contracted out services, supplies and projects. Thus they are not experiencing the problems that public libraries encounter as they begin to negotiate and administer contracts for the first time. § Each NASA library has responded to its unique environment, and as a consequence, has differing methods of governance, staffing models, archiving, and participation in consortia and networks.
- The research team found that data and published research on NASA’s libraries are extremely limited and suggest that further research should be conducted on the NASA library system. In addition, due to the small number of NASA libraries and librarians, comparisons should be made with other federal libraries for statistical significance.
In June 1997 Riverside County, California, entered into a contract to with Library Systems and Services LLC (LSSI) to provide County library services. This event was widely reported in the library literature and generally decried as the first major instance of “privatization” of public library services. Because the Riverside County situation is the first, largest, most visible and apparently most controversial incidence of outsourcing an entire library system, we deemed it important to examine the Riverside County Library System (RCLS) carefully, including not only a comprehensive literature review, but also a site visit.
When Riverside County established public library service in 1911, it opted to take advantage of a provision of the 1911 California County Library law to contract with the city of Riverside for library services. The contract between the two public entities called for the city library director to become the county librarian and the city’s board of library trustees to become the county library’s policy making board. County officials had little more to do than to hand over county funds designated for libraries to the City of Riverside to run the newly developed Riverside county libraries. Library services for Riverside County were provided under extensions of this agreement with the city of Riverside from 1911 until 1997.
In 1965, Riverside County Libraries was reorganized as a taxing district, and a dedicated property tax was established to fund the County Library. The city of Riverside chose not to join the county system, except as its contracted administrator. The city chose, instead, to retain the municipal library as a separate system since it could tax its citizens at a higher rate. Several other cities within Riverside County also chose to follow the city of Riverside’s lead and create their own municipal libraries. The county library system became known as the Riverside City and County Public Library in 1971.
California’s Proposition 13 was passed in 1978. This proposition set limits on the amount of property tax increases. Riverside City and County Public Library administration reacted to the cutbacks from Proposition 13 by closing seven small branches in the less populated areas of the county. Subsequently the county supervisors forced the library system to reopen the branches and distribute funds more evenly between both the highly populated and less populated areas of the county. This was among the first of many contentious incidents that would later lead to the dissolving of the contractual relationship between the City of Riverside and Riverside County.
Over the next ten years the population of Riverside County grew 76 percent. The county and the Riverside City and County Public Library were hard pressed to keep up with the demands for public and library services placed upon them by the growth. The population, however, brought with it more funding. The library needed to expand and update its facilities. In 1987, Moreno Valley Library became the first new regional facility built to accommodate the growth taking place within the county. Under the leadership of Linda M. Wood, who was the director during this period, the Riverside City and County Public Library was awarded LCSA grants and private funding for expansion. She also began construction on a new administration center, a move that became a severe drain on resources in the short term.
Two more incidents occurred during the early 1990’s that would spell the end of the Riverside City and County Public Library and force Riverside County officials to look elsewhere for administration and management services for the library. In 1993, March Air Force Base closed. This closing caused the loss of military and civilian jobs that were a mainstay of the tax base in Riverside County. Property values plummeted as a result of the base closing bringing to an end the prosperity of the previous decade. As if this economic calamity were not enough, the California legislature passed the Educational Revenue Augmentation Fund in the same year. This act caused millions of dollars to be drawn from California counties, cities, and special districts to fund the state’s failing educational systems.
The crisis in funding resulted in reduced library hours and services, layoffs, and several years when expenditures for materials in the 26 libraries were nearly zero. For three years running nearly all library staff received annual layoff notices, and though the cutbacks each time were less severe than announced, a number of library employees did in fact lose their jobs. Several branches became almost totally dependent on volunteers to be able to open their doors. Some of the surrounding cities, sensing the difficulties, chose to withdraw from the county’s library district, further depleting the library’s funds. Public criticism of the new, costly library administrative center added to the woes of the beleaguered library system.
Control of the meager available funds became a critical political issue, one with significant emotional overtones. Lack of funding focussed attention on perceived inadequacies and misplaced priorities in the city’s management of the county libraries. The issue was soon perceived by county elected officials, their constituents, and county staff as a lack of local control over funding and policy for county libraries. Disputes between the city and county culminated in the City announcing that it would no longer manage the libraries. The Riverside City and County Public Library was dissolved in December 1996.
County officials were faced with the need to find a new way to provide library services for the county. Having little knowledge of the organization of the library system and no expertise in running libraries, county officials determined to seek a new contractor to manage the county library system. A Request for Proposals was developed with help from key staff of the Riverside County Free Library System and the aid of Dallas Y. Shaffer, a consultant provided by the California State Library. In March 1997 Riverside County issued a “Request for Proposals for Administration and Operation of the Riverside County Free Library System.” The RFP stipulated the funding that was available, and the scope of services desired. Three entities responded to the RFP with proposals: the Riverside County Office of Education, the San Bernadino County Library, and Library Systems and Services (LSSI). After a thorough review of the three proposals, county officials selected LSSI as the best available alternative.
Library service, under the management of LSSI, began on July 1, 1997. In April 1998, LSSI issued an Assessment Report of the Riverside County Library System. The report focused on the improvements of the first year of library service provided by LSSI, and recommendations for the future. The management contract was renewed in 1998 and again in 1999. The details of the contract have varied slightly each year, but its essentials remain the same. The performance requirements focus on hours of service, staffing levels, and the materials budget. In the spring of 1999 the County Librarian commissioned an analysis of LSSI’s Riverside County operations by an independent consultant, Ruth Metz, who reported that LSSI was meeting its contractual obligations in managing the libraries.
In March, 2000, a three person site visit team spent three days in Riverside County, interviewing County officials, LSSI staff, and library users. We gathered data by means of structured questionnaire instruments. We also visited the Moreno Valley Public Library, a municipal library in Riverside County that is not a member of the RCLS, in order to ascertain what factors induced Moreno Valley to opt out of the system, and to determine how the RCLS is viewed by other libraries in the county.
During our visit we received full and complete cooperation and support from both county and LSSI representatives. We were allowed to visit any location we chose, and to interview any individual we wanted. LSSI and County officials encouraged LSSI staff to speak with us openly and to respond to our questions with candor.
The site review team met with Deputy County Executive Officer Tom DeSantis and County Librarian Gary Christmas. DeSantis is the County Official who oversaw the RFP and contract negotiations throughout the period under review, and is perhaps the single person most responsible for the County’s decision to outsource the management of the RCLS. Christmas is the sole library professional employed by the County of Riverside, and is responsible for overseeing the contract with LSSI and ensuring that the terms of the contract are met.
DeSantis offered a narrative description of the history of the RCLS contract. He emphasized the difficult and deteriorating relationship between the County and the City of Riverside in the mid-1990s. He stressed the difficulties in funding government operations, and especially a library district, under California’s evolving tax code. He pointed out that, as the population of the county increased while funding for library services deteriorated, it became clear to the elected officials of the County that they had no control over funding and policy decisions for the county library system. A city board made policy for the county. Moreover, under the terms of the contract, the city of Riverside charged a ten percent overhead assessment. In 1996 the county conducted an internal audit of library operations, and recommended that the county Board of Supervisors wrest control over the county library system away from the city. The city did not respond well to a proposed change in the nature of the relationship, and ultimately chose to walk away from it. The decision to seek another vendor was thus not ultimately a funding issue, but rather a matter of structure, policy and governance.
In assessing the three proposals received in response to the RFP, DeSantis noted that San Bernadino County utilized less qualified staff in its operations, and Riverside wanted to keep the professional staff already in place if at all possible. He also admitted that there were some political reservations about turning over library operations to a neighboring county. The proposal from the Riverside County Board of Education offered less service for the funds available. The proposal from LSSI, on the other hand, seemed to offer some creative approaches to managing services, and considerably more accountability than had been the case with the city of Riverside. LSSI was the unanimous choice of the county staff, and the contract was approved by an overwhelming majority of the Board of Supervisors.
The period from January through June 1997, witnessed substantial uncertainty among the county library staff. According to DeSantis, the city of Riverside “demonized” the county, resulting in substantial discomfort among the staff. County officials were prohibited by the city from directly contacting library staff, who were actually city employees.
After selecting the LSSI proposal, the county negotiated a contract with the vendor. The contract firmly established that Riverside County would retain full governance of the library system, and LSSI staff would carry out policies established by the county officials. The contract ensured that the County would have final authority in the employment of key personnel, and established Zone Advisory Boards, citizens panels that would assist in developing policy in three management zones. The county appointed as its sole library employee a county librarian who would serve as its in-house expert and monitor the contract. The contract specifies performance benchmarks in terms of hours of service, staffing, and collection development.
According to DeSantis, the county was able to achieve much of what it sought in terms of staff salaries and benefits. There ensued a difficult period of transition, in which LSSI sought with some success to assure county library staff that their jobs were secure. Although some employees decided to remain with the city of Riverside, or to seek employment elsewhere, virtually all former city employees who wished to transfer to LSSI and continue to work in county libraries were given jobs at the same rate of pay. Several staff who had earlier been laid off were rehired.
Branch hours of service were immediately increased, and staffing was increased from 67.09 FTE to 117.26 FTE (Metz 1998). Funding for these improvements in services and staffing was made possible by the elimination of substantial administrative overhead built in to the management of the libraries by the City of Riverside. In addition, LSSI trimmed the managerial staff, which under the city there had risen to twenty, down to only five. The controversial library administrative center was abandoned to other county uses.
According to DeSantis, the county has been extremely satisfied with the services provided by LSSI. They have renewed the contract twice with only minor changes. (Since the site visit we have learned that the County has decided to again renew the contract with LSSI, this time extending the arrangement for two additional years.) When asked what his advice would be to other public officials who might consider outsourcing management of a library system, DeSantis unhesitatingly offered these four suggestions.
- It is imperative to keep policy control with the elected public officials and representatives of the public;
- It is equally important to have your own in-house expert, a qualified professional, to manage the contract and oversee vendor performance;
- The contract must specify outcomes that are quantitatively measurable;
- Choose your service provider carefully; be certain they have the experience and qualifications to deliver on their commitments.
Further discussion with County Librarian Gary Christmas reaffirmed much of what DeSantis had described. Christmas offered more details, and more of a professional’s perspective, but with essentially the same bottom line. Christmas emphasized again that LSSI does not set library policy; the county Board of Supervisors does that, with the advice of the Zone Advisory Boards. As an example, Christmas cited the RCLS policy on filtering Internet access. The Board decided to install filtering software on some of the public access workstations in some library branches, and LSSI implemented the policy.
As County Librarian, he is involved in hiring decisions for the zone and branch managers. The Board scrutinizes the budget, sets policies, and sees every contract. Christmas personally reviews book orders and has final say on all collection development decisions. Christmas emphasized that increased services under LSSI come from their lean operation and organizational efficiency.
The site review team also met with Gordon Conable, LSSI’s Director of West Coast Operations, and the de facto project manager for the Riverside contract. Conable stressed that, in his view, the RCLS contract did not constitute “privatization” for two reasons:
- The assets all belong to the county. While LSSI employees may purchase books or paperclips with county funds, the resulting materials are property of the county. “It’s not our library-—it’s the county’s” Conable says.
- The library board makes policy decisions. LSSI is merely the contractor that carries out board policy.
Conable stressed that, under the contract with LSSI, the county has not saved any money. “We haven’t contracted with anyone yet by selling ourselves as costing less,” he pointed out. Instead, the county has decided how much it wanted to spend on library services, and asked LSSI what they could do with it. The LSSI proposal offered more services for the money. Conable suggested that improved hours of service and staffing have resulted from LSSI being able to run the system with less overhead.
Conable commented that the arrangement in Riverside would not work everywhere. He claimed that the strength of LSSI was its ability to “localize” and “customize.” “We offer viable alternative with a level of accountability that is strong—we have a contract that could be terminated,” he observed. Conable suggested that LSSI’s potential future growth would be in communities that were looking for more local control and accountability.
While in Riverside County the site review team also visited nine of the 24 branches of the RCLS. At each location the team interviewed staff (including the branch manager when possible) and library users. We employed structured interview instruments customized for staff, branch managers, and library users (see appendix A).
We also took the opportunity to briefly survey the facilities and collections at each site visited. Although all the facilities we visited were adequately maintained and furnished, they varied significantly in size and adequacy for the populations served. The facilities ranged from renovated storefronts to magnificent new buildings, and included one joint-use facility. Although we made no effort to provide a quantitative analysis of collections, it was readily apparent that these too varied considerably from one community to the next. The primary cause for this variation in facility and collection adequacy appears to be the amount of local funding that is contributed to enhance the basic funding provided by the county. In some wealthy communities, that amount is apparently substantial; in other less affluent communities, there is little additional funding.
Finally, while in Riverside County we also visited the Moreno Valley Public Library and interviewed its director, Cynthia Pirtle, and key staff. Moreno Valley is one of the largest and fastest growing municipalities in Riverside County, and one of the libraries that withdrew from the RCLS. We wanted to ascertain why Moreno Valley left the system, what the perception of the RCLS was in a nearby public library, and what issues (if any) might remain that were relevant to the study.
We interviewed staff to assess their perception of changes in library services and management following LSSI’s assumption of the management role. We used a structured interview instrument (see appendix A), we tabulated the data and, using standard statistical software, produced frequency tables for each response (see appendix B). The total number of staff interviewed was small (N=23), and we therefore hesitate to make generalizations. But some strong indications do emerge from this small sample.
On the whole, RCLS staff is satisfied with conditions working for LSSI. More than eighty-two percent thought that their current salary was satisfactory and comparable to others in the area. Seventy-eight per cent said they had received a salary increase since they started working for LSSI. Seventy-three percent thought that they had adequate opportunities for continuing education. Ninety-five percent found their branch manager approachable and open to their ideas. Eighty-two percent felt that the collection in their library had improved since LSSI took over, and seventy-eight percent felt that the hours of service at their library were good for the community they served.
Some areas of concern also emerge. Forty-three percent expressed no opinion about their benefits, while more than a quarter each thought that their benefits were better or worse, respectively, than they had been before. Clearly there are some concerns that the benefits they had as public employees were better than those they now had as corporate employees. Only fifty-six percent thought that their work schedule enabled them to get their work done in a professional manner; apparently a substantial minority have concerns about there being more work to do than they can manage. And forty-three percent of those surveyed clearly felt that funds for collections were inadequate to address community needs, while another thirteen percent had no opinion.
Newer staff hired by LSSI generally appear to be paid less than staff who had been employees of the City of Riverside. There are unanswered questions about staff turnover, though it appears to be significant among newer employees. This raises questions about the potential impact on compensation in other libraries in the region if arrangements like this were to become commonplace. It is not clear, however, that either of these issues is related to LSSI’s management of the library system. In most organizations newer staff receive less remuneration than the former City of Riverside employees, who are now the senior staff in RCLS. It is not clear that turnover among the newer employees is any greater than in other libraries of comparable size.
In its operation of RCLS, LSSI has demonstrated a willingness to hire staff without professional qualifications to perform function that had previously been performed by professional librarians. It must be noted, however, that this is not merely a local trend in Riverside. There is ongoing discussion in the library profession at large about appropriate staffing levels for various library functions, and there appears to be a trend to focus professional librarians on truly professional tasks while increasing the number of paraprofessionals to carry out work that can be rendered routine. Non-traditional staffing patterns, instigated in part by increasing competition for a shrinking pool of librarians, appears to be a national trend.
We also interviewed library users at nine branch locations. We used a structured interview instrument (see appendix A), we tabulated the data and, using standard statistical software, produced frequency tables for each response (see appendix B). The total number of patrons interviewed was small (N=74), and generalizations from such a small sample should be made with caution. Nevertheless, some strong patterns do emerge.
On the whole, the citizens of Riverside County who use the libraries there are generally satisfied with their library services. Sixty-three percent think that library services have definitely improved in the past three years (corresponding with the period they have been under LSSI’s management). Ninety percent think the staff is very helpful. Eighty-one percent think that staff is readily available to help, while seventy-three percent feels they don’t have to wait to check out materials. More than sixty-eight percent get what they need when they come to the library, and seventy-three percent are satisfied with the results of known-item searches. Almost two-thirds of the library users are satisfied with the hours the library is open.
On the other hand, only forty-three percent of the users find the library’s OPAC easy to use, while an equal number have no opinion. This suggests that the OPAC is a problem, and that many users simply avoid it and go to the librarian for help in finding things. In fairness it should be pointed out that the OPAC is a legacy system, inherited by LSSI, and that the corporation has significantly upgraded the system at its own expense.
Almost a third of those surveyed had no opinion about the availability of computers in the library, while almost another third felt that they had to wait too long to get access to a computer. There was similar lack of consensus about the quality of the reference collection available.
The instrument we used did not include a question about the public awareness about the outsourcing of library management in Riverside County. It became clear, however, in the course of our investigations, that few people were aware of it or concerned about it. Indeed, many library users seemed even unaware that their community library was part of the county systems, perceiving instead that it was an operation of their own community. County officials indicated that they were pleased that the change had gone essentially unnoticed, and saw no reason to make any effort to inform the public about the change.
In short, both staff and patrons seem to agree that, in general, library services are improving, but that more money for collections is needed. Surprisingly, both groups seem to think that the hours of service are adequate.
The overall condition of the libraries in Riverside County continues to be poor, but most of this is due to the effects of California’s maze of restrictive tax measures rather than any effect of privatization of library management. Funding levels for Riverside County libraries remain at desperately low levels, barely more than a third of the national average on a per capita basis.
Materials budgets have increased each year, rising from $180,000 in the first year of the contract to a projected $700,000 in 2000-01. Nevertheless, they are still inadequate to maintain the branch library collections, which are in the main too small for the populations they are intended to serve, and are generally old and worn. The few branches whose collection appears in better condition have clearly benefited from infusions of additional local funds.
None of this can improve significantly until a larger source of revenue can be found. Riverside County has pinned its hopes for overall improvements in funding for library services on a package of impact fees that will provide significant revenues as long as the current growth boom continues.
Two cities in Riverside County have withdrawn from the county library system since LSSI assumed management control of the system. Both withdrawals were underway before LSSI was selected to manage the library system, and there is no evidence that the withdrawals were in any way a result of privatization. An interview with the three top staff at Moreno Valley indicated that the motivation for the withdrawal was the city’s desire for local control, combined with the opportunity to capture a local tax revenue stream sufficient to provide better library services than the county is able to fund.
It is significant to note in this context that six other cities were contemplating withdrawing from the county system prior to the arrival of LSSI, and none of them appears at this time interested in pursuing the course further. This can be attributed in part to several factors, including service improvements instituted under LSSI, a perception of greater equity in resource allocation and increased local control, and a realization of the high costs of providing better library service with exclusively local funding,
The County of Riverside has made great efforts to give local communities a sense of greater local control. They instituted three zone advisory boards of citizens to provide input on the allocation of fiscal resources within regional zones. They have focussed on trying to return tax funds to the zone in which they were generated, and in doing so have calmed many concerns about inequitable funding. However, the issue of “return to source” with regard to tax revenues remains. It is a difficult one to manage in an area with great disparities in both wealth and local property tax base. There is reason for concern that this issue may be a potent force tending to pull the county library system apart over time.
Based on a number of interviews, the staff of the Riverside County Library System apparently has no reason to feel that their professional values or standards are in any way compromised by being employees of a private corporation that manages their public libraries. Most staff members interviewed seem to feel strong sense of loyalty to LSSI because the company has restored a measure of stability to their jobs.
Staff has perceived relatively few changes of policy or procedure at the branch level since LSSI assumed control. This may point to a possible problem in leadership or direction due to the division of responsibilities between the county and the contractor. The County Librarian is fully occupied in administering a large number of contracts and interlocal agreements, and takes care not to become involved in the details of running the libraries. Much of his administrative effort is currently being focussed on an ambitious program of building and improving facilities. The contractor, LSSI, is charged with providing day-to-day management of library operations, but is not responsible for strategic planning for the library system. It appears that responsibility for long range planning may have fallen into the cracks between the contractually stipulated responsibilities of the respective parties. It is open to question if a single county employee, the County Librarian, can be expected to manage so many contracts, continue an aggressive building program, and effectively provide vision and direction for the system. The County needs to either hire additional staff for that purpose, or else contract for that task as well as for day-to-day operations.
The staff reports that there appear to be several advantages in private sector management of the library system. Among these advantages are reduced red tape in getting things done, ranging from the ordering of supplies to the furnishing and equipping of a branch library. In interviews some staff noted, with an obvious show of relief, that it was easier for a private contractor to discipline or discharge employees who weren’t performing well.
Overall, the evidence we gathered leads to the following conclusions:
- The county acted judiciously in contracting the management of Riverside County Library System to LSSI. County officials took care to retain policy control, and have developed detailed and enforceable contracts. A capable and experienced library professional, who is an employee of the county, manages these contracts.
- The decision to contract with LSSI has apparently enhanced local control over library operations and increased the accountability of library management to public officials.
- The outsourcing of library management to LSSI can not be considered “privatization” under any reasonable definition of the term because the County retains full and complete control over the assets of the library and over library policy matters.
- The citizens of Riverside County feel that they are receiving better library service now, with the LSSI management of RCLS, than they were receiving when the system was managed by the city of Riverside.
- Funding for collections and hours of service have both increased since the decision to outsource management of RCLS to LSSI. These issues both remain a significant concern for County officials, and further improvements are expected.
- Staff feel that, overall, LSSI is a better employer than the City of Riverside, and are generally satisfied with their compensation and working conditions. They do appear to have concerns about the benefits they receive, and about work schedules.