VI. Conclusions and Recommendations
This study has been limited to a comprehensive review of the literature on outsourcing in general, an in depth analysis of the literature on outsourcing of cataloging, followed by a detailed examination of a four selected specific outsourcing cases. This is a rather limited set of cases on which to generalize, but nevertheless the evidence does point to some tentative conclusions about the impact of outsourcing on the three specific areas identified in the RFP.
We found no evidence that outsourcing per se represents a threat to library governance, or to the role of the library in protecting the First Amendment rights of the public. Library staff in organizations where the management was contracted to outside vendors (NASA, Riverside County) expressed little concern that their values were in conflict with those of their employers. Likewise, surveys of library users revealed no concern about the practice. Elected officials and county officers in Riverside have found that by contracting out the management of the public library system to a commercial vendor rather than a municipality, they have significantly increased their control over policy matters and resource allocation decisions and enhanced the accountability of the library to the people it serves.
With regard to outsourcing of cataloging and selection, this issue is elusive and difficult to determine. There appears to be legitimate cause for concern that, with increasing reliance on vendors for cataloging and selection, the expertise of local library professional staff in these areas way dwindle and atrophy. One the other hand, this is a logical by-product of the managerial choice to direct local staff resources toward other activities and functions, enhancing staff expertise in these other areas. These represent the difficult choices managers must make in the face of limited resources and increasing demands for services.
In the Riverside case, we uncovered some vague indications of increasing workloads and decreasing compensation—especially in terms of benefits—that might lead to diminished work forces over the long term. There was also a clear indication of a change in the staffing pattern in some libraries, with non-professionals handling tasks that had formerly been carried out by professionals. Some observers might interpret this as the cynical manipulation of labor by a for-profit employer. An equally valid view, in our opinion, is that this represents a specific instance of a much larger trend in library management, involving innovative approaches to staffing patterns in order to find more effective allocations of scarce resources. The evidence is equivocal and the conclusions by no means certain. More study is needed, and perhaps more time to develop a discernible pattern of activities.
We also found no evidence that outsourcing per se had any significant impact on interlibrary cooperation. Conceptually, there is the possibility that library collections developed by vendors rather than local selectors might tend to become homogenous over time. This, in turn, would limit the diversity of library collections as a whole, and vitiate the rationale for effective library resource sharing. It is not clear from the evidence at hand, however, that the scale of outsourced selection justifies concern about this theoretical evolution. Nor is it certain that, given emerging patterns in publishing and information distribution systems, such homogenization is not more or less inevitable in the long run.
Far from being a threat to library cooperation, outsourcing of cataloging is in fact facilitated by widespread access to shared cooperative cataloging efforts.
Outsourced library management, on the other hand, more logically might pose a threat to interlibrary cooperation. We found, however, no evidence that it fact has as yet made any impact. In Riverside, the surrounding communities appear to view LSSI as a good neighbor, and one with whom they are more than willing to work for common improvements.
While we found no evidence that outsourcing per se represents a threat, there are to be sure a number of issues which might deserve sober deliberation by the library profession. There are clearly instances in which outsourcing has led to undesirable—perhaps even disastrous—results. In seems apparent, however, that these debacles are less a consequence of outsourcing than of poor management; in other words, outsourcing badly done. It is clear from these examples, as well as from consistent admonitions in the literature that, a decision to outsource is one that should be made very carefully, with deliberate consideration of all of the factors and ramifications. It would be perhaps useful to reiterate the suggestions of Riverside County official Tom DeSantis about things to be sure to do before outsourcing.
- Keep policy control with the elected public officials and representatives of the public;
- 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.
The first two of these are clear and unambiguous. We might elaborate further on the second two. From the third suggestion it can be noted that a key element in successful outsourcing projects is the quality of the contract: a poor contract will likely result in poor performance. It is imperative, therefore that librarians and library managers become experts at developing, monitoring and administering contracts. It seems equally obvious that model contracts and guidelines for developing proposals be created by appropriate professional organizations to aid librarians in negotiating their way through the contracting wilderness.
The final suggestion above leads to another observation: one of the greatest impediments to successful outsourcing is the limited pool of qualified and experienced vendors, especially in the area of library management. The most important handicap that Riverside County has in negotiating with LSSI is that there are few alternative vendors from which to chose. If there were a half dozen qualified and experienced vendors from which to chose, contract negotiations with any single vendor would take on a completely different complexion.
Michael Gorman is one of the most outspoken critics of outsourcing in the library literature. He has written that library managers who decide to contract with outside vendors for cataloging, selection or acquisition services “are saying, in effect, that professional library skills and experience can be replaced by distant vendors who probably lack the former and certainly lack the latter" (Gorman 1998, 74). We would certainly agree that library managers should not contract for any services with vendors who lack relevant professional skills or adequate experience. We would assert, however, that many vendors can offer skills and experience equal to the professional staffs of many libraries. The evidence we considered indicates that, in many cases, the skills and experience of vendor staffs may far exceed those of the local library staff — for specific activities and functions. The key to success in outsourcing is knowing when to outsource, and negotiating a workable contract with a capable vendor. This in turn results from careful analysis and planning, establishment of measurable objectives, and vigilant monitoring of contract performance.
In general, there is no evidence that outsourcing per se has had a negative impact on library services and management. On the contrary, in the main outsourcing has been an effective managerial tool, and when used carefully and judiciously it has resulted in enhanced library services and improved library management. Instances where problems have arisen subsequent to decisions to outsource aspects of library operations and functions appear to be attributable to inadequate planning, poor contracting processes, or ineffective management of contracts.
The following recommendations are offered to the American Library Association to improve the use of outsourcing as an effective management tool in American libraries.
- The American Library Association should encourage the inclusion of data documenting the extent of outsourcing in libraries in the regular annual data collection activities of such agencies as the National Center for Education Statistics.
- The American Library Association should foster regular treatment of outsourcing trends, vendors and services, and other issues related to outsourcing, in the journals published by the divisions and units of ALA.
- The American Library Association should foster, through its Divisions and other units, the development of guidelines and model contracts to aid librarians in making decisions about outsourcing.
- The American Library Association, working collaboratively with other appropriate agencies such as the Council on Library and Information Resources and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, should encourage and foster further research into the impact of outsourcing on library services and management.