“Libraries resist privatization because they not just about the book,” wrote Donald Cohen, In the Public Interest’s executive director, in his book The Privatization of Everything.

We watched that resistance in action last week in Huntington Beach, California, a seaside city of about 200,000, 35 miles southeast of Downtown L.A.

Despite the Huntington Beach City Council’s decision to proceed with exploring the corporate privatization of the city’s public library’s operations, there were many excellent interventions in the council’s hearings opposing the scheme. The LA Times reports that “Council members listened to three hours of public comments from 108 residents largely against the idea, and more than 600 emails submitted were almost all against privatization.” The full meeting is on YouTube and is well worth watching.

Opposition to the proposed move is overwhelming. One former 32-year veteran worker at the library wrote, “By voting to explore privatization options for our city’s beloved, award-winning public library, the tone-deaf conservatives on the Huntington Beach City Council have shown once again their true authoritarian colors. Despite receiving over 800 emails in opposition to the move and listening to 100 speakers object to privatization at the City Council meeting, the council voted 4-3 in favor of taking the next steps to outsource our library to profiteers…

“Their request-for proposals process is just a formality because the city for the past few months has been quietly exploring a proposal from private, for-profit Maryland-based Library Systems & Services, of which former Huntington Beach Mayor Mike Posey is a sales executive. If this deal is inked, Huntington Beach taxpayers would turn over their money to wealthy out-of-state investors who have no interest in our community.”

The Voice of OC reports that “a vast majority of residents who spoke during public comment were against both proposals, with the council nearly throwing multiple people out of the room for chanting ‘Shame!’ when the council majority approved the move. ‘I want the people removed now,’ said Councilman Tony Strickland right before a 5-minute recess was called after the audience outburst.”

“I don’t know what the terms of an outsourcing contract might be, but I do know that outsourced libraries are widely known for being a revolving door of workers,” Senior Youth Services Librarian Laura Jenkins told the OC Register. “Gone will be the days of the family librarian who grows with families as their children age. That to me is the biggest tragedy that will come with possible outsourcing.”

The controversy is unfolding against a backdrop of efforts to restrict the availability of library books for political and religious reasons, which ITPI has written about before. The Democratic Party of Orange County is opposing the measure. “The extremist majority on the Huntington Beach City Council is pushing ahead with their radical culture war instead of doing anything to actually help our community. Last night, the Council established a community review board with unchallengeable authority to decide which books are and are not ‘appropriate’ (by their standards) to be stocked in HB libraries’ children’s sections. Now, they’re actually considering privatizing public library operations altogether. Workers who have given their lives to serving the community face losing pay, benefits, even their jobs. Residents aren’t going to sit still for this. The resistance is forming including Huntington Beach Public Library supporters, labor, community groups, and Surf City residents! Protect Huntington Beach Orange Coast Huddle.”

The impact of privatization on intellectual freedom and the public interest has been an issue for decades. A quarter century ago, Patricia Glass Schuman summed it up in Library Journal: “A librarian employed by a corporation may have an ethical obligation to uphold free speech but may enjoy no legal protection when resisting censorship by his or her employer. Also, some private companies, anxious to renew their contracts, might be tempted to relax their commitment to intellectual freedom policies if it meant avoiding controversy and the possibility of nonrenewal. The potential for conflicts of interest is high. Imagine being forced to decide whether to provide badly needed—but expensive—services to homeless shelters when that will impact your employer’s profit margin, your performance appraisal, and your raise.”

In his late 2021 article, “Public-Private Partnerships Are Quietly Hollowing Out Our Public Libraries: Private companies contracted to ‘streamline’ public libraries are doing it at the cost of decent-paying union jobs.” Caleb Nichols gets to the heart of the matter.

“Instead of working toward maintaining or shrinking already miniscule budgets, local governments, armed with talking points and data from ALA-accredited librarians, should begin forcefully advocating for a significantly larger slice of the pie. Rather than selling libraries off to the highest bidder who promises to deliver more for less, let’s attack this problem at its root by taking away the weak point that LS&S is so great at exploiting—this public perception that public goods like libraries shouldn’t have large budgets. Follow the lead of public library advocacy groups like EveryLibrary and advocate for giving public libraries more money, and you take away the only real leverage LS&S has.”

As we noted in this space just over a year ago, “libraries have lately taken on even greater importance—serving meals to children in the summer, when school-based lunch programs close down, serving as pop-up clinics to address local health needs, and helping to close the digital divide that plagues urban and rural communities alike.”

When privatizers promise to save money, communities must always ask how and on what. And communities need to remind those advocating library privatization that libraries are, indeed, not just about the book.

Lee Cokorinos
Senior Research Fellow

Related Posts