Md. firm in forefront of library trend Privatization tried in bid to make ends meet

September 07, 1997|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- Budget cuts have resulted in staggered hours of operation at the Riverside library, making it necessary for patrons to travel for miles to other branches when the one near them is closed. The books they request are rarely in, forcing them to place her name at the bottom of long waiting lists.

Now the Riverside County Free Library System is turning to the private sector for help with its problems. All 25 branches have been placed under corporate management, the only public municipal library system in the country to be privately administered on such a broad scale.

Germantown company

On July 1, Library Systems & Services Inc. of Germantown, Md., took charge of all library staff, purchasing and maintenance of books, day-to-day functions and the library's $5.3 million annual operating budget.

County board members awarded LSSI a two-year contract, with three one-year options, based on the company's proposal to improve the system and stay within the library's budget. The company will be paid from a library fund fed primarily by local property taxes.

LSSI, partly owned by textbook publisher Follett Corp. of River Grove, Ill., promised to increase the libraries' hours of operation by 25 percent, boost spending for new books and materials, double the staff to 120 and hire a courier service to get books to the branches more quickly than the in-house library delivery service.

New staffing and hours took effect recently, and library officials predict the efficiency and improved services soon will be noticed by patrons as well as the library community around the country.

Another library system has tried limited private involvement with less than satisfactory results. Last year, Hawaii's public library system hired a North Carolina company to select and buy books for its 49 branches. But librarians complained Baker & Taylor Inc. has wasted money providing useless selections. The state legislature is considering whether to break the five-year, $11 million contract with the company.

The Chicago-based American Library Association, the lobbying organization for 57,000 librarians and other library officials nationwide, is watching the Riverside County privatization effort but has not taken a position on it.

Some library experts are skeptical about LSSI's ability to maintain its plan to increase services while earning a profit.

"In a public service organization like a library, you have service-oriented people who are willing to go the extra mile for the community," said Terry Weech, an associate professor at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science. "I'm not sure a for-profit organization would have the same level of dedication. It may be more likely to cost-justify everything to determine what services it will provide."

A blueprint

LSSI officials assert that Riverside County will serve as a blueprint on running public libraries efficiently and profitably.

Initially, LSSI is not expected to make money on the deal. The company is investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in improvements.

LSSI officials say they will be able to spend more of the budget to serve customers than did the City of Riverside, which ran the libraries for the county and charged a 10 percent fee. Last year, that amounted to $530,000.

In addition, according to Gary Christmas, the county librarina in charge of monitoring the contractor, LSSI intends to save money by switching to a competitive bid process in purchasing materials. Administrative overhead will be cut because duties, including personnel and payroll, will be handled by the company's headquarters. And the company will subcontract its courier service, eliminating the expense of maintaining a fleet.

"We've managed the Department of Energy library and parts of the Smithsonian Institution and Library of Congress," said Christopher Traut, president of LSSI. "We are setting it up so that we will make a small profit in the second year."

Pub Date: 9/07/97

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