Saving Public Libraries

Worth A Look, Municipal Government, Frontier Centre

From the Reason Public Policy Institute –

Across the United States, tight budgets caused dramatic cuts in funding for public libraries in the 1990s, forcing so many libraries to close their doors in recent years that the American Library Association says it is no longer able to keep track of them all. The trend began in 1990, when officials in Worcester, Massachusetts, a city of 170,000, closed all six library branches.

California’s recession in the early 1990s forced the closure of dozens of local libraries. In Los Angeles, the county library system was threatened with the closure of about 50 of its 87 branches. Municipalities began looking for alternate solutions and have since turned to privatization to not only reduce costs, but to maintain or even expand the quality and quantity of their library services.

Case Study: Riverside County, California — Contract Operations. Riverside County became the first county in the nation to privatize its library operations. Maryland-based Library Systems and Services Inc. (LSSI) won a $5.3 million, 1-year renewable contract to run Riverside County’s 25-branch, 85-year-old library system.

Under the new contract, LSSI will increase library hours by 25 percent and increase the annual book purchasing budget from $144,000 to $180,000, and will retain current employees at their present salaries. The company is planning on investing $200,000 of its own money to improve library services once a countywide assessment of library needs is completed. Other specific improvements will include more Internet terminals at county libraries and a better phone-up library reference service. LSSI’s contract manager, Ron Dubberly, said he hopes to design a system that suits each community. “We’re not looking at a cookie-cutter system.”

Some specific improvements at local libraries have already taken effect. At the Temecula branch, for example, couriers pick up and drop off books and other materials twice a day instead of three times a week as previously.

Case Study: Seal Beach, California — Volunteers/Asset Sale. Once threatened with closure due to budget cuts, a small branch of the Seal Beach library system in Orange County was saved through privatization.
In July 1995, the private retirement community Leisure World’s Golden Rain Foundation bought the Seal Beach library, finalizing an unusual private acquisition of a public library. Leisure World made a successful $225,000 bid to save the Seal Beach library, plus an additional $35,000 to purchase the books. The former public librarians have been reassigned elsewhere in the public system, and volunteers are helping to run the now-private facility. “This is certainly a first, as far as I know,” County Librarian John M. Adams told the Los Angeles Times. “We think it was a real win-win situation. Clearly, we have had to make as many reductions as we can.[sic]”

The Seal Beach Library is crucial to the retirement community’s 8,700 residents. “We plan to keep it open five days a week,” said Gold Rain Foundation President Howard McCurdy.” Over half of our residents use this library. It’s probably more used than any other function we have here.”

Case Study: Palm Springs, California — Volunteers/Transfer to Non-Profit. In June 1992, the city closed the Welwood Murray Memorial Library and removed every book from its shelves. A day later, the library started a new life as a private volunteer library, run by a newly incorporated non-profit foundation.

“They left us with nothing,” says library trustee Jeanette Hardenburg, “and the building hadn’t been properly maintained for years. Volunteers did everything you see here—refinished the ceiling, donated display cases.”
Palm Springs’s volunteer library now has 8,000 books in its collection—5,000 more than it had as a publicly funded library—and more arrive every day. “Every book in our collection was given to us by the city—I mean by the people—of Palm Springs. I don’t want to give the city any credit,” Hardenburg says.

The city’s public librarian had earned almost $70,000 annually to tend the 3,000-book collection; Hardenburg and the other trustees each serve as volunteer librarians one day a week. Community members volunteer to help with the Friday afternoon book sales and other fund-raising and outreach programs.

A comprehensive report on privatizing libraries was presented to the Florida legislature in January 2002 –


Report to:

The Florida House of Representatives
Committee on Tourism, January 2002
Representative Allen Trovillion, Chair

Executive Summary


The purpose of the report is threefold: (1) to examine the pros and cons of the use of for-profit companies in the administration and operation of public libraries; (2) to determine what, if any, restrictions exist in state or federal laws or rules governing funding for public libraries pertaining to the use of for-profit companies in administration and operation of such libraries; and, (3) based upon the findings, to provide policy options, if any, for improving public library service for consideration by the Legislature.

  • Access this study online