Check LSSI's track record

As president of the Oregon Library Association, it is disheartening to see the Jackson County Library, once among the finest in our state, now with locked doors and a dismantled staff.

But in a way, it is even more disheartening to see that the Board of Commissioners is preparing to contract with a private, out-of-state company to reopen the system's libraries with severely reduced hours and on a for-profit basis.

Understandably, and laudably, the commissioners want to see the 15 branches open their doors again to serve the public, and to do it a quickly as possible. But as the old English proverb taught us: Haste makes waste.

Has anyone done the necessary homework before $4.3 million of scarce public funds are committed to such a radical step?

Understand me, please: it is not my purpose to denigrate in any way the integrity of the company, Library Systems and Services (LSSI) of Germantown, Maryland, or its mission, which is to manage public libraries on a for-profit basis.

But surely it makes sense to examine the company's track record before the ink is put to paper in Jackson County. Has the company taken over the operation of similar-sized systems elsewhere in the country, and if so, how did things work out? Fair (and necessary) questions.

I'll get you started. Check with folks in Jersey City, New Jersey, and Fargo, North Dakota, about their experiences. Ask the mayor of Bedford, Texas, why he and his council decided recently not to contract with LSSI to run their library. Ask the mayor of Linden, New Jersey, why his city decided to end its LSSI contract early.

LSSI does have a nearly decade-old history administering the Riverside, Calif., County Library System, which is a large library system like Jackson County's. How do they compare?

Not well. In terms of circulation of library materials per capita, for example, the numbers for 2005-06 show: Jackson County 7.43; Riverside County 2.04; all Calif. Libraries 5.52. Reference transactions: Jackson County 1.13; Riverside County 0.46; all Calif. 0.99. Children's program attendance per capita: Jackson County 0.18; Riverside 0.04; all Calif. 0.14.

In these and other key indicators, the Riverside system falls considerably below not only the Jackson County Library, but also below the average for the state of California as well.

But what about cost savings? If LSSI is to make a profit, where will it come from? According to a recent article in "Library Journal," profit comes from providing a "stripped-down library service." The more meager the service, the greater the profit. See how it works?

Homegrown alternatives should be investigated. Other models have been successful elsewhere in Oregon. For example, the City of Corvallis operates the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library; perhaps the City of Ashland or the City of Medford could adapt this model to the available resources in Jackson County. The commissioners should consider inviting development staff from the Oregon State Library to work with local citizens in finding solutions.

Meanwhile, remember the ancient Roman admonition: Caveat emptor. We Americans have a saying too: You get what you pay for.

Sarah Beasley of Portland is president of the Oregon Library Association.

Share This Story