Although your editorial starts well by approving Jackson County Library District’s (JCLD) ending its outsourcing library services agreement with LSS, your financial analysis falls a little short of the mark. You do not address the important issue of how the county was able to absorb the district’s tax levy in 2007.
Since the JCLD levy is now a separate line item on our tax bill, I assume this will not be possible again, but I would like reassurances. That would have been worth a line or two in your editorial.
Chiding the district board members to focus on their “customers” seems to miss the point. The challenge of balancing a budget made tight by escalating operational and capital expenses is nothing new for libraries and most boards rise to that challenge honorably and with grace.
Public libraries are almost universally well-liked and efficient. The average per capita library tax assessment nationally is under $50 annually, although it is higher in many communities, and about 94 percent of Americans feel that public libraries improve the quality of life in their communities.
The return on this minimal annual investment is quantifiable. As an individual you can figure this by creating a Return On Investment (ROI) chart of your personal usage of items and services, assigning the costs of those as if you had to buy them individually. To start with, the average cost of a book, to use the library’s iconic brand item, varies but may be about $15. A community-wide ROI also shows the library to be an excellent investment. You will find this by comparing annual usage statistics for circulation, services, technology, program attendance and other uses by the public against actual expenditures for library collections, programs, services, staffing and facilities.
In Jackson County, the library levy is currently well below its voter-approved cap, demonstrating the district’s obvious concern for fiscal prudence. Before it was privatized all of this was subject to regulation through numerous local and state laws and policies and could be scrutinized at any time by anyone making a freedom of information request. Prior to privatization, state and federal funds were available to government agencies for bricks and mortar, programming and other special projects. Once the JCLD board takes back oversight and control of its assets, the benchmarks of success no longer will be determined by the necessity to show a profit. (Incidentally, the private parent companies that administered the library are not based in Oregon, so even their for-profit gains went elsewhere.)
JCLD’s new benchmarks of success should respond intelligently to the Jackson County communities’ needs. The American Library Association Code of Ethics will again be the moral compass used to insure patrons’ information remains private, underserved populations do not get short shrift, sunshine laws are followed, and collections and services are developed by qualified library staff who are paid fairly and commensurate with their abilities and expertise and who are proud to be long-term residents of the community.
Our communities and public libraries were not served well by being privatized. Of enduring significance is that even this late in the privatization process discussions such as your editorial reduce public libraries to commodities, and their patrons to “customers,” where the “challenge is to create a local operation with expanded hours but without increasing tax collections.” Libraries are nuanced and as varied as the communities they serve and they face many more important challenges than that. It seems that increasing taxes was never the problem, only making sure they went to the purpose for which they were levied. Our understanding, engagement and support are important for the future success of the special collections, places, programs and services the JCLD board and staff will provide our county.
Meg Klinkow Hartmann of Medford is a retired public library administrator from Illinois who has written and spoken against privatization/outsourcing of public libraries.