The city of Camarillo opted out of the county library system two months ago and, on Jan. 1, the city’s library will be operated by a private company from Maryland called Library Systems and Service Inc. (LSSI). The fiscal contributions of keeping the library in the county system were too great, according to city officials.

The city estimates that it was contributing nearly $3 million a year, a good chunk of that coming from the city’s general fund. The city will save close to $675,000 by contracting with LSSI. County library jobs, however, have been lost, and now the city of Ventura is also considering withdrawal from the county library system. Consequently, a debate has been sparked about what it means to privatize a public library, as it will be run by a profit-driven organization. LSSI has gained a reputation for taking over libraries in ailing cities, but is now beginning to claim libraries in relatively healthy ones.

Jackie Griffin, Ventura County library director, has been outspoken against LSSI moving into county territory. She recently shared her views with the VCReporter.

VCReporter: What happens when a public library goes private?
Jackie Griffith: We don’t really know that yet. We’ve seen it happen in other libraries, but not in libraries close to us. So we haven’t really followed it closely.

I think there are some interesting questions that will come up over time. Libraries are really underfunded. I don’t think there are many libraries that are well-funded in California and in the United States in general. So what does it mean when a private company comes in and is trying to make a profit? It’s not like there are suddenly more funds generated, so where is that profit coming from? What does it mean when we lose transparency? Now speaking as a taxpayer, do we want our local tax dollars going to a private entity in Maryland? This is one company. They’re a private company. We don’t have much information about their stability. When you put all your hope of a library into this one company, what happens if they go under? In Camarillo, all their cataloging, processes of materials, all their IT stuff, we’ve always done it. But now it will be outsourced to LSSI. What happens if they go under? I don’t think these are questions that have been answered.

Did Camarillo’s City Council ask these questions? Or did they just look at it as a way to save $675,000?
Will outsourcing to LSSI result in job loss for the local community?

I don’t know. We were not asked to talk to them about any of this. I don’t think they did an RFP (request for proposals). They sole-sourced it to LSSI, which is interesting in itself. The presentation that we saw at their City Council meeting the night they voted to go with LSSI was really short on actual information.

What happens to the county employees who worked for the library?
We had to lay them off. Some of them reapplied and were offered jobs. Some reapplied and weren’t offered jobs.

Some didn’t reapply. Many of our employees in Camarillo were long-time employees with years of service tied up in the county, so they took other jobs and bumped other people out in other branches.

And Ventura is considering the same option?
Well, Ventura is doing a smart thing. They have a strategic plan and they’re trying to figure out where their library fits in, what they want for the community and where they want to go in the future. They’re not saying we want to save money and we want to do this. They’re saying, how do we get the best libraries in the future and what’s the best way to go for that. It may or may not result in them either deciding to stay in the library system, to become a stand-alone or contract out. But they’re actually doing a study, and I believe that is the way to go.

The CEO of LSSI has recently said that “Lots of libraries are atrocious. Policies all about job security. That’s why the profession is nervous about us. You can go to a library for 35 years and never have to do anything and then have your retirement. We’re not running our company that way. You come to us, you’re going to have to work.” Is this an assault on your profession?
Well, yes, I believe it is. Nobody becomes a librarian because they think they’re going to get rich. We have one library employee for every 4,500 citizens in the county. We are significantly understaffed. We try to supplement this by using technology. But, man, the idea that library employees are these people waiting around to collect their pension is insulting. . . . The Camarillo staff works so hard. We do this for love and passion of people and books. How can he say that about these employees? Most people who retire out of libraries can’t even afford to live in this community.

In our timeline of history as a country, what does the privatization of public libraries mean to our democracy?
We see ourselves as the gateway of information. This is the place people can come to find out about anything. Things they agree with, disagree with. Information to shore up what you already believe, or tear down what you already believe. And it’s a part of that transparency and that belief. What happens when you put tax dollars to buy books and materials in the hand of a private citizen? What does it mean, and what do we know about their political beliefs, and those beliefs may skew what is purchased? How do we have any understanding of those principles? And especially from somebody who speaks so sneeringly . . .. That is not somebody who I want in charge of this.

I want somebody to feel that what they’re doing is so important and that it matters. One of the things that makes the United States really incredibly great is that no matter how rich or how poor you are, you walk into the doors and you have access to all the ideas of mankind. It doesn’t matter who you are. I don’t think you can name many countries in the world that have such unfettered access. That’s an amazing thing.

When Mr. Pezzanite (LSSI’s chief executive) talks about [it] as if it’s something to be denigrated, then I don’t want him entrusted to it. I want people to do this because they are dazzled by it, not because it’s a way to skim a profit.

So what do you say to those who suggest the Internet has replaced the functions of a library and is able to serve those who don’t have such access to a library?
The fact is, there is still something like a third of Americans that don’t have a computer at home. In other countries, they don’t have free and open access like we have to the Internet. I love the Internet. I use it all the time. But you still need people to help you through those resources. Libraries play a couple of different roles. The role of information, which the Internet, we have to acknowledge, is doing a good job. There is also the role of reading and the role of a community gathering place. . . .

To make a profit in the library system, will they charge an annual fee?
They can’t. You can’t charge a fee in the state of California for any library service that is reasonable and customary. We have seen contracts in other places LSSI has contracts, and they get to keep all the fines and lost-book fees created. That’s really interesting.

When we have fines and lost-book fees, they go into an account that goes back to the library, and that money goes to buy more books, but it appears LSSI can keep that money. But we don’t know because these contracts are pretty private. We don’t know how much of a percentage of a budget they keep each year, but we do know they keep a certain percentage as a profit. . .. Where and how they will create a profit is an interesting question. … We get questions about every line item in our budget, and we should. It’s taxpayer money, and we should be accountable and people should know how we spend their money. We can’t ask these questions of LSSI because they’re not a public entity.

Do you foresee public backlash after LSSI takes over Jan. 1?
What I heard the community saying is, don’t privatize our libraries. If nothing else, we’ll be on our toes. I think it’s good that we have these conversations because the community really needs to understand what they’re paying for in library service. . . . How much local control do you want and what are you willing to trade for that? I welcome that conversation. If you give the community time and a way to talk about [it], I believe that people really won’t believe in the idea of privatization.    

shane@vcreporter.com