Sunday, August 16, 2009

Time to Think Outside the Library Box

by Richard Rider
12 August, 2009

San Diego County has a number of public library systems open to the general public. Two operations are quite large – the San Diego County and San Diego City libraries. In addition, the cities of Carlsbad, Chula Vista, Oceanside, Coronado, Escondido and National City each have their own library systems.

Without exception, each jurisdiction’s library department has become a swelling financial drain on taxpayers. A byproduct has been the reduction of the hours of operation. This expanding cost – reflecting primarily the mushrooming compensation packages for public library employees – has been a growing problem in good times. During this recession, it’s become a much bigger problem.

It’s time to consider an alternative way of delivering library services. There is a company – LSSI – that operates public and private libraries. They improve the service, hours of operation and customer satisfaction. And they do it for less cost.

I’m not talking about selling off the libraries. Normally the government contracting with LSSI still owns the buildings and materials. But LSSI takes over the operation of the library, meeting the criteria set by the government.

One does not have to go far to see how well this alternative works. In 1996 Riverside County was facing operational difficulties, and so it contracted with LSSI to run their 33 branch libraries and two bookmobiles. Coincidentally, that’s the EXACT number of branch libraries and bookmobiles now operated by the San Diego County library system.

The results have been well received in Riverside County – by both patrons and politicians. Read the summary of this success story below.

But first, go to the LSSI website In particular, watch their seven minute video. Click on the button “View Video.” Yes, it’s a promotion piece, but is has interviews with city managers, mayors and county supervisors who laud their services. It’s really quite illuminating.

The Riverside County Example

With 33 library branches, Riverside County, CA is easily the largest government library customer for LSSI. LSSI has operated the Riverside County libraries since 1996, and apparently is highly regarded in that county. The following is on their website:

Riverside County, California, operates 33 branch libraries and two bookmobiles serving a high growth population approaching 1 million residents in 13 cities across an area approximately the size of Massachusetts.

For more than 80 years, Riverside County contracted with the City of Riverside for library services. The library system was administered by a city-appointed Board of Library Trustees, all City of Riverside residents.

When a state mandated shift of property taxes resulted in funding reductions affecting the county libraries in the mid ‘90s, the individual cities and Riverside County Board of Supervisors sought more direct control. As a result, in 1996 the City of Riverside did not renew its contract to operate the County Library System and the County had only six months to develop an alternative plan.

The County issued an innovative and ground-breaking RFP seeking optimal library services within an established budget. After a comprehensive selection process, LSSI was selected to operate the County Library System. Riverside became the first library system in the nation to outsource its library operations to a private firm.

Through careful monitoring and control of the contract process, LSSI and the County have been able to increase library services without changing funding sources, increased taxes or additional fees. All former library system employees found positions for the same base pay rate and retained vacation time and accruals.

Key operational benefits in Riverside County of the LSSI managed system include:

· Expansion of the library system from 24 to 33 library sites

· Expansion of local employment opportunities from 119 local employees to 193

· More than doubling of total weekly hours of operation from 618 hrs/wk to 1380 hrs/wk

· Increase of book budget allocation from $180K to $1.95M$5M in additional grant funding

· Automation partnership with San Bernardino County, greatly increasing circulation access

· Development of early literacy program

· Establishment of ESL classes to meet community requirement

· Development of Latino outreach program, "Leer es triunfar" (Reading is succeeding)

· Winner of a 2005 John Cotton Dana Library Award


If our politicians ever decide that our cities and counties are supposed to be run for the public rather than for the public EMPLOYEES, we can start pursuing alternative methods of delivering government services – such as LSSI. Since our local governments are running out of financial alternatives, perhaps that time is close upon us. We certainly hope that such is the case.

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