On September 26, 2010, the New York Times ran a front-page story concerning outsourcing public libraries to private corporations. This article chilled me to the marrow of my bones for several reasons. First, the library that triggered the article is in Santa Clarita, California. This is not a city that is drowning in deficits and grasping for straws. It is a city that is in the black. Santa Clarita’s move is made in the clear light of day, for purposes of future planning.
Second, Frank Pezzanite, the director of Library Systems and Services, the corporation which, if taken as a single entity now operates the fifth largest public library system in the United States, sees libraries as poorly administered. “Atrocious,” was the word he chose. He sees library staff as people occupying chairs, doing little, serving time until that sweet, sweet retirement that awaits. Savings are easily found. Just fire the staff, get rid of any bothersome unions, and create new, sleeker jobs with less benefits.
Though newspapers are in sad decline (last year I chaired the search committee for the new Dean of Berkeley’s School of Journalism, and though each candidate for the job spoke to us of the impending doom of the printed newspaper,, no one had a way to prevent it), the New York Times still holds special cachet. It is the newspaper of record in the United States. To place this article on the front page puts the issue of the soul of libraries into play before the whole nation. Passionate letters to the Times followed; some filled with words of high praise for the public library. And of course, Mr. Pezzanite pointed out that he admires libraries, he just wants them to work better.
I see this as a battle for the soul of librarianship. Though I lived my professional life in the rarified air of an academic library, I knew who was really on the front line of the profession. It was the public librarians who represented the highest ideals of librarianship. Our professional identity was one of service, devoted to providing reliable information to the largest possible number of patrons. In a library that was part of a for-profit enterprise, these ideals might play out differently, but they remained our anchor. Librarians led fights for access to information, to protect unpopular literature and unsavory readers. Librarians never hesitated to take up the defense of unpopular causes. We are not a profession of masochists, but we were willing to do what needed to be done.
As information morphed into the digital world at the end of the 20th Century, functions that had been ours were seized by the schools of management or business. The heads of the New York Public Library, the Harvard University Library, and the Library of Congress could not be librarians. Those jobs were too big, too capacious in responsibility and prestige. But we hung on. We kept saving society from itself.
Maybe I am a hopeless eccentric, but the touchstone in all of those fights was the public librarian. She or he epitomized all that was best about us. But now, that service is being viewed through a different lens. Where our hearts had been founded on service, now they would be judged by the numbers on the bottom line.
This change shifts a tectonic plate. If the core value of our profession is service, if the ideal is the soul of librarianship, then there can be noble sacrifice. If the core value is economic efficiency, there can only be rational judgments. Of course public librarians have always had to meet budget limits — all librarians are experts at doing more with less. But in the end, the way was lighted by something larger. There was a beauty and an honor there. There was something worth the sacrifice.
The librarians who work for Mr. Pezzanite will still do their best. Though they will do it without unions, and with new work rules, they will still try to help each patron. But a corner will be turned. This may be the thin edge of a very thick and very quickly approaching wedge.
Sometimes it is good to be 60.