In defense of librarians

I feel for the librarians in Santa Clarita, Calif., as their library system sells their jobs out from under them.

In case you haven’t heard – Santa Clarita, part of the Los Angeles County Library System is being privatized.  Yes, that’s right, the most American of institutions is being outsourced.

Library Systems & Services, LLC (LSSI) is a private company based in Maryland that, according to the company’s website, specializies in “implementing cost-saving efficiencies, locating un-tapped funds, harnessing today’s electronic resources, and creating community outreach programs.”

That’s sounds pretty good to local government officials who are looking to cut their budgets.

But what is Santa Clarita–and the other municipalities that LSSI serves – really getting when they privatize their public library? The elimination of unionization, pensions and a good portion of their staff.  Plus, a decreased acquisitions budget.

In a recent New York Times article on patron anger towards privatizing Santa Clarita’s library, LSSI CEO Frank A. Pezzanite smugly implies that libraries shouldn’t be regarded in such high esteem. “Somehow they have been put in the category of a sacred organization,” he said.

Well, you know what Frank, there’s a reason for that. Public libraries have been a constant in this country for more than a hundred years, providing information to the masses. For free.  Librarians do the job that they do because they feel that everyone should have access to information and books (not to mention the Internet). Rich or poor, the public library has been a refuge for generations. How do you privatize an institution like that?

The most appalling thing about this privatization is how Pezzanite views public library employees. According to the New York Times, Pezzanite thinks that public librarians don’t really do anything. Or at least the unionized librarians don’t.

“You can go to a library for 35 years and never have to do anything and then have your retirement,” Pezzanite said.

I find it appalling that anyone, but particularly someone who claims to be a library professional, would think that librarians don’t do anything but sit around and read books all day. I guess staffing the customer services desks doesn’t count as work?  Or perhaps helping people with their resumes, troubleshooting computers and printers, scheduling and performing adult and children’s programming, maintaining the collection, attending statewide library association meetings, conducting trainings (both for the public and for staff), and providing materials’ advisory services — among a great many other tasks — doesn’t count as work.

Or maybe it’s just women’s work, so it doesn’t count.

And I find it particularly disturbing that, in a time when the underpriviledged need libraries more than ever, Mr. Pezzanite would portray librarians and libraries in such a light.  And in the New York Times!

I understand that he’s trying to sell his product.  However, I can’t help but think making librarians seem like a bunch of lazy lous in a national newspaper in a time when libraries are closing left and right and the people need them more than ever will hurt Mr. Pezzanite’s business. Who’s to say that a cash-strapped municipality, one that can’t afford the often multi-million-dollar pricetag attached to LSSI, won’t just close its libraries. I mean, the librarians don’t really do anything anyway, right?  Can’t everyone just Google it?

The answer is no. Librarians are highly skilled researchers with resources that go beyond Google. Not to mention that not everyone can afford a computer. Or Internet access. Therefore making it impossible to Google anything.  It’s called the digital divide and the only way to bridge it is to keep our public libraries public.

M. Hepler is a librarian and lives in Maryland.

Photo: (Librarian by Day/CC)