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Judy Murakami and Shirley Minamide use the computers at the Richview Public Library in Etobicoke. (Della Rollins for The Globe and Mail)
Judy Murakami and Shirley Minamide use the computers at the Richview Public Library in Etobicoke. (Della Rollins for The Globe and Mail)

BALANCING THE BOOKS

Prospect of privatizing Toronto's libraries sparks outcry Add to ...

Steve Hubbard has been helping the people of Fargo, N.D., find the books they want for nearly 30 years as a reference librarian. The 62-year-old began working at the local library part-time in high school and never left.

But in 2001, he was faced with a plan that would make most librarians cringe.

The city decided to outsource the libraries’ management to a company called Library Systems and Services, and Mr. Hubbard would answer to people in the library business to make money.

But after an initial public outcry faded, Mr. Hubbard says, “everyone was pretty happy. They were certainly capable professionals.”

The concept of for-profit, privately run libraries is fairly new. But in the United States it is has become an increasingly popular option for cash-strapped cities, and according to the Library Workers Union Local 4948, Toronto could be next.

The union launched a campaign called Project Rescue July 13 to fight the threat of outsourcing library services as the city waited for Thursday’s KPMG report on cutting costs. The report recommended Toronto, “rationalize the footprint of libraries to reduce service levels, closing some branches” in order to save $13.3-million. The consultants also suggested trimming library outreach and programming.

“The cuts would be devastating to the library system,” says union president Maureen O’Reilly, who’s running Project Rescue. She says the library’s budget has already been cut 10 per cent since amalgamation.

While the report didn’t suggest outsourcing as a way to cut costs, Ms. O’Reilly insists it’s “still in play.”

“We’re only in the first year of the Ford administration. We also have a budget process where the city manager is asking for another 10-per-cent budget cut.”

As part of the campaign, the union set up a website and a petition last week responding to Councillor Doug Ford’s comments in February that the city is going to be “outsourcing everything that is not nailed down.” Mr. Ford fuelled the campaign by carping on CFRB radio recently that his neighbourhood has more libraries than Tim Hortons – Etobicoke has 13 libraries and 39 Tim Hortons.

The website explains the union’s fear: “We are likely to see our City Council privatize some or all of the TPL’s operations, unless we act to change this outcome.”

The site crashed Thursday evening after Margaret Atwood retweeted a message telling people worried about the “threat of privatization” to visit. The server was briefly overwhelmed by the surge in traffic.

While Anne Marie Aikins, the TPL’s communications manager, said they have no reason to believe further outsourcing is being pursued, she admits, “everything is on the table and we understand people are concerned.”

The TPL has already outsourced the selection of paperbacks and Ms. O’Reilly says, “now we just get generalized collections that meet quantity numbers. We believe the quality isn’t as good.”

The city has also outsourced the library’s custodial, maintenance and cleaning duties.

Library Systems and Services, the company hired by Fargo, runs libraries in 16 cities or towns and operates 63 branches, making it the fifth-largest library system in the U.S.

Founded in 1981, the company has taken off in the past decade, running libraries in California, New Jersey, Oregon, Texas and Tennessee.

LSSI chief executive officer Brad King says they haven’t had any talks with Toronto, but the union’s grievances are nothing new.

Everywhere LSSI goes there’s a backlash against the perceived takeover of public libraries, Mr. King says. “One thing we keep trying to emphasize – we operate public libraries.”

But when libraries are run for profit, how much profit is fair and what are the sacrifices?

Mr. King says LSSI makes libraries more efficient by cutting out the middlemen. “There isn’t a lot of bureaucracy, to put it mildly,” he says.

Riverside County, Calif. is the only LSSI community to release a full audit of its LSSI contract. In the county of more than two million people, the company made a profit of $80,000 (U.S.) in 2002.

But the changes a library makes when it starts seeking a bottom line aren’t always clear to the public.

Priscilla Donovan was hired by LSSI in Leander, Texas, to run the town’s library four years ago.

“As far as I know everybody’s really happy – most people have no idea [that it’s privately run]. It’s still a library. We don’t wear LSSI uniforms or anything like that,” she says.

Ms. Donovan, 54, ran a public library in north Texas before answering an ad for the job in Leander. “I pretty much run it the exact same way,” she says, “I have a few more reports to do, but I still run the programs, order books. I have more money here, which is good.”

Warren Wickens has lived in Toronto for 21 years and says “my concern is that there would be user fees, I guess if there was a cost associated with coming to this library or other libraries, staying at home would be more attractive for me.”

Mr. Wickens, 42, has been using Toronto’s Urban Affairs library as a place to study since it opened in 1992, but the branch has been slated for relocation in an earlier effort to save money. The branch will move to the second floor of the Reference Library in September.

For his part, Mr. King says LSSI has “never introduced a new fee into a library.”

Cities in Alberta charge anywhere from $5 to $20 a year for library cards, but Ontario’s Public Libraries Act forbids charging money for access to a library or for borrowing books, which leaves few options for boosting revenue.

The Toronto Public Library Board will meet July 26 to review the KPMG recommendations, which will go before the city’s Executive Committee July 28.

As for Mr. Hubbard, LSSI left town in 2003 after the city ended its contract early, because Fargo’s board was dissatisfied with the company for failing to pay certain bills on time. But the city remains a positive reference for LSSI.

While the library is back under city management, Mr. Hubbard says, “we came out of that improved and I think we have to give some credit.”

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