Booking Privatization: Why Not Privatize Government Libraries?

State Library Subsidies

Public libraries are fixtures in many communities across the state. Some communities have expanded or built new facilities to house their libraries, yet others struggle and grasp for more public funds. Any plans to address these issues should recognize that throughout history civil society — free people working outside of coercive government mechanisms — have created novel ways for libraries to flourish without state intervention. The state of Michigan should end its subsidies to local public libraries across the state and let the institutions be financed locally.

In an informal survey by state officials, last November there were 15 ballot measures before voters in communities across the state for library related millage requests. Seven failed to pass.

The first established libraries were private collections dating back nearly 5,000 years to the society of the ancient Mesopotamians. Even after the inception of the first public library in the fourth century B.C., private libraries continued to be more prevalent. Following the fall of Rome, it was the libraries — or scriptoriums — of monasteries that assumed the task of preserving a wide range of books. Some monasteries even began systems of inter-library loans. During the Renaissance, families, universities, and the Vatican City all built their own libraries.

In America the first library dates to 1638 when John Harvard donated his own collection of books to the divinity school that later adopted his name. Benjamin Franklin also famously started a subscription library, the Library Company of Philadelphia, to which members paid dues in order to sustain the library. It was not until the nineteenth century and the beginning of public education that the first public libraries were opened.

There are 384 public libraries and 305 branch libraries spread across Michigan. Most of these libraries are subsidized through the "State Aid to Libraries" line item in the Michigan Department of History, Arts and Libraries. The proposed fiscal 2006 line item will account for about $13.3 million in funds. Interestingly, Detroit and Grand Rapids libraries used to enjoy their own line items in the state budget and a portion of the "State Aid to Libraries" subsidy, but have recently been rolled into the overall budget line as part of recent budget reforms.

Today budget problems still trouble public libraries, and their operators have responded by shaving hours of operation, reducing the purchase of new materials, and laying off personnel. The Warren Public Library closed the Edgar A. Guest branch in 2004 to save money, and Birmingham recently delayed a proposal to expand its library. According to an informal survey by state officials, last November there were 15 ballot measures before voters in communities across the state for library related millage requests. Almost half — seven — failed to pass.

There are a number of problems associated with publicly subsidized libraries. First, they make demands on taxpayers to provide a service that they do not use. Second, they are unnecessary. Just because a government library doesn’t exist doesn’t mean that people will be deprived of reading material. Third, government entry into particular businesses crowds out the very private sector service that proponents claim would not occur if government were not providing it. Public libraries have been expanding into services that for-profit companies would or do effectively provide. Video tape rental, coffee shops, and "free" Internet access are three examples. Lastly, there remains justifiable public criticism as to how a public library uses its funds. Some libraries have had to contend with questions relating to internet filters, politically correct book purchases and what does or does not constitute acceptable displays of artwork.

As in many areas of the public and private policy arena there are alternative solutions that can address these problems in whole or by degree. Libraries are no exception. Here are a few options:

  1. Stop subsidizing public libraries at the state level. This will relieve taxpayers in Ishpeming, for example, from being forced to subsidize the library habits of Detroiters. Services that are provided and funded publicly from a local millage may be tailored to constituents. It is likely that the people of Holland, Mich. will have different literary tastes than those in Ann Arbor.

  2. Stop subsidizing public libraries at every level. A sea change in policy of this nature would likely result in many creative responses to keep libraries open to some degree in communities. Philanthropists may donate money to keep libraries open, fundraisers may be held by a "friends of the library" association, volunteers may replace paid staff, and other libraries may start charging a variable fee to rent a book based on the length of the rental and popularity of the title. Other libraries may just close and sell their assets to other libraries.

  3. Government may maintain ownership of the asset but contract out for its total operation, as has occurred in Southern California.

  4. Public libraries may split the duties between a local, publicly paid staff and a private, for-profit management company for very specific duties, such as cataloging, technical and book-buying services, and janitorial and grounds maintenance. In Metro Detroit, libraries are contracting with private agencies to collect library fines. According to an August Detroit News article, half of Metro Detroit’s 65 libraries employ collection agencies. Clearly, libraries are familiar with contracting for services.

One such company is Library Systems and Services Inc. (LSSI). The company has provided expertise in library management for federal agencies such as the Library of Congress, the Department of Energy, and the Smithsonian Institute, in addition to running entire libraries at the local level in such states as California, Texas, Kansas and Tennessee.

In one instance the company won a contract with Riverside County, California to run its entire 28 library system. LSSI outbid two public units (a county and a school district) for the contract. The company has been providing library management services in Riverside for eight years. Its newest contracts are in Shelby County, Tennessee where LSSI is managing four libraries under four separate contracts.

There is nothing about local libraries that make state involvement a necessity. Local units (and their taxpayers) should make decisions as to whether or not they wish to support a library without subsidies from Lansing.

Laura J. Davis is an adjunct scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and a University of Michigan law student. Michael D. LaFaive is the Center’s director of fiscal policy.