Several Southern California cities have made moves this fall toward pulling out of county library systems and contracting with a national firm to operate local libraries.  

In October, two cities in Ventura County made “secession” strides – one bold and one tentative. Also, the city of Santa Clarita in Los Angeles County is poised to shift its service at three local libraries with a six-year contract with LSSI (Library Systems & Services, based in Maryland) to take effect July 1, 2011.

In some cities, a shift to the private contractor was a response to cutbacks in hours or services by county or regional library systems, which are struggling with revenue issues during the recession.

In October, the Ventura City Council directed staff to study the issues of putting library operations out to bid. The move was tentative, said Mayor Bill Fulton.

“There are people in the community who love libraries who have expressed a little bit of concern about the transparency issue (in privately managed libraries),” said Fulton. Also, he said, city officials have received some “pushback” from unions representing library workers.

Other library activists are skeptical of county management, which consolidated two libraries in Ventura into one with the 2009 closing of the Helen P. Wright Library.

Fulton is also concerned about lack of competition – that LSSI is the only player in this field and that a Request for Proposals would likely find it to be the only bidder, based on the experience of other municipalities.

Last summer Fulton and several staff members met with LSSI representatives, who said they could develop a preliminary proposal to reopen the Wright library and maintain services, said Bob Windrow, vice president of business development and marketing for LSSI, but the discussion hasn’t gone further than those initial talks.

It was apparent, Fulton said, that LSSI is “aggressively pursuing Ventura County because they believe the county system is in trouble, and that means they’re going to give a good price.”

“We’ve had a lot more interest from California cities and counties in the last six months than we’ve ever had,” said Bob Windrow, vice president of business development and marketing for LSSI.

As LSSI develops opportunities in Camarillo and Santa Clarita, Windrow said, it is getting more well known in California and drawing more inquiries. LSSI has had information tables at recent annual meetings of the League of California Cities and the California State Association of Counties.

On Oct. 13, the Camarillo City Council in Ventura County voted unanimously to withdraw from the Ventura County Library System and operate as a municipal library managed by LSSI, beginning Jan. 1, 2011. The city estimates it will save $600,000 annually through this contract, while affording city officials better control over the Camarillo Library, according to the city Web site.

The contract requires LSSI in its hiring to consider applicants who are now county employees working at the Camarillo Library.

In Santa Clarita, LSSI has promised the city a 19 percent increase in service hours and a 22 percent increase in the books and media budget (according to

In Ventura County, the first domino to tumble was the city of Moorpark, which withdrew from the county system and signed up LSSI in 2007.

The county system for its part would love to retain Camarillo and Ventura. The county is exploring models to reform budgeting, provision of services and city control, according to a letter by county Library Director Jackie Griffin. Griffin’s letter is included with a Nov. 16 Ventura city report by Elena M. Brokaw, the city’s parks, recreation, and community partnerships director.   

See the November 16 City report here.

In Los Angeles County, with more than half a year before LSSI is due to take over three Santa Clarita libraries, a citizens organization called Save Our Library has arisen. It has filed three suits in Los Angeles Superior Court, citing the danger of breaches of privacy when a private company has access to public information such as library circulation and registration records.

Save Our Library’s lawyer, Don Ricketts, said these are invalidation actions questioning Santa Clarita’s contract with LSSI.

The pioneer in public-private partnerships in California was Riverside County, which contracted with LSSI in 1997. LSSI still operates library systems in Riverside and Shasta counties. A library system in San Joaquin County, including the city of Stockton, is considering an LSSI proposal.

In the last year, LSSI pursued a contract in Nevada County, a Sierra Nevada county with a population of 97,000 in the state’s 2008 estimate.  

The county, feeling the burden of fiscal constraints, issued a Request for Proposals in 2009. LSSI had a proposal that would have maintained library service hours and increased the book budget slightly with the same amount of resources, said Joe Christoffel, deputy county executive officer.   

There was a healthy debate among committees of library users and citizens at large, Christoffel said. Ultimately, the Board of Supervisors decided to keep libraries staffed by county employees, but did accept a proposal from the Friends of the Library volunteer group to operate one historical library.

In various California communities, the issues in shifting library services to public-private partnerships include:

  • hours and days of operation;
  • level of services;
  • library staff shifting to a private employer and who makes staffing decisions;
  • local control over local libraries;
  • privacy of library records;
  • and ownership of library buildings, books and computer systems.

Beyond the revenue pinch on county library systems, some cities find this an opportune time to change management as the nature of libraries shifts. All around the world, libraries are restructuring as they become less and less about books.  

“The sweeping changes occurring in media and publishing have sparked increased concern about the relevance of traditional library service models in the years ahead,” states the Nov. 16 Ventura staff report.