IT'S NOT much of a murder mystery because the culprit is always the same: Public libraries get killed by local government budget slashers. Among this year's victims are the 15 libraries of Jackson County, Ore. They were shuttered in April when the county ran out of money.
But this tale has a twist: the libraries will reopen this week because the county has found a for-profit private company to run them: Library Systems and Services of Maryland. Sadly, the libraries will have fewer staff and be open for fewer hours - only 24 hours a week for the biggest branch. The county will still own the libraries and the books, and one town has approved local fees for additional hours. Facing cuts in the state's federal timber subsidies, Jackson County officials saw privatization as a way to save $27 million over five years.
A privatized library is clearly better than no library at all. But funding cuts and outsourcing recall the circumstances of early American history, when libraries were private institutions supported by members and philanthropists. Books seemed to be the restricted province of a few. The United States didn't get its first large, publicly supported, municipal library until the 1800s, when, in 1848, an act of the state Legislature authorized Boston to set up a public library.
Today, information is a global asset, and public libraries can promote widespread access solely for the sake of spreading knowledge. Professional librarians can spotlight important books that don't have enough marketing muscle to make bestseller lists. Library databases create 24-hour access to information. And some libraries are mini cultural centers with music, art, and lectures.
Libraries need more public support, not less, as they navigate the future, figuring out how to expand public access, which old media formats to keep, which to shed, and what new formats to adopt.
Public libraries do have to worry about budgets, but they shouldn't have to "earn their keep" like a commercial bookstore. Otherwise they could end up becoming unrelentingly pleasant - nice places to find popular paperbacks instead of champions of the public's right to know.
The American Library Association has had mixed reactions to privatization. A 2000 report said that when used carefully, "outsourcing has been an effective managerial tool." But in 2001, the association adopted a policy opposing "the shifting of policy-making and management oversight" from the public to the private for-profit sector. The association argues that libraries are an "essential public good" that should remain "directly accountable to the publics they serve."
Indeed, public libraries are vital pipelines. Keeping them public is the best way to keep the public informed.