If and when Jackson County libraries are re-opened this fall, they could employ largely the same staff of librarians. But instead of drawing paychecks from Jackson County, the librarians will likely be employed by Library Systems and Services, a for-profit company from Maryland that has found a niche market in operating public libraries with private employees.

LSSI is the biggest &

if not the only &

company to try its hand at public library management, an endeavor that until recently was always kept in the public sector. LSSI took on its first public library system, Riverside County, Calif., in 1997. The company was initially created in 1981 to run various federal libraries &

including the Library of Congress &

during the Ronald Reagan era of privatizing government contracts and services.

"There are a few others," said LSSI Communication Director Terri Armand, about the company's share of this new market in running public libraries. "Some libraries themselves have created private organizations. We happen to be the biggest, and I think the best, at what we do."

Benefits of bulk

What LSSI does is manage public libraries, 47 in total, around the country. The bulk of these libraries are in Riverside County, where LSSI runs the 32 branch libraries. It runs five libraries in Tennessee and four in Texas. Soon it will run 15 in the Rogue Valley.

It employs some 650 people, "most of them work in libraries," Armand said. "At least 80," she added, are librarians with master's degrees in library science.

Using bulk book-buying power, streamlining operations and saving money on employees and their benefits, LSSI has managed to make public library management profitable, company officials say.

"We do have a lot of buying power," Armand said. "It's much like Amazon can buy books cheaper than a small bookstore can."

She also said centralizing services, like accounting and human resources, help LSSI turn a profit even when the public sector has lost money.

Typically, when LSSI comes into a community it rehires much of the public sector library staff. But when they do, it is often with a "smaller total compensation package," according to Library Journal.

In Jackson County, library employees would likely be better paid by LSSI than they were by the county, but would trade their much-valued Public Employees Retirement System plan for a less-encompassing retirement package, said Ashland City Administrator Martha Bennett after reviewing a preliminary contract.

Library employees would also lose the collective bargaining power they enjoy through their labor union, Service Employees International Union Local 503, which submitted a bid to operate the libraries for $1.8 million more than LSSI.

Former Ashland librarian Amy Blossom, who thinks the LSSI proposal is a good emergency fix for local libraries until a long-term solution is identified, said some of her colleagues may not want their old jobs back, given the circumstances.

"Some of the staff is having a hard time deciding if they want to work for a private company," she said.

Pros and cons

LSSI has offered to operate the Jackson County libraries for $4.3 million, approximately half of the cost at which Jackson County ran the 15 branches before the closure in April. However, along with the cost, LSSI has also proposed cutting hours of operation in half as well. The Ashland branch is slated to reduce its operation hours from 40 hours per week to 24.

LSSI's contract with Riverside County is the only one to be audited, according to the Library Journal, and if LSSI reaps the same profit margin in Jackson County as it reported in Riverside, 1.02 percent, LSSI stands to earn $43,000 in its first year here.

While Riverside County has been pleased with the relationship, LSSI officials say this hasn't been the case in every community.

"Some cities greet us with open arms," said Armand. "And then, of course, there are times when there is hesitancy. People aren't always sure what they are going to get with a company from Maryland."

Paterson, New Jersey considered contracting with LSSI, but instead hired an "automation-savvy" director, Cindy Czesak, according to the Library Journal.

"I'd have no trouble hiring LSSI to do consulting, but I have real questions about them running a whole system," Czesak told Library Journal. "I think they worry less about developing long-term relationships within the community."

Results have also been a mixed-bag. LSSI has lauded its work in Riverside, saying it has "accomplished more growth in service, developed more functional partnerships, and completed more building projects" without increasing taxes than any library system of comparable size has ever done.

But Lancaster, Texas has seen "significant turnover" in personnel since LSSI took over operation. Seven of nine employees listed on the library Web site left, and the number of librarians required to have masters degrees in library sciences was reduced from three to two. In Finney County, Kansas, spending on staff was reduced from 59.5 percent of the library's budget in 2002 to 51.9 percent in 2003, with the materials budget being cut by one percent.

A company spokeswoman said, "Every library LSSI has come to has been better off when we left."

In 2003, LSSI contemplated contracting with Starbucks to offer food services at its libraries, but it is unclear if the company sells food or coffee at any of its libraries.

New opportunities

Jackson County Commissioner Danny Jordan told the Ashland City Council that he is familiar with both the successes and failures of LSSI and is developing contract language that he hopes will avoid the pitfalls.

Last year, LSSI signed a contract to run a two-library branch in Redding, Calif., after the city took ownership of the library from Shasta County. There LSSI will help Redding transition into a new building and keep the library open for more hours.

"With LSSI's track record," City Administrator Kurt Starman said, "we are confident the new library will be opened on time and will be run in a more efficient and professional manner."

More recently, Bedford, Texas &

a Dallas suburb of 48,000 residents &

narrowly rejected, with a four-to-three vote by its city council, an LSSI proposal last week to run its library for $100,000 less than public employees said they could do it.

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 226 or . To post a comment on this story, go to .