In their campaign to privatize everything from auditoriums to zoos, the supply-side crowd is about the capture one of the great bulwarks of municipal ownership. Not content with dismantling the RTD and turning over the Coliseum to private management, they’ve asked one of the nation’s corporate giants, Philip Morris, to acquire that bastion of socialism, the Los Angeles Public Library.
Their avowed purpose is to bail out a cash-starved city treasury by selling the historic main building in a deal that would cause even a used-car salesman to blush. It would be a mistake, however, to confine the argument to a debate over mortgaging the library. Instead, Mayor Richard Riordan and his privatization friends over at the Reason Foundation ought to consider the long-range advantages from turning over the entire library, ownership and operation, to a yet-to-be organized private firm. Let’s call it the Library Corporation of America, a company that no doubt could be launched by a loan from the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency.
What will the privateers do? First, they will reduce services, shorten hours, increase charges and trim “frills.” Just imagine how much money could be cut from the budget if subscriptions to all but the most popular magazines were eliminated. And who needs all those out-of-town newspapers and second-rate novelists?
In keeping with the concept of user fees, library patrons would pay for a library card, a monthly charge similar to cable TV. No free ride here. Why should a Howard Jarvis-type have to subsidize some freeloader’s library privileges? If you want to spend your money and squander your time in the library, don’t do it with my dollars.
But that fee would only get you into the building. If you wanted to borrow, there would be additional charges: a basic rate for run-of-the-mill books plus a surcharge for more popular volumes. Films, CDs, records and tapes would be priced the same as at your nearby rental establishment.
Reference help would cost an hourly consultation rate, reckoned by the quarter-hour. Patrons would be encouraged to phone 900 numbers for help at $1.95 per minute. Use of the catalogue to locate an author or title would be charged on the same basis as a copying machine.
Children’s Saturday-morning events would require admission fees. Nothing is free under private enterprise. Readers of current periodicals or newspapers would incur slight charges, though volumes bound back in the days of the public library would be gratis--until they wear out.
As you left the library, your card would be put into the computer to tally cash services for an overall price; credit cards accepted on all charges over $15.
But this income wouldn’t be enough for the greedy privateers. Casting their eyes around for additional revenue, they would hit on advertising. Imagine an electronic billboard in the reading room featuring advertising messages interspersed with news and comments to attract your attention. Books and periodicals would carry advertising on library-installed dust jackets. Children’s programs would be sponsored with ads neatly tailored to the morning’s theme. There would be no escape from commercialism.
Public rooms would be rented out to private organizations. Visitors would find the elegant corridors of the central library lined with peddlers hawking mutual funds, life insurance, income property or Tupperware. And guess what happens to the doors on the restrooms.
Who needs librarians? Employees could be minimum-wage teen-agers with no knowledge of library science or undocumented workers with no knowledge of English. Books and periodicals would be bought by computer based on popularity, not research needs. Browsers would be discouraged and readers needing help would be handed the Encyclopedia Digest.
Library Corporation of America’s privatized library would bear little relationship to the public facility we have known. It would be cleaner, less crowded and house fewer Skid Row refugees who have ducked in for a snooze. It would be a money-making device operated with an emphasis on cash transactions by those who seek fast profits, an ever increasing bottom line and a here-today/gone-tomorrow philosophy. In short, it would incorporate all the values that Riordan and the privateers have told us we ought be seeking. And it would end forever the threat to private enterprise that was spawned by Andrew Carnegie, Ben Franklin and the rabblewho responded to vision of a free public library.