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A word of caution on pitfalls of privatization

Hawaii's deal with company to select library books is '. . . like putting Safeway in charge of the school lunch program,' critic says.


HONOLULU — A bold push toward privatization has set off a firestorm of resistance in the once-tranquil halls of Hawaii's public library system.

"In the heat of battle, with all the pain, you could just conclude this was a bad idea," acknowledged state librarian Bart Kane, who masterminded the scheme. "But Hawaii's experience doesn't necessarily mean that the theory is not valid."

In a bid to save money, Kane hired a North Carolina-based firm last year to select and buy books for all 49 public libraries in Hawaii. Libraries elsewhere use private vendors for functions such as cataloging or book supply. But Hawaii's five-year, $11-million contract marked the first time a public library system, much less an entire state, was willing to hand off complete control of book selection.

A year later, Hawaii librarians are fuming. They claim that the company, Baker & Taylor Inc., has been shipping cheap, inappropriate and duplicate titles, wasting the few dollars left in the state's book-buying budget. And they question whether a profit-oriented buyer nearly 5,000 miles away can choose the best material for Hawaii's diverse population.

"The concept as a whole is flawed," said librarian Deborah Gutermuth. "It's like putting Safeway in charge of the school lunch program. The kids will be fed what makes a profit."

Kane, state librarian for 15 years, acknowledges problems with the "outsourcing" contract, but said he had little choice. A proposed $3.5-million cut to his $18-million budget, Kane said, could have forced him to close 18 libraries and lay off 124 people.

"We saw an alternative plan that wouldn't destroy the library system," he explained. "I took the risk."

The Baker & Taylor contract, Kane said, offered a savings of as much as 40% over handling the job in-house. That estimate, however, is hotly disputed. Some observers claim the contract is at best a wash financially, and that the threat to close libraries was a red herring.

The Board of Education has appointed a blue-ribbon panel to investigate the situation, and state legislators have just ordered an audit. Kane himself has put the contractor on notice. A recent telephone poll of 417 Hawaii residents found that 70% opposed having a mainland firm select library books, with 19% in favor and the rest unsure.

People in Hawaii take their libraries seriously. A hefty 80% of the population has a public library card, compared to a national average of 45%, Kane said.

The dispute over this much-loved public institution involves a philosophical clash and a turf war. Traditionalists argue that, unlike a bookstore stocking bestsellers, libraries fulfill an educational role by giving the public a high-quality, diverse array of materials. Librarians say they know their communities best and are professionally trained to build and maintain collections.

But Kane thinks Hawaii's experiment with privatization may prove to be a model for the 21st century.

"People are more universal than you might think," he said. "People in North Carolina, by and large, read the same books people in Hawaii read. Popular books are popular everywhere. . . .

"We're not an academic library. We're not a research library. Our primary purpose is to meet the popular reading habits of the public. I don't find popularity to be this negative thing."

Instead of stocking shelves, librarians should focus on "customer service," helping patrons find what they need, Kane said.

He blames much of the trouble on trying to do too much too fast. Along with privatizing book selection and supply, the library system signed up for a new automation system and a new online information service. But delays and legal challenges left Baker & Taylor without access to Hawaii's database or profiles of libraries' needs, forcing the company to buy 60,000 titles "blind" in less than two months.

"A vendor is only as good as the information we're given," said Arnie Wight, senior vice president for customized library services at Baker & Taylor. The company is working to remedy problems and hopes to communicate directly with branch librarians, he said.

Baker & Taylor, Wight said, had doubts about the wisdom of privatizing all book selection, but had to abide by state bid specifications.

"There should be some discretionary budget in the hands of the librarians," he said.

That appears to be the consensus elsewhere.

"We use vendors but we don't turn anything over to them," said Joanna Reagan, acting director of access and collections for the Los Angeles Public Library. "They can do a tremendous amount for us. . . . But we don't tell them, 'Buy what you think we'd like.' "

One California county, however, may soon one-up Hawaii's privatization effort. Riverside is seeking bidders to take on the "administration and operations of the Riverside County Free Library System."

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