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Hernando officials weigh library offer from LSSI, a Maryland for-profit company

Hoping to witness some residents pursuing knowledge at a sacred public institution, I stopped by the West Hernando branch library Monday morning — and found the parking lot empty.

Then I remembered. After last year's cutbacks, it doesn't open until noon on Mondays. Neither does the Main Library in Brooksville, which I didn't realize until I drove across the county and pulled into another deserted lot.

That's when I started to think harder about the column that I'd planned to write, one influenced by talking to Elaine Orlando, 73, a retired reference librarian from New York.

She is circulating a petition to prevent the county from handing the operation of Hernando's libraries over to a for-profit company.

I was inclined to think, as she does, that this is sort of like the Catholic church outsourcing Communion.

Because what purer form of democracy is there than libraries? Open to all; creating well-informed citizens and voters; spreading opportunity through self-education. Orlando, quoting Benjamin Franklin, called them the "people's university.''

And, just because I lost track of the Main Library's operating hours doesn't mean I don't go there frequently. I do. It's almost always packed. The librarians are usually well informed and helpful. The selection of books is about as thoughtful and complete as can be expected.

"The quality of service has always been excellent,'' Orlando said.

Right. So, why mess with it?

Well, we probably shouldn't. But the county has received a tempting offer from Library Systems & Services, also known as LSSI, which is based in Maryland.

The company says it can save the county $500,000 if it maintains the current hours, and $360,000 if it restores the hours cut last year. The company would rehire most of the current staffers, said company vice president George Bateman, and it would not set policy or select books.

Still, this would be a big step, even an experimental one.

Only 13 local governments across the country — none in Florida — have contracted with LSSI. Some of the clients, such as a county in Oregon that had briefly shut its libraries altogether, turned to the company only as a last resort.

And Barbara Shiflett, director of library services in Hernando, listed some of her concerns in a recent memo — that this might mean a fight with the county workers' newly elected union, that volunteers might not want to pitch in for a money-making enterprise, that LSSI would hire cheaper, less-qualified employees.

On the other hand, I think of those closed doors.

In the past two years, the library has seen nothing but cuts: Its budget has gone down by $644,000, to $2.5 million, its staff by the equivalent of 11.5 employees, the hours of operation at the Main Library, which is typical, from 54 to 40 per week.

Next year will mean less money and, I worry, even fewer hours and fewer new books and computers. So the county has been forced to at least consider LSSI's pitch, County Administrator David Hamilton said. He's referred it to a committee led by Commissioner Rose Rocco.

"It simply has to see the light of day,'' he said.

I guess it does. Because this is the kind of compromise we're forced to make when we decide we hate taxes more than we love democracy.

Hernando officials weigh library offer from LSSI, a Maryland for-profit company 03/30/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 30, 2009 7:46pm]
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