Inside an outsourced library

Redding residents applaud having a private company run their library
Tiffinni O'Hara of Redding and her daughter Gracie, 3, use computers in the children's section of the Redding Library. Jim Craven 5/31/2007Jim Craven

REDDING, Calif. — Denise Dodge stepped inside the two-month-old Redding Public Library for the first time on Thursday, marveling at the array of books, computers, CDs and videos in the gleaming new building.

A truck driver by trade, the 40-year-old Redding resident said, "I wish I had this when I was young and my kids were young."

A comparison of counties

Shasta County Population: 180,000

Per capita spending on libraries: $11

Number of libraries: Three — one main library in Redding and two smaller branches in Anderson and Burney.

Annual cost to run libraries: $1.9 million

Operator: Outsourced to Library Systems and Services LLC of Maryland. Annual contract is $1.44 million. Remainder of budget pays for maintenance, utilities and overhead by city of Redding.

Jackson County Population: 195,000

Per capita spending on libraries: $43

Number of libraries: 15 with one main facility in Medford and branches in outlying communities.

Annual cost to run libraries: $8.3 million

Operator: Library operations were run by the county until branches closed April 6.

Dodge, who discovered she could check out books on CD for her long drives across country, said she had no idea the library was managed not by local government but by a Maryland company.

Based on her experience, she said she had only praise for the level of service and number of options available.

"This should have been done a long time ago," she said.

In September 2006, the city of Redding, two hours south of Medford on Interstate 5, decided to outsource the running of the three libraries in Shasta County to Library Systems and Services LLC (known by the acronym LSSI). Shasta County has struggled for decades to try to keep libraries open and has gone through financial downturns similar to what Jackson County faced leading up to the closure of all 15 branches here on April 6.

Jackson County is considering outsourcing the management of libraries as one option that could help bring costs down. Jackson County's library budget is $8.3 million to operate the libraries itself. County Administrator Danny Jordan said a preliminary estimate to outsource operations locally is $5 million, but maintenance and utilities could still cost an additional $1.5 million.

The county is going through a process to get a better idea of what it would cost to reopen libraries and how to pay for them.

In Shasta County, the number of libraries dwindled from 23 to 15 in 1985, then down to 10 in 1987, but they closed later that year. In 1988 seven libraries reopened as lending facilities only, but by March of that year seven branches were closed. The three branches that opened later are in Redding, Burney and Anderson. Over the years they libraries have closed for short periods or the hours have been cut back until an outside company took over.

With the continued perserverance of local residents, the libraries have finally found a more secure footing.

Looking back, Peggy O'Lea, president of the Shasta Library Foundation, said, "We have to pinch ourselves. Did we really do this?"

During those years, she said everything changed about the library system, from shifting governance from the county to the city, to the way it's funded and to the way it's managed.

The new Redding library cost $20 million and was paid for through $12 million in grants from the state of California along with $8 million raised locally. O'Lea, who would like to have a bigger library system to better serve local residents, said her county spends about $10 per capita for library operations. When its libraries were open, Jackson County spent $43.

Dodge and her 4-year-old grandson Alex Brown, who was paying his first trip to a library, were among about 200 patrons Thursday at the new 55,000 square-foot facility, which was designed as a "green" building. By comparison, the 83,000 square-foot Medford library cost $13.2 million.

O'Lea said the success of the library definitely shows how much a modern facility is needed in her community. "That library is packed every single day," she said.

Making the decision to outsource library services came after a long and arduous process.

Randy Bachman, assistant city manager, said the county's financial troubles began after the passage of Proposition 13, a 1978 initiative that limited property taxes.

The county had been running the libraries, but ultimately officials concluded it would be better for the city to become the lead agency.

"The city was in a better position because we provide those kind of cultural services," he said.

However both the county and city share in the costs of running the libraries under a five-year contract.

With a $1.9 million overall budget, the city found that it could only offer limited hours at the libraries. The main Redding library could only be open 40 hours a week.

At this point, the city began looking at outsourcing. LSSI agreed to run the libraries with more operating hours for $1.44 million with 25 full-time employees. The Redding library is now open 60 hours, seven days a week. The remainder of the 1.9 million budget pays for building maintenance, utilities and some overhead costs.

Bachman said the city several times solicited proposals from other companies, but only got one answer back from LSSI, which was already running the library system in Riverside, Calif.

The two other branches are smaller and operate with five full-time employees. The Burney branch is open 24 hours a week and Anderson is open 39 hours a week.

Other patrons at the Redding library on Thursday were either not aware that an outside firm managed the facility, or generally welcomed the change. Much of the praise was directed at the new library facility.

"Everybody's so friendly," said Tiffanni O'Hara, for her first visit to the new library. Her 3-year-old daughter Gracie showed off her new library card she'd just received.

O'Hara said she had no idea the library was managed by an outside firm. However, she didn't like the idea that the main headquarters for the company was in another state.

Patricia Bamford said she's noticed a big difference in the operation, with shorter lines and more computers available. But she did think fewer staff members were available.

"I certainly miss the personal touch," said the 73-year-old Redding resident.

Donna McGill has also noticed the library operates more efficiently.

"It's a lot quicker," she said. Asked if she knew the library was run by an outside firm, 31-year-old Redding resident responded, "I had no idea."

Dan Titus knew all about the changeover, saying, "It's very cost effective."

He said the employees are helpful, but unruly children in the library were a problem. "They are irritating to the point where you want to say 'cool it'," he said.

Redding resident Holly Weld said she likes the change, adding, "I'm really glad it's open more hours." The 18-year-old, who attends Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif. on the coast, said she didn't really notice much difference in the overall management of the library. "It has the same sort of feel to me," she said.

When LSSI took over the operation, they hired some of the employees who formerly worked for the city.

Librarian Gabe Burke said everyone was offered a job either at the city or at the library.

He said that in working with LSSI he doesn't live with the annual fear that he may lose his job. Also, he could transfer within the company if he wanted. "I almost feel more secure with LSSI," he said.

Burke said his salary is similar to what he was getting previously and his benefits are comparable. "I'm not losing any money," he said.

Redding branch manager Martee Boban said the salary is comparable, and the vacation and sick leave also are about the same working for a private company. "I love working for LSSI," she said.

Linda Mielke, Redding interim library director who works for LSSI, said Jackson County obviously has a lot work ahead to figure out how to reopen libraries and rethink how many libraries it can afford.

"We're professional librarians," she said. "We would rather cry than close a library."

Reacting to news about the closure of Jackson County's libraries, Redding residents expressed sympathy.

"That's a shame," said Patricia Bamford.

Denise Dodge said that without libraries, it hurts children seeking a good education. "Nowadays kids need encouragement to study," she said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.


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