CounterSpin interview with Caleb Nichols on defending public libraries
Janine Jackson interviewed librarian Caleb Nichols about defending public libraries for the December 17, 2021, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: Even if we don’t see a written-out master plan, the banning of books, the attacks on teaching real US history, the efforts to push out professors with views that transgress official US policy: In their myriad forms, these actions tell us that it’s important to powerful people to restrict what ideas people can access. It’s the land of the free and the home of the brave—except if you want to know what’s happened, and happens, here, or to tell people about it.
It all shows us the power of ideas. As infuriating and sad and enervating as it all is, it reminds us that knowledge is power.
So if you are someone who wants to know about the world, and if you aren’t in a position to buy books to read, you might, as many of us did and do, go to the library. That’s the place where you don’t have to pay to sit down, you don’t have to buy a book or a coffee in order to read. Libraries aren’t just a meaningful reality, but also a meaningful symbol of the fact that there is a thing called the public interest, and it’s a thing that the state, that thing we’re all a part of, that we support with taxes—yes, even those of us who aren’t documented citizens, but human beings who work and contribute to others and pay taxes—have a say in.
So it matters a great deal that this critical, loved public institution is under threat of usurpation, by the same folks who think that there should be nothing, nothing, that private-sector, profit-oriented rich people don’t own and control. Do you care about libraries that let anyone in and support anyone’s interest in learning? Well, then get ready to fight, because that space—that idea—is on the ropes.
CounterSpin listeners know about the daylight, slow-motion assault on the US Postal Service, led by Trump supporter Louis DeJoy, which seems intent on worsening services and jobs with a thinly veiled, long held goal of privatization. Some people just can’t abide a public institution that serves people regardless of status, and without making a handful of rich people richer.
But you might not know that a similar sort of effort is underway, targeted at another venerable and stubbornly public institution: public libraries.
Caleb Nichols is a librarian as well as a writer, poet and musician, currently course reserves coordinator at Cal Poly/San Luis Obispo. His eye-opening article, “Public/Private Partnerships Are Quietly Hollowing Out Our Public Libraries,” was published recently on Truthout.org.
He joins us now by phone from San Luis Obispo. Welcome to CounterSpin, Caleb Nichols.
Caleb Nichols: Thank you so much for having me.
JJ: I really just want to ask you to take us through the information in this piece; I know it’s going to be new to a lot of people. I will start, though, with my own intense aversion to the way corporate media lift up the notion of “public/private partnership” as the holy grail for US society; the implication, of course, is that the state is always going to muck it up unless some profit-driven folks get in there to show ’em how it’s done. It’s such an ideologically driven bill of goods. But start us off, maybe with Riverside County, 1997, or wherever you think the story starts.
CN: Sure, yeah, I can start there. But I can also start by saying that the reason I found this is just because I’m a concerned librarian person who just happened to stumble upon this thing.
And so, yeah, going to Riverside, there’s this company, Library Systems & Services. It’s a private company that used to go into municipalities and county governments that were having financial problems, and offer to cut the public library budget. They were offering to operate it at a fraction of the cost, while increasing services. So this was their business model in the ’90s.
But what alarms me is that they’ve moved from ailing public services or public agencies; they’re not just targeting municipal governments that are doing poorly. They’re actually moving into the public sector in places that are doing great. So this is moving from maybe phase one to phase two of this grift, as I call it in my article.
CN: And so the concerning, alarming thing for me was, I found this out because I was perusing job ads on Indeed.com, and I saw something that just raised a little red flag, which was I saw a job opportunity for a librarian, a professional librarian role, and it had an hourly salary, which is unusual for that role, because these are master’s degree–level jobs.
JJ: What was the M.O. there? What was the story there? Well, we’re going to take over the management of this library, and we’re going to save the county—in other words, we’re going to save the public—money, I guess is the way they presented themselves.
CN: Yeah, so the company goes in and says, look, your library is one of the things that’s sapping all of this money from your budget, and we can fix that for you. And we can increase your services. And then, of course, that is partially true, in terms of this company has a record of going into a public library, taking over management of it, and reducing the amount of money that the county has to spend, or the city has to spend. But all of that is on the backs of workers.
CN: And so it’s all about slashing pensions, slashing pay from salaries to hourly rates, kind of nickel-and-diming workers. And that does save money. But the other dimension to that is that these are library budgets and county budgets that are miniscule compared to the other things that money is being spent on. So it’s this sort of race to zero idea of, there’s already not really much money. So in the case of Riverside, and I go over this in the article, they kind of have this narrative, it’s their flagship case, it’s like, look at what the private sector can do for the public sector. Look at how much better we are at running this.
But really, if you look at the amount of money that Riverside was spending on their libraries, it just wasn’t enough money. It just wasn’t a good fraction of the budget. And also the savings that they claimed to have engineered come from places that are not necessarily linked to what this company has actually done. It’s all kind of a shell game, scam, illusion. It’s a grift.
And the same people that are running this company are the same usual suspects as have done other grifting, notably the Scantron Corporation, which has arguably changed the way that we do public education in the United States—for the worse, if you ask most people. The CEO of Library Systems & Services came from the Scantron Corporation. So these are people with experience in this type of, we are going to take our private interests into the public and capitalize off of taxpayer dollars without being accountable.
JJ: I’m going to bring you to accountability in a second. But can you give us a quick story about Scantron? What happened there?
CN: With Scantron, the story is that this company created this product, and sold it very successfully to US K-12 public education, and changed the nature of how we assess the learning of students, reducing it from a conversation, for example. Say I’m a teacher. I’ve got 20 students, 30 students. What’s easier, me giving them critical comments on their work and engaging with them one-on-one, or feeding them this multiple-choice exam and letting a machine do the work of grading, and saying, well, this is your grade?
One of the things that I do is I teach composition for first-year college students. And grading is really tough, assessing is really tough. Having those kinds of conversations is tough. It’s part of the work of an instructor.
So Scantron went in and promised that they would be relieving teachers and districts of all of this labor. And that’s partially true. But, again, it did something very permanent-feeling and very massive to public education. It turned it into this quantitative analysis of student learning outcomes, moving it away from something which I would just frankly say is a lot more wholesome and useful, which is assessing students individually.
But at the same time, let’s not lose sight of why did this happen? Well, these people, this company, wanted to make a ton of money. And they have made themselves necessary. They’ve inserted themselves so successfully that Scantron’s like Google. You don’t say, oh, I need a multiple-choice document that can be fed through a machine. You say I need a Scantron. A Scantron is an item, but that’s just the name of the company. So it’s become this ubiquitous commodity that is necessary to all levels of public education, K-12 and in the university as well.
So this is also maybe an American capitalism 101 idea of how this kind of thing works. But do we really want that to be the way our public commons, our public goods, are run? No, I don’t think so.
JJ: And I think we have to acknowledge that when we talk about moving away from any kind of holistic instructor/student relationship, we’re not talking about wealthy people. They still value personal and specific communication. When we talk about running numbers through a machine, we’re talking about everybody else.
CN: We’re talking about people who are using the public education system and, yeah, we’re not talking about people who are sending their kids to Montessori K-8, and then on to something else private. You’re exactly right about that. It’s a two-tiered system, or a multi-tiered system. But there are the haves and have nots, and this is for the rest of us.
Let’s talk about transparency and accountability, because when we hear this language, which gives me the creeps, “public/private partnership,” there is at least, OK, what’s the public part, you know? Well, the public part, minimally, ought to be if citizens, taxpayers are supporting this, then we should have accountability. We should be able to see what’s happening. But when it comes to LS&S and libraries, that’s not there.
CN: That’s right. And the public part of this equation is just the money.
CN: Literally. The money that they’re taking from us, and doing who knows what with. Because that’s exactly right. We don’t have any tools to hold this company accountable for how they’re spending public dollars, and that’s a huge problem. Because one of the benefits of having public-sector entities doing things with our money, running our public goods, is that we can look and see what they’re doing. And we can hold them to account. You know, it’s not as if librarians and county librarians are elected officials, or maybe they should be. But at least we can see what’s happening, and we can go to the county board of supervisors meeting and say, you know what, I don’t like what the library’s doing with our tax dollars, and here is something that they’re doing.
And of course that cuts both ways. I mean, right now and always, public libraries, and other public institutions like K-12 schools, are constantly under assault from people who are trying to censor materials, like the thing that’s going on in Texas right now.
CN: So the public thing cuts both ways. It’s a two-way street. But it’s far better to be able to show up to that meeting and post a public comment and have some control over your tax dollars, however your politics are. If you’re a person who wants to censor trans people having books in libraries, OK, fine. Not fine with me, but I’m just saying that that is a far superior model. It’s called democracy, right?
JJ: Tell us a little bit more. Because I know that folks have never heard Library Systems & Services. It’s not a company that’s very much in the public view, although they have a tremendous amount of say, an increasing amount of say, over what people can read, what information people can access. So what more, maybe, should we know about this company?
CN: I think that we should just know that they exist, first and foremost. Like I said earlier, I was really shocked when I discovered all of this, to the point where I wasn’t quite sure for a little while that I had anything, really, that there was much to it. Because I was thinking, well, of course if this was a thing, someone else would have really sounded the alarm a lot more thoroughly. And in my initial research, I did find that some people had already written about this. I mean, this has been reported on in the New York Times. Daily Kos did a thing on it. There were some articles.
But the thing I think that’s missing is that the media hasn’t picked up enough on it, and hasn’t scrutinized this company. Like I said before this interview, I am not an investigative journalist. I’m a poet and a songwriter and a librarian. These are the things that I do. So research is in my wheelhouse, as a librarian. But not, like, John Oliver–level. And maybe he should pick this story up, ’cause it’s a pretty good one.
CN: But the thing that people need to know, first and foremost, is that there is a private, for-profit company that is trying to privatize as many public libraries as they possibly can. And why is that? That right there for me is enough to go whoa, whoa, whoa, something’s really wrong.
And so on that same note, I don’t understand why American Library Association, for example, is not coming out much more forcefully against this happening, and is not being much more pivotal in forwarding this discussion. There are non-profit groups, like Every Library that has been working on individual cases where libraries are trying to be privatized by this company. But why isn’t the professional organization that governs all of librarianship, literally accredits the schools that give us our master’s degrees, why aren’t they protecting this most precious public good? So that’s a big question that I have. But also, like, where’s the rest of the media?
Why aren’t we talking about this? ‘Cause it’s happening. According to LS&S, they have 80 public library systems they are operating, making them the third-biggest public library operator in the country. I guess that’s probably behind New York Public Library, and maybe LA? I’m not really sure what exactly their metric is. But they’re bragging about that on their website. So I’m just like, no no no no no no; that can’t be how this is.
Because Americans love public libraries. And they love the public part of public libraries. It is one of these things that’s like, we all love the post office and we all love libraries. We can kind of agree on that. And as you mentioned before, the post office is another example of where this kind of attack is happening.
And so I think it has a lot to do with pensions. But I also just think it has a lot to do with private companies wanting to show that they’re better at running these services than public organizations are, which is not true, by the way.
JJ: Yeah. And a shrinking of the commons and of the understanding of what we can do together, you know, outside of corporations. And it is funny, the non-response, or non-forceful response, from the ALA, because librarians are often and have often been canaries in the coal mine, you know?
JJ: That say there’s an encroachment, there’s a predation on our right to know, our fundamental right to information, and often, whether or not they’ve been listened to, librarians have been at the front of that.
CN: Yes, and I would say that really relates pretty tragically to one of the problems with a company like LS&S operating public libraries, which is this vertical integration idea where they also, the same company, and I know less about this, so I want to be careful with what I say, but the same company has interests in vendors who publish books and who control distribution. And so there’s just a lot of potential for the information loop to be a closed loop that’s controlled by one company, and not by degreed, trained, publicly accountable librarians, who should be the ones curating books for their communities, in concert with their communities. I mean, if you’re a public librarian or university librarian, school librarian—collection development, and what you buy for the public to have access to, you do it in tandem with your public that you’re serving; it’s not in a vacuum.
And so what you’re saying about information, this is why it’s crazy to me that ALA is not more alarmed at this. Because it cuts at the heart of the profession, too. And this is all about workers’ rights. This is all about private companies giving the finger to workers, and saying we don’t really value your labor. Which is not surprising, right? I mean, there’s a fundamental shift happening across this country, where I think, happily, a lot of workers are realizing their value.
But companies are perennially saying, well, we don’t really value your labor. We don’t value anything about your life. We just need you to show up, punch the clock, die in a tornado in a warehouse in the Midwest, you know. It’s not pretty.
And I think that this company taking away benefits from people, changing contracts, busting unions, just by virtue of their takeover of the management, it’s really alarming, it’s really concerning. They’re preying on this attitude that people have—they’ve been trained to have, I would say, since the ‘80s, maybe the ‘70s—that public workers are lazy. And it’s just not true.
JJ: Just taking, just taking, yeah.
CN: Yeah, that we’re leeches, that we just take and take and take. And I point out in the article, what do you think the CEOs of companies are doing? There’s one class of people in this country that takes and takes and takes, and that is the 1%, the elite class. So it’s like a term in psychology, projection.
CN: This is what this is.
JJ: Exactly. And it’s such a shadowy argument, where you say, well, we’re saving the county or the municipality money. But then if you’re saving it by cutting union jobs, if you’re saving it by cutting services or by cutting people’s wages, well, then those are people who have less money to contribute to the community. You can’t just take it away over here and then say, oh, but we’re giving it back over here. It does rely on people not understanding exactly what’s going on.
CN: It relies on that same stereotype of the lazy government worker. And so you definitely have people, if you delve into the comments section of many places, you know that this stereotype is not only persistent, it is very prolific. A lot of people have this idea. It’s almost like a meme, right: the government worker who is lazy and hates you. Like at the DMV, and he’s like, no, you’ve got to fill out this form now and go back to the back of the line.
So they’re preying upon this stereotype. And that works to some degree, because people love to save money. We’re also in that neoliberal mindset still of, like, it’s great to save money. This is why Amazon became such a huge company. It’s like, I can have that book for one dollar. It’s this race to the bottom idea that things shouldn’t have value. Because giant companies have told us, oh no, you want to save the most money, you don’t actually want to spend money on anything. Everything that’s good is really cheap, which is, of course, really, really, really toxic.
JJ: As long as you don’t see the back end, as long as you don’t see who’s suffering from that, yeah.
CN: As long as you don’t see who’s suffering. Or as long as you don’t see, well, why is it possible that these things could cost almost nothing? Someone’s paying the price. There’s a lyric in a Belle and Sebastian song, they’re one of my favorite bands out of the UK, that says basically the same thing. It says, “Someone else pays the real price of my cheap flight life.” And that’s just how it is.
And so I think this is an example of that on an extremely local, domestic level. The people that would be paying the price for this initially would be librarians and library staff. But then, eventually, who’s going to pay the price? The whole community’s going to pay the price, if we allow our libraries to be taken over like this.
JJ: Just finally, you say in the piece, “In the absence of institutional intervention or public outcry, LS&S will continue to gobble up public library systems.” So maybe a minute on what would lead to that outcry, and maybe a role that journalists could play?
CN: I hope so. Again, I am not an investigative journalist, nor do I want to be. And hats off to the people that do that work. I would like to keep writing poems, and have them put in public libraries. But I hope that others do hear about this and take it more seriously. Because, you know, I think the New York Times piece about LS&S was 10 years ago, about, maybe a decade ago. Maybe 2010, is what my memory is saying. That’s a long decade of not much else happening, or being written about them.
And we’ve got to wake up, because they are proudly trumpeting the fact that they have 80 libraries under their control, under their management. They’re pivoting, I think, into this territory of, like, they’re about to get ready to tell the world about how great they are, and the great things, the miracles, they’re performing. And I think that’s the big red flag for me. They’re a big company, they’re doing a lot of stuff.
So I think it’s time that someone really took it seriously, or lots of people took it seriously. And I think people in communities across the country who have had experience with LS&S know this. Like, for example, not in the article, but I talked to a couple of different library directors who had had close calls, where their county governments were considering LS&S. And because of Change.org petitions, or just savvy library directors who were able to convince the governments that they serve that this was a bad idea, they were able to fend these things off, this takeover off.
But I think we need to sound the alarm a lot more widely, because it should be that when LS&S comes to town, the public goes, firmly, no. Because I know—I mean, you look at Pew research data, public libraries are cherished. There’s no doubt about that. People love how they are currently. There’s no improvement that needs to happen. I mean, of course everything can always improve. But this is not something that people really want. This is something that is being sneakily put onto people, quietly, and, yeah. We’ve got to stop it.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Caleb Nichols. Their important article, “Public/Private Partnerships Are Quietly Hollowing Out Our Public Libraries,” can be found on Truthout.org. Caleb Nichols, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
CN: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure.