Huntsville transfers library to private management due to censorship issues

In Huntsville, the public library has been controversial for months.

In September, city officials ordered librarians to remove displays of books featuring LGBTQ characters and themes. Shortly thereafter, the city librarian was put on leave, and library patrons spoke of a policeman checking the contents of books at the lending desk.

The library will soon be under completely new management. Last month, the Huntsville City Council approved a deal with Library Systems and Services (LS&S), a private library management company. The company is expected to take over by the end of January and has a 10-year contract with the city.

Kelly Jensen, writer and former librarian, covered the library for Book Riot. She spoke to the Texas Standard about the implications of privatizing local libraries. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity:

Texas Standard: How unusual is this move for a library to enter into a private management deal like this?

Kelly Jensen: So it’s pretty unusual and I think it’s even more unusual than it was in the past when we were in recession on September 10, 2008 – that’s been a bit more common in this area. But this is the first story I’ve seen of this happening in a long time.

Well, let me first ask how the privately run Huntsville Library might change.

So, private management is those who are in charge of the library. Generally, and I know this is how it works in Texas, the public library is part of the city government. It may have a board that manages most of its operations and makes high-level decisions. But in the case of Huntsville, all decisions will now be made by LS&S. So they have a reputation for coming in and completely changing the public library. And on purpose they come and are very concerned about how the collection looks. So the books in the library, the movies, they won’t be there to hear the opinions of the visitors. They won’t be there to truly curate the library through its collections, through its programs, through its city-focused staff – who are tailor-made for the people of Huntsville.

Why involve a private company for this? And to what extent is this related to the LGBTQ book controversy?

So one of the big reasons these companies go for it is because it’s a cost-saving measure, or ostensibly a cost-saving measure. And here is the argument that the Huntsville City Council made when they said that within ten years they would save X amount of money to go that route. But it’s hard not to see the connection between this decision and the city council’s recent actions, which not only removed the Pride exhibit, but removed the banned books display and sent the city librarian on leave for some time. The decision was made without any notice to the residents of Huntsville. It arrived without notifying the library board. So this decision was completely made by the city council and made very quickly, without any involvement from the community or the library itself.

What about library users in Huntsville? What did they say about this change?

They didn’t know it was happening until it was known that the vote had taken place. So the reaction surprised me the most. And, of course, there were citizens in the city who were loudly saying how unhappy they were with this decision that the city council made over the past few months. Therefore, it is not surprising that these people are not only unhappy, but also worried about what the public library will look like now.

To what extent is this a way to insulate the city from any complaints, liability issues or anything like that? In other words, how would you isolate political officials from running this library?

Well, since LS&S now has to report to the city, they will listen to what the city has to say. So it deprives librarians and librarians of a whole layer of experience and professionalism and instead puts it in the hands of city politicians, city leaders. And so it won’t be a surprise if we see this kind of lockdown, if we don’t see this kind of removal of books that don’t fit with what one city council member thinks a library should have.

What happens to current library staff?

In its current form, their work ends at the end of January. And if they want to continue their job, they must reapply and re-interview.

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