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Huntsville turns library over to private management after censorship concerns

Huntsville_May_2022_21_(Huntsville_Public_Library).jpeg
Michael Barera, CC BY-SA 4.0
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Wikimedia Commons

In Huntsville, the public library has been a source of controversy for months.

City officials told librarians in September to remove displays about books featuring LGBTQ characters and themes. Shortly after, the city’s librarian was placed on leave, and library patrons spoke out about a police officer checking the content of books behind the circulation desk.

The library will soon be under entirely new management. The Huntsville City Council approved a deal last month with Library Systems and Services (LS&S), a private library operations company. The company is expected to take over by the end of January, and its contract with the city lasts 10 years.

Kelly Jensen, a writer and former librarian, covered what’s happening at the library for Book Riot. She spoke to the Texas Standard about the effects of privatization at local libraries. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly 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 it’s become, I guess, more unusual than it has in the past when we were in the recession in the 2008/09/10 – that area was a little bit more common to see happen. But this is the first story I’ve seen of this happening in quite a while.

Well, let me ask first how the Huntsville Library might be different under private management. 

So the private management, they are the ones who are in charge of the library. Typically, and I know that this is the way it works in Texas, the public library is part of the city government. It might have a board that runs most of its operations and makes its big-level decisions. But in the case of Huntsville, now, it will be LS&S, which takes over all the decision making. So they have a reputation for coming in and changing the entire feel of a public library. And specifically they come in and they are very concerned about what the collection looks like. So what the books are that are in the library, the movies – they won’t be there to hear input from patrons. They won’t be there to really curate a library through its collections, through its programing, through its staff that is focused on the city – that is made to be specifically for Huntsville residents.

Why bring in a private company to do this? And to what extent is this related to the controversy over LGBTQ books?

So one of the big reasons these companies come in to do this is it’s a cost-savings measure, or purportedly a cost-savings measure. And so that’s the reasoning that the Huntsville City Council gave for this, saying that over the course of ten years they’ll save X amount of money for going this route. But it is hard to not see the connection between this decision and the recent actions by the city council to, not just remove a Pride display, but to remove a banned books display and to put the city librarian on leave for a bit. The decision came without any notice to the citizens of Huntsville. It came without notice to the library board. So this was a decision made wholly within the city council and done so in a really quick way without any input from community or the library itself.

What about library users in Huntsville? What have they had to say about this change?

They didn’t know it was happening until the news came out that the vote was made. So reaction has been of surprise more than anything. And there’s certainly been citizens within the city who have been vocal about how unhappy they’ve been over the last few months with this decision city council has made. And so it’s no surprise that those folks are also not only unhappy, but worried about what the public library’s going to look like from here on out.

To what extent is this a way to insulate the city from any complaints or liability concerns or anything along those lines? In other words, sort of insulating political officials from the running of this library?

Well, since LS&S now has to report to the city, they’re going to listen to what the city has to say. So this takes out a whole layer of expertise and professionalism from librarians and library workers 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 insulation, if we don’t see this kind of removing of books that don’t align with what one person on city council believes should be in the library. 

What happens to the current library employees?

So as it stands now, their jobs end at the end of January. And if they would like to continue their employment, they have to reapply and re-interview for their jobs.

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