A proposal to privatize the Kern County library system that's been quietly kicked around for months has agency supporters worried services would be cut.
The County Administrative Office, looking for ways to save money, plans to bring the idea to the Board of Supervisors for discussion by the end of March.
Library fans have already expressed concern.
"It has come to my attention that there is a forthcoming proposal to place the Kern County library system under private nonprofit management," Ann Wiederrecht wrote in an email to supervisors. "Such an idea is outrageous. The Kern County Library is truly a public service open to people of all ages and backgrounds."
"In order for a for-profit group to make a profit, it will be necessary to cut services even more than they have been and/or in some way start charging for services," wrote Bakersfield College luminary Jerry Ludeke in another email. "Free public libraries are an American treasure and a 'hand-up' for many in the culture."
County Employee Relations Officer Devin Brown said staff plans to move the issue into the public forum this month. The supervisors, he said, will decide "whether they want to move in this direction or whether they are comfortable with how the libraries are currently administered."
The county has also been negotiating the issue with the Service Employees International Union, which represents library employees, he said.
"There is no argument that public libraries are a vital resource for the community," Brown said.
But cities and counties across the country, facing tough financial times, have had to ask themselves how they can improve library services and add more hours and days of service with fewer resources, Brown said.
The idea that Kern County might take its 25 libraries and bookmobile operation private has been whispered around the county since supervisors hired Kern County Library Director Nancy Kerr in late October.
Kerr previously managed the Valencia Branch Library in the Santa Clarita library system, which was run by Library Systems & Services LLC, a for-profit Maryland company that runs public libraries across the nation.
That same company has shown an interest in Kern.
"I know that they have been engaged by other jurisdictions in the state," Brown said. "They're certainly players in this field."
Kerr did not return calls requesting comment on the privatization proposal. Deputy County Counsel Mark Nations said because Kerr was an LSSI employee, she has been directed to stay out of the discussion for a full year.
Supervisors, he said, will have to decide how to pick the company they would contract with to run the libraries.
Sasha Honig, a former professor at Bakersfield College, is concerned that turning Kern County's public libraries over to a profit-minded private corporation would compromise the egalitarian nature of that critical public resource.
She has volunteered at Beale Memorial Library in downtown Bakersfield and said the free access to the Internet on library computers, special resources like the Local History Room and especially the exceptionally trained library employees open up a world of knowledge to everyone.
"There you are surrounded by a richness of resources on (topics) you hadn't even thought about," Honig said. "It makes it possible for a person who maybe doesn't have a lot of money to connect with the culture of the world -- and maybe even the culture and politics of his community."
Supervisor Leticia Perez said libraries are especially critical to her constituents.
5th District residents, she said, are "disproportionally" poor, lack education and need job training.
"I am always desperate to figure out ways to extend library hours and extend services to the people of the 5th District," Perez said. "We have to have an open and honest discussion about how we maximize access to information."
She acknowledged that "the majority of (the) board" is interested in privatizing as many public services as possible.
"For my district, this is a matter of life and death," Perez said.
Retired Library Director Sherry Gomez said discussing the idea is worthwhile.
"If there is a way for the county to provide better service and more hours to the public while still respecting the employees of the library, then the idea of privatization is worth exploring," she said.
But former Kern County Library employee Angela Bennett said the idea of privatizing the library brings up so many questions she feels like Alice falling down the rabbit hole.
What will happen to library employees?
Will the libraries still recognize the unique nature of Kern County and the specific needs of its residents?
"Are we still going to be a part of the San Joaquin Valley Library System?" she asked.
But the biggest question is whether making the libraries private will compromise its duty to the public.
"You have access to the entire world in one room," Bennett said. "It's for the poor. It's for the retired. It's for people on limited income. It's for people teaching their children to read."