SANTA CLARITA, Calif. — A private company, Library Systems & Services, in Maryland, has taken over public libraries in ailing cities in California, Oregon, Tennessee and Texas, growing into the country’s fifth-largest library system.
The basic pitch that the company L.S.S.I. makes to cities is that it fixes broken libraries — often by cleaning house.
Now the company, has been hired for the first time to run a system in a relatively healthy city, setting off an intense and often acrimonious debate about the role of outsourcing in a ravaged economy.
A $4 million deal to run the three libraries here is a chance for the company to demonstrate that a dose of private management can be good for communities, whatever their financial situation. But in an era when outsourcing is most often an act of budget desperation — with janitors, police forces and even entire city halls farmed out in one town or another — the contract in Santa Clarita has touched a deep nerve and begun a round of second-guessing.
Can a municipal service like a library hold so central a place that it should be entrusted to a profit-driven contractor only as a last resort — and maybe not even then?
The company is majority owned by Islington Capital Partners, a private equity firm in Boston, and has about $35 million in annual revenue and 800 employees. Officials would not discuss the company’s profitability.