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Information for Social Change

Information for Social Change

"an activist organisation that examines issues of censorship, freedom and ethics amongst library and information workers..."

ISC 15. What does the future hold for our public libraries?

by Ruth Rikowski

On almost a daily basis we read in our newspapers about the part privatisation of different public service sectors - particularly in relation to schools and hospitals.

However, we do not find anything in the media about the privatisation of our libraries. Why is this? Is it because they are 'safe'- the last bastion of a civilised society? The public library - so often seen as a haven, a place that offers a sense of well-being, a community centre, a safe place, an exhibition centre, a place to read, think, discover, learn and explore different ideas. There can surely be no place where a sense of sharing is more powerful - borrowing books, returning books, the community sharing books, stories information and knowledge. But is the public library 'safe' in reality? Sadly not.

These are the issues that I address in an article that I wrote entitled The corporate takeover of libraries, for a special issue of Information for Social Change on the theme of Globalisation and Information, 2001-02 (which I was also the editor of). I begin with an historical analysis of public libraries in England, and show how England arrived at the free public library service that we take so much for granted today. I then show how our public libraries are now under threat because of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) that is being formulated at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). There is not space to consider this in any depth here, but I discuss the meaning of 'services' in terms of the GATS and whether our public libraries do, or are likely to fall under the GATS definition of 'services'. I show how the lack of clarity in the GATS document in regard to this means that it is quite possible that libraries will fall under the GATS - indeed, they already are. This is the logic of the GATS and the lack of clarity is, at least, convenient for those with a marketising agenda. (Rikowski, 2001a and 2001b)

In what ways, then, our are public libraries changing? The corporate takeover of libraries can be placed under three main categories - commercialisation, privatisation and capitalisation. Various examples of commercialisation can be given, but the obvious one is income generation. This has been taking place for a number of years in our public libraries. It includes selling items such as postcards, memorabilia, bookmarks, pens and other stationery items. Certain items are also hired out for a fee, such as videos, cassettes and CDs. Another example is market research - trying to predict library users want and needs; or more accurately 'consumers'. Under the marketisation agenda (following the logic of the GATS) people become 'consumers'. Southwark is using a library computer system called Talis, for example, in order to generate information that will help them to identify the characteristics of their library users and predict their future needs. Weiss in the Library Association Record, Aug 2000, reports on this, and notes how the information could be added to their library borrowers' card and Southwark could use it in a similar way to which Sainsburys uses its loyalty card. Micropayments is another area. For some time now, various parties have been trying to think of ways in which money can be made from searching and undertaking transactions on the Internet. Micropayments is seen to be the solution. This means that people pay small amounts of money (which could be as little as 0.1p) for undertaking transactions on the Internet. There have been various problems, though, in regard to bringing in Micropayments, such as security and trust. However, the White Paper on Micropayments drafted by StorageTek (2001) says that most of these problems have now been overcome, and that various options are now being set in place to make it easy for people to pay. If this were to become a reality, it would have significant implications for libraries. Through the Peoples' Network more and more public libraries are having computers installed and in ever-greater numbers - they are all getting 'wired up' to the Internet. So, this would presumably mean that libraries would also have to pay for undertaking transactions on the Internet - otherwise they would be seen to be a 'special case' which could go against the logic of the GATS. Thus, we witness the extension of the commercialisation of our libraries. The method in which library services would be required to pay would obviously need to be carefully thought out, but this is the direction in which things are moving.

Privatisation can be broken down into 3 main areas. First, is where private companies are running libraries (or parts of libraries) directly, for profit. There are some subscription libraries that would fall under this category. There are also company libraries that function to augment the capacity of the firm to make profits (e.g. libraries in law firms) and media libraries that generate revenue (e.g. newspaper libraries). However, there are also, significantly, examples of corporate capital moving into public sector libraries and electronic libraries setting up in competition with mainstream public and academic libraries, operating on a for-profit basis. Some IT centres/IT projects have been set up in public libraries by private companies. Ormes (1996) described how an Internet project called Cybercity was set up in Bath Central Library, for example, which provided the public with PCs and Internet access. The council could not afford to run the project, so it was run, for profit, by a local company called GlobalInternet. Input/Output is another company that has worked with public libraries across the country. Marylebone Library was the first of these. As well as providing Internet access, it also provided access to software packages such as word processing and spreadsheets and ran computer-training courses. Questia, net Library and ebrary are all examples of electronic libraries, (Crane, 2001; Fox, 2001). Questia, for example, is an Internet company aimed at serving students in an academic environment, providing online information from books, encyclopaedias and journals in the humanities and social sciences.

The second form of privatisation is where private companies make a profit out of running libraries at a lower cost than the price they are contracted to run them. This has just started to happen in England, in the London Borough of Haringey (LA Record, 2001c). Haringey received a very negative report by the Best Value Inspectors and this has resulted in Instant Library Ltd, under its co-founder Diana Edmunds, being given the 'opportunity' to turn Haringey library service round. They are on a 6-months trial, but if they are 'successful' I am sure that they will be allowed to continue running Haringey. Once one company is seen to be 'successful', then this will pave the way, and enable other companies to 'move into' our public libraries. Why was it that Haringey council was not given the opportunity to improve under Best Value; why were they not given better guidance? Haringey was one of the first councils to do a Best Value review and so were 'guinea pigs' in this respect. So, surely they should have been given extra assistance. But this would not have paved the way for a marketising agenda. It would not have enabled the private sector to make inroads into our public libraries. It needs to be noted that this is not a criticism of Instant Library Ltd itself - indeed it might help to provide Haringey with a good library service. The essential point to note is the fact that it has to make a profit, in a way that a local authority is not compelled to. Private companies, with the best will in the world, are not in a position to place the needs of the people in the local community above the need to make a profit.

The third form of privatisation is where the private sector takes over and runs capital projects, such as the building of a new central library or a service-wide ICT system. The Private Finance Initiative (PFI) comes under this category, and there are various examples of where PFI has been adopted in libraries. The first PFI to incorporate construction and IT solutions was undertaken in Bournemouth (Sibthorpe, 2001). It provided Bournemouth with a new central library and ICT facilities across its whole branch network. A 30-year contract between the Council and Information Resources (Bournemouth) Ltd was signed to build and facility-manage a new central library. There are other examples of PFI in libraries. Hackney Technology Learning Centre, which includes a new central library and museum, has used the PFI initiative to build its new library, which is due to open in April 2002. Kent County Council is operating a PFI contract for the provision, financing and operation of the council's IT system. This includes the library system and a public information network of over 1000 terminals. Brighton is also developing a new central library through PFI. (LA Record, 2000b, LA Record 2001a)

Finally, there is capitalisation. Capitalisation is a process that deepens over time, with libraries becoming sites for capital accumulation and profit making. The other two processes - commercialisation and privatisation - feed off each other such that libraries and library services become increasingly commodified and then capitalised. This implies that library services are increasingly ruled by the goal of profit making. Notions of income generation, income streams, marketing, library products, the user as 'customer' or 'consumer' and the market, competition and cost-effectiveness and efficiency become the yardsticks for success. This implies a 'culture change' regarding the ways library staff are encouraged to view what they are about. The capitalisation of libraries implies its businessification - the library and library services as businesses, bathed in business values and outlooks. Continual library reviews provide examples of the way in which this process has been working. The public library service in the London Borough of Newham has undergone two library reviews, for example and the first review resulted in the loss of a large number of professional librarians. Many other authorities have also undergone reviews.

These three categories, then, commercialisation, privatisation and capitalisation, together constitute a 'corporate takeover' of our public services. I have focused on libraries in this short article, but the model could be applied and adopted to other service sectors, because this is the reality in terms of where we are headed. However, this is not happening in abstraction from the GATS, as many people seem to believe, but is happening precisely because of the GATS.

There are also mechanisms that enable the GATS to take effect - these can be seen to be the national faces of the GATS. One example is the Best Value regime itself, which is encouraging a marketising agenda. As Angela Watson (2001) says in the Best Returns document on Best Value - "Under Best Value retaining library services in-house can only be justified where the authority demonstrates that there really are no other more efficient and effective ways of delivering the quality of service required. Library authorities should explore potential future providers and take steps to encourage them - to create a climate for competition that will enable the market to develop." (Section 5, para 5.1). Another example is Library Standards. There was a standard for qualified staff in the draft document (LA Record, 2000a), but this was removed in the final document (LA Record, 2001b). Now, services only have to show in their Annual Library Plans that they are employing "appropriate" numbers of qualified staff. To any professional librarian this would seem bizarre, but all becomes clear if we refer back to the GATS document itself, where it says that: "Wherever appropriate, recognition should be based on multilaterally agreed criteria. In appropriate cases Members shall work in co-operation with relevant inter-governmental and non-governmental organisations towards the establishment and adoption of common international standards and criteria for recognition and common international standards for the practice of relevant service trades and professions." (WTO, 1994, Article 7 of the GATS). Note that it does not say which members, and it is highly likely that corporations would have a large voice than other bodies. Furthermore, there is no mention of professional bodies having a voice at all. Where no such international standards exist then existing qualifications could be deemed to be a 'barrier to trade', if corporations are denied access to libraries on qualifications grounds. If a foreign supplier took over one of our public library services, for example, and brought staff with them from their own country, these staff might not have the requisite British library qualifications (or their equivalent). Not allowing such staff to work in this particular public library service could be interpreted as a 'barrier to trade'.

Finally, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) and other library associations are very concerned about the WTO/GATS agenda for libraries and how this is likely to shape the future of our libraries. IFLA says: "There is growing evidence that WTO decisions, directly or indirectly, may adversely affect the operations and future development of library services, especially in not-for-profit institutions." (IFLA, 2001) The British Columbia Library Association (BCLA) says simply: "Imagine a world without libraries - it could happen." And the Canadian Library Association (CLA) says that: "Privatization of libraries may result from the proposals for expansion of the GATS Agreement" (1999). Various other library associations have expressed similar concerns.

If we want to ensure that we retain our free public library service then we need to think about all this very carefully. We then need to think of ways in which we can change the tide, to ensure that our public libraries remain free and open to all, regardless of "age, religion, physical and mental health, social status, race, gender or language." (IFLA)

Further information on this subject can be obtained on the Information for Social Change (ISC) website at ISC is an organisation that is in liaison with the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP).

Ruth Rikowski was on the BBC Radio 4 'You and Yours' programme last October, which discussed the GATS, where she considered the likely implications of the GATS for libraries and information. She is the editor of the special ISC issue on Globalisation and Information, Winter 2001-02 and is the Book Reviews Editor for Managing Information.


BCLA (und) Imagine a world without libraries - it could happen... the British Columbia Library Association, Vancouver, at: (Undated: accessed at 15th August 2001).

Crane, Gregory (2001) Commercial digital libraries and the academic community D-Lib magazine, January, Vol. 7, No 1

Fox, Megan (2001) Questia, and the for-profit online library trend Simmons College Libraries Newsletter, Spring 2001. http://w //resources/libraries/LibNewsletter

IFLA (2001) The IFLA position on the WTO treaty negotiations, International Federation of Library Associations & Institutions, version II, September (previous version was February 2001), at:

LA Record (2000a) Standards make hearts beat faster (Public Libraries), a news item in Library Association Record, August, vol.102 no.8, p.426.

LA Record (2000b) PFI Library First, a news item in Library Association Record, October, vol.102 no.10, p.545.

LA Record (2001a) Hackney turns the corner - public libraries, a news item in Library Association Record, February, vol.103 no.2, p.67.

LA Record (2001b) More demands fall on staff: public library standards, a news item in Library Association Record, March, vol.103 no.3, p.131.

LA Record (2001c) Consultants move in (public libraries), a news item in Library Association Record, September, vol.103 no.9, p.515.

Ormes, Sarah (1996) Public libraries corner: commercial partnerships in the public library, Ariadne, Issue 5, September, at:

Rikowski, Ruth (2001a) GATS: private affluence and public squalor? Implications for libraries and information, Managing Information, Dec, Vol. 8, No. 10, pp.8-10

Rikowski, Ruth (2001b) The corporate takeover of libraries, Information for Social Change, No. 14, Winter 2001/02

Sibthorpe, Ritchie (2001) A new path to follow - Private Finance Initiative, Library Association Record, April, vol.103 no.4, pp.236-237.

Storage Tek (2001) Miocropayments: making net profits - a Storage Tek perspective, White Paper on Miropayments, Woking: Storage Technology Corporation, UK

Watson, Angela (2001) Best Returns: Best Value Guidance for Local Authorities in England, 2nd Edition, July, at:

Weiss, Helen (2000) Tracking usage patterns: how management information systems can help librarians adapt commercial marketing techniques to revolutionise their services, Library Association Record, August, Vol. 102, No, 8, pp.448-449

WTO (1994) General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), World Trade Organisation, at

Ruth Rikowski, London, 17th April 2002, Email: rikowskiat


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