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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 16. The Quiet Storm

By Jane Mackenzie

Imagine living in a country where anti-capitalist books are banned from libraries, the only reading materials available are fluffy novels, and librarians are anarchist outcasts. If the privatisation of libraries continues that is where we are heading.

The library of the future smells of coffee. Not surprising since there's a coffee bar inside. Customers queue to pay their borrowing fee for books at the automated date-stamping machines. A frustrated student gives up his computerised search for a history reference book, but not before fending off several adverts based on his previous reading habits. There are no seats, which means no old or homeless people hanging around. There are no librarians.

Poor old librarians. The job carries a stereotype of dowdy, meek people with an unhealthy interest in card indexing who 'shush' noisy readers. These days, however, librarians are having to become a far more radical breed.

Around 3,000 library workers from all over the world arrive in Scotland next week for a conference of the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA). Ruth Rikowski is organising a fringe meeting entitled 'The Profit Virus: Globalisation, Libraries and Education'.

Rikowski is a chartered librarian who used to work in Newham and currently lectures on information at the University of Greenwich. She is also a leading light of Information for Social Change, an activist group for library workers. "There can be no place where a sense of sharing is more powerful - borrowing books, returning books, the community sharing books, stories, information and knowledge," she says.

Rikowski's main concern is that libraries are next on the hit-list for the big corporations, which are gradually taking over public services. She's not alone in her fears. "It's not the case that all library and information workers agree with happily swimming along in the tide. There are a considerable number of library organisations showing grave concern," she adds.

GATS, the general agreement on trade in services, opens up many public services to competitive markets. Only services in which there is no competition, such as national security, can be excluded.

IFLA's official position is that GATS will eventually undermine the tax-supported status of public sector libraries everywhere. "Without tax support, the library's role as a democratic institution that makes available the widest range of material reflecting the diversity of society, will be compromised," says their official policy statement.

In the London Borough of Haringey the libraries are already privately run. After inspectors found a "poor service and no possible improvement" in 1999, the council hired Instant Library Ltd. as contractors to run the service.

Mick Martin, who works for Book Aid International, a charity that helps create libraries in the developing world, lives in Haringey. "Where I live, no one seems to know about the take-over. Library staff are waiting to see what will develop." He says staff are worried that in order to increase short-term borrowing the firm may buy trendy titles of little use in a year's time. "As with all privatisation, profits will be the bottom line. Railway track maintenance is appalling, but small sub-contractors make record profits. Will library jobs go? Will more charges be introduced? Will we just get shafted as usual? Probably yes," he says.

Even those who are opposed to the privatisation agenda say Instant Library Ltd. is a "nice" company with the skills to help the failing north London service pull its socks up. But they fear it is a Trojan horse. The next takeover is just as likely to be by Group 4, Capita, Serco or ITNet - some of the main players in the contracted-out public service industry, and all have been criticised by unions for downgrading public services in profit-driven, cheapest-wins competitive market places. Meanwhile, there's already been one row in Haringey after a playgroup was asked by new bosses to leave the library room that it had been using for more than a decade.

A spokeswoman for Instant Library Ltd. says, "Instant Library does not see private sector involvement as a threat. In Haringey, service is still provided by librarians, regardless of who employs them. Public libraries have a long track record of involvement with the private sector and have often outsourced some functions, such as IT systems and infrastructure support. Outsourcing is becoming common in areas that were once exclusively public-run, such as hospitals and environmental services.

"The 'Best Value' process requires local authorities to consider the most appropriate means of delivering services, including outsourcing, so opportunities for private sector involvement may increase in the future. If they do, Instant Library would be delighted to be involved."

Public services union Unison has fought battles against privatisation in numerous services already. A spokeswoman says: "Only a very small number of councils have taken the privatisation route for libraries. But we wouldn't want to be complacent about it."

Public libraries have been around in Britain since the Public Library Act in 1850 allowed councils to set up lending libraries. These had to be free to visit but many charged a penny for borrowing. There was moral panic. The Victorian middle classes feared giving workers access to free reading rooms would create hotbeds of revolution. Others saw libraries as an opportunity to "improve" the masses but wanted to control what the poor were allowed to read, with restrictions on 'radical' works. In time, public libraries became the amazing resource that allowed generations of Britons free access to books.

An Audit Commission report this May found that a third of the population use libraries, making a total of 290 million visits a year. Despite the explosion of cheap bookshops and a steep decline in library use in the past decade, more books are still borrowed than bought.

Things are changing in the library world. Like Blue Peter not being allowed to name drop Sellotape, libraries have been free from the dirty world of business for over a hundred years. Now cash-strapped services are introducing coffee-shops, competing with video rental stores and entering into sponsorship agreements. As computers and Internet access are shoehorned into every library, Microsoft logos are ubiquitous.

Jonathan Rutherford ran in local elections in Islington as the 'Save Arthur Simpson Library' candidate. The library in the Finsbury Park area still faces the planned closure, although the council says it is not shutting it, just moving it to another location three-quarters of a mile away. Rutherford says, "Libraries are part of people's feelings about where they live. They're a public service and doing away with them feels like an act of vandalism." He says library staff backed his anti-closure campaign behind the scenes, but were gagged by their council employer. He adds that compared to fighting for hospitals or schools, campaigns for libraries might seem irrelevant. "Yes, health is about life or death. But libraries are about hopes for the future. They are about what kind of culture we want to live in. People do feel pretty strongly about them."

He says professional librarians are gradually being edged out and replaced with cheaper, less qualified staff. "There's no children's librarian in Islington now," he says. "Children get a poorer service because of that."

Some librarians fear the drive to be 'competitive' will lead to an explosion of populism, with 10 copies of the latest blockbuster novel made available at the expense of one useful but expensive reference book. Others fear more disturbing levels of censorship as mega-corporations remove from the shelves of their privatised libraries any books critical of their behaviour. The social control that the Victorians dreamed of could become a reality.

In Hackney, librarians are now on strike every Saturday. The row began over pay, but the protesting staff are also unhappy over council plans to close four out of seven libraries to cut costs. A University College London library attendant was jailed for protesting at last year's Gothenburg summit.

Around the world, librarians are becoming so active that Internet search engine Yahoo has a special category for librarian activism. IFLA and Information for Social Change are listed alongside angry library workers from other countries where libraries face the same threats. These include Warrior Librarian, Radical Librarian, Avenging Librarian, Anarchist Librarian and even Snarky Librarian.

Warrior Librarian is preparing for battle. Everyone else who wants to defend public libraries should wake up and smell the coffee.

This article was originally published in The Big Issue no 501, Aug 12-18th 2002, pp. 10-11. Jane Mackenzie is the Deputy Editor (News) of The Big Issue.


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