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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 18. 6. CILIP Response to Liberalising Trade in services: a new consultation on the World Trade Organisation GATS negotiations

CILIP - the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals - is the professional body for those working in library and information services or information science in the UK and has 24000 members. Many of our members work in public and national libraries, and other library or information units within local and central government, the health services, business and industry, science and technology, further and higher education, schools and the voluntary sector. Under the terms of our Royal Charter we have a duty to scrutinise any legislation or other proposals affecting the provision of library and information services as well as support and promote the knowledge, skills and qualifications of our members.

CILIP is concerned to ensure that the Government is aware of the diverse nature and full extent of the role of publicly funded library and information services in the UK. Together with international colleagues in IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions) and EBLIDA (European Bureau of Library, Information and Documentation Associations), we take a keen interest in the WTO GATS negotiations and we welcome this opportunity to provide comments as part of this consultation process.

Libraries are included in the GATS category 'Recreational, Sporting and Cultural Services' under 'libraries, archives, museums and other cultural services.'

However we would point out that library services play a central role in the provision of 'Educational Services' in the UK. With the arrival of the People's Network a national network providing access to the Internet and other public services at every public library service point in the UK, libraries are key providers of information in the digital environment, even though they are not specifically listed in 'Communications Services' under 'on-line information and data base retrieval; electronic data interchange (EDI).'

The societal, cultural and educational roles of libraries

The publicly-funded library is one of the most democratic of institutions, serving the needs of citizens, regardless of their age, gender, educational level, learning ability, employment, ethnic origin or wealth. As a public space, the library helps to define a sense of community, providing a safe and neutral meeting point. At different times in their lives, people see libraries as a: place of wide-eyed discovery;

  • tool for lifelong learning;
  • support for political and social enquiry;
  • bank of ideas and inspiration;
  • source of answers to factual questions;
  • place to acquire new skills;
  • community centre;
  • local history resource;
  • place of leisure and enjoyment.

Lifelong learning and the role of the library in combating the digital divide

Publicly funded services offered by libraries, archives, museums and educational institutions constitute vital building blocks in the development of the knowledge and information society in which all citizens benefit from access to culture, knowledge and information.

Libraries and archives empower citizens by collecting, organising and providing access to a great range of high quality, current information for researchers, students and members of the public, as well as preserving our cultural heritage.

Publicly funded library services have a fundamental role to play in the development of strategies for lifelong learning, as broad media competence becomes a basic skill and adult independent learners are growing in number, contributing to the knowledge economy.

Library services in the digital environment

Traditional library services, such as maintaining a central reference collection, the lending of fiction, or the provision of services to special local groups, may not appear to be very attractive to commercial suppliers. However, the new opportunities offered by ICT mean that libraries now provide a wide range of expanding services, which are of increasing interest to commercial suppliers seeking new global opportunities in the information marketplace. These services include: online database retrieval services, electronic reference services, Internet access, the development of Web portal/subject gateway services, electronic document delivery.

Publicly funded libraries provide these services from the public purse, which are provided as part of a package, in order to serve the interests of the whole community. If authorities are obliged to provide the same level of subsidy, they would be faced with two choices: reduce subsidies to existing services or less likely, extend the same level of subsidy to the competing private sector organisation.

While the concept of allowing " competition " appears benign, the eventual outcome of such challenges will be the undermining of the tax-supported status of public sector libraries at the national, regional and local levels.

Without tax support, the library's role as a democratic institution, making available the widest range of material reflecting the diversity of society will be compromised and threaten the objectives of Government Social Inclusion policies.

If public funding to libraries was threatened as a result of the GATS negotiations, the result could be that only those who are able to pay for library services at commercial rates would have access to the information they need.

Publicly-funded libraries with a long historical tradition in society can adapt and prosper in response to changing needs and business models in society, for example, 24 hour reference services such as "Ask a librarian" and the People's Network. But CILIP is concerned at the potentially alarming consequences for the future operation and development of cultural and education services should the priority to preserve our cultural heritage, provide free access to information and the notion of a community-based library serving the needs of the local population cease to take priority over profit margins.

We believe these functions would be compromised if they are subject to general competition in the information marketplace for example, provision of Internet-based services, lending of audio-visual material eg. DVDs, academic Internet publishing, inter-library document supply.

Commitments should not be made that may call into question the funding and regulation of publicly funded library services, currently a statutory provision under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 for English Authorities.

CILIP strongly urges the Government to continue with its present policy not to agree to any requests to extend the sectoral coverage and/or to remove the existing restrictions in the sub-sector 'libraries, archives, museums and other cultural services.' And, to make a commitment not to include this sub-sector in future negotiations.

CILIP would be happy to meet with colleagues at the DTI to discuss any of the above points in more detail and asks to be put on the official list of organisations consulted on the WTO GATS negotiations.


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