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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 17. Library privatisation: fact or fiction?

Ruth Rikowski

The friendly, inviting local community public library . Seemingly somehow removed from the glare of competition and the rat race. Deep down, I think we all cherish our public libraries. They offer the chance to gain a sense of the community spirit; to provide opportunities for leisure pursuits with their vast array of novels (a welcome change from the TV and a Murdoch takeover); to provide free information for all; to provide the opportunity to hold meetings and debate issues, and to provide a place where people can think and be creative. It is a place for all the community - from toddlers, to school children, to students, to ordinary workers, to the unemployed, to the businessman, to mothers, to the unemployed, and to the pensioner. We all know this - the concept of the public library has been with us in Britain since 1850. Do we really want to see public libraries change into commercial, moneymaking enterprises, where the wants and needs of the local community get lost amongst the pound notes? Do we really want to lose the opportunity that the public library offers for ordinary people to be able to think and debate issues, to pursue various leisure pursuits and to obtain information? It might not be ideal, but what is round the corner, and in fact, is already staring us in the face is the business takeover of public libraries. The primary goal of these private operators is and must always be to make profits, which conflicts with goals about serving the wants and needs of the local community, caring for people and notions of equality and social justice.

The GATS - the General Agreement on Trade in Services . This agreement is becoming more widely known. It is about the liberalisation of trade in services, opening them all - public services included - to profit making ventures. The GATS is under the auspices of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) based in Geneva. The WTO is concerned with 'regulating' world trade and devising trade rules for its member states. The UK is a member through the European Union, along with nearly 150 other members.

We witness privatisation of our public services on almost a daily basis, but what has this got to do with the GATS? They are intrinsically linked: GATS paves the way to enable further and extended privatisation of services.

Are there any safe havens from this seemingly all-pervasive trend? We see the privatisation agenda all around us, with PFI, PPP, outsourcing and so on - infiltrating all our public services. Surely our friendly local, community, public libraries are safe? Not so, it seems.

Many examples can be given which show how private companies are already making inroads into our libraries. Instant Library Ltd, for example, are currently running the library service in the London Borough of Haringey. Haringey council failed its Best Value inspectorate for libraries. Best Value is being used as a mechanism to bring in private companies. As Angela Watson says in Best Returns (2001)

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.

So, Best Value is being used as a mechanism to bring in the GATS - given that the GATS is about bringing in other suppliers, creating a climate of competition, paving the way and enabling the liberalisation of trade in services to take effect. Various other mechanisms are also being set in place, such as the Library Standards. Indeed, Library Standards and the Best Value regime are being used together as tools to introduce this climate of competition.

There are already companies that sell information on the web, such as Questia, NetLibrary and Ebrary. As Fox says Questia:

...sells information online directly to consumers the way amazon sells books online and the GAP sells clothes online. (Fox, 2001)

There are also various PFI schemes and these have been going on for some time now. The first PFI to incorporate construction and IT solutions was undertaken in Bournemouth and has recently provided Bournemouth with a new central library and ICT facilities across the whole branch network.

Then, there are ICT centres/Internet projects that are being set up in public libraries by private companies. An Internet project called Cybercity situated in Bath Central Library was run by a local company called GlobalInternet, for example. Income generation has also been going on for quite a long time now in libraries - selling postcards, memorabilia, pens, book marks etc and of course things like hiring videos and CDs are very much a taken-for-granted part of public libraries today. This commercialisation will enable the GATS to impact on public libraries, as the entrance of private capital into a public service moves it towards becoming an internationally tradable commodity under GATS imperatives.

Various library bodies and library associations are concerned about the implications of the WTO and the GATS for libraries and information. The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), for example, notes that:

There is growing evidence that WTO decisions, directly or indirectly, may adversely affect the operations and future development of library services, especially in the not-for-profit institutions.

Leading on from this I attended the IFLA conference at Glasgow this August and organised a fringe meeting on the GATS, entitled The Profit Virus: Globalisation, Libraries and Education. There were speakers from the Canadian and Norwegian library associations, from the World Development Movement and from academics focusing on the connections between schools and the GATS and higher education and the GATS. I also spoke about the WTO/GATS Agenda for Libraries - with particular reference to public libraries in England. The meeting was well attended and there was a lot of interest in the subject. So, many librarians are concerned - not everyone is swimming along happily in the money tide.

The idea of seeing money being exchanged; the use of switch cards, visa cards, master cards; special offers; advertisements pervading our libraries - all this surely seems very alien to us - and yet this is the vision that haunts library services. Hidden money will also become more fashionable - micropayments. Micropayments is a method being developed whereby people pay for transactions they undertake on the Internet - transactions such as downloading and printing documents. Why has this not been done before? It is complicated, and there are concerns about security and trust. But many of these problems are starting to be overcome. StorageTek has written a White Paper about all this. They say:

Online products such as data are becoming a commodity, so why not...charge a small fee for them? (StorageTek, 2001)

Furthermore, David Slater, the Marketing Manager of StorageTek said in 2001:

Over the last eighteen months one of the most significant obstacles to making money from the Internet will be overcome. The lack of a trusted, cost-effective and convenient mechanism for users to pay for low value products and services has been one of the main reasons for the Internet's failure to deliver the online revenue envisaged. Micro-payments...provide this missing link....

What do folks want from their local library - surely not another hyperactive, hard-selling, supermarket-type environment? Or is this what people want? We are sometimes lead to believe that everyone today loves to consume, to buy, to parade his or her goods, and that this is 'where it is at'. Sure - it would be good if public libraries were used more. But will paying for their services make them more attractive? Introduce coffee, cakes, and other money-making gimmicks and libraries suddenly become more enticing? Or will people forget about books and libraries altogether instead? They might prefer to hire out a DVD from the local video shop or just download information from their computer at home. But the poor won't be able to afford to do that - the digital divide will increase, inequalities will increase. And what about the idea of discussing and debating issues in the local library - that will be all gone, unless groups pay for rooms at rates increasingly moving towards commercial ones. That in turn will decrease the chances of debating ideas for a better, a different, a fairer and a kinder world. If libraries do remain they will become something quite different - money-making enterprises where computers are likely to be the central attraction.

The local public library might never have been ideal, in the same way as our other public services are not ideal and need improving, but what is just round the corner is far worse. We must not be fooled by the rhetoric. Privatisation makes things worse - not better. Surely we need to try to stop this happening.

Why should anything be free when potentially money can be made out of it? This seems to be the dogma of the neo-liberal agenda. This is the scenario that is before us. And capitalism's quest is so all-pervasive that even if we think that no-one will want or know how to make money out of a public service, such as libraries, that is not the end of the matter. The pro-capitalist agenda argues that people need to think harder about how to conjure up ways of making money out of libraries, and indeed, out of anything. 'It must be possible' - so says the logic of capitalism. Global capitalism - the great extension of capitalism - is heading towards the impossible goal of the commodification and marketisation of all that surrounds us.

Let us take stock of the situation while there is still time - before the virtually irreversible GATS comes into effect.

THE POWER LIES WITHIN OURSELVES - our free public library service is surely worth preserving.

The GATS will be coming into effect before we know it - we need to raise awareness and try to do something about it before it is too late.

For more information about GATS and Libraries see Rory Litwin's website which provides links to articles on the web about GATS and libraries throughout the world at:


Fox, Megan (2001) Questia, and the for-profit online library trend, Simmons College Libraries Newsletter , Spring 2001,

IFLA (2001) The IFLA position on the WTO treaty negotiations , International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, September, at:

StorageTek (2001a) Making net profits - executive summary of the White Paper on Micropayments, Industry News , 17th April, 3 pages at

StorageTek (2001b) Micropayments: making net profits - a StorageTek perspective. White Paper on Micropayments, Woking: Storage Technology Corporation UK

Watson, Angela (2001) Best returns: best value guidance for local authorities in England . 2nd ed, July, at

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


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