Privatisation – Con


Many people have a deep-rooted suspicion of the private sector using libraries.  While this may in some cases be merely prejudice (in the same way that those who consider the private sector as more efficient than the public sector are also prejudiced) there are many arguments to support the view that public libraries should remain under the control of local councils.  The anti-privatisation argument has much in common with a similar dislike in the state education/user sector for private companies entering their sphere.


  • Private companies cost more.  A well-run council can do everything a private company can do and avoid giving 5 to 15% of their money into profit to that company.

“…private contractors cost more in 33 of those 35 jobs. On average, the service contracts paid private employees 83 percent more than the government would pay a federal employee doing the same job (and that’s even taking into account health care benefits, pensions, and so on). There’s a long debate about whether workers in the private sector actually make less than their federal counterparts, but it turns out this is all beside the point. The POGO analysis found that private contractors working with the government make, on average, twice as much as a comparable private-sector worker.” (Review of contracts in USA)

  • Private companies by definition aim to make a profit from the local authority.  This money goes to the company’s owners and not to the council/users.  The suspicion is that the much-criticised high pay given to council managers would be perfectly acceptable if given to private company managers. Unlike in traditionally private sector trades, library companies do not take over any risk from the council and are in a “no lose” situation.
  • Private company are effectively given a no-risk monopoly in a given location. In this context, it worth pointing out that there are serious doubts in the USA as to if private public libraries deliver.  The “Show me the Money” report suggests that usage actually declines in privately run libraries and they can end up costing more.
  • Private public libraries are an intrinsic contradiction in terms. The basis of a private company is to make the most money from a good or service for their shareholders.  The basis of a public library is not to charge for its core good (book loans) and services (public space, librarian support).  In the furtherance of this argument, public services such as libraries are seen by many as being best under public control.  Privatising them (and thus taking them out of public ownership, albeit temporarily) undermines their purpose and reduces council/public influence over the service. 

“However, any private company to come in on a contract with the council would be looking to make a profit and if it hasn’t the control to close libraries then it will look for other ways to save money. This, I suspect, will mean reducing opening hours, increasing fines and fees and cutting staff wages or staff themselves. Any of these would result in an inferior service. If a company finds that a profit is impossible to make, it will walk away from the contract, leaving the council with an extra financial burden to take over it again.”  Henley Standard, 5th December 2011.

  • Libraries will lose both their unique selling point and their equally important neutralityPrivatisation means that public libraries may become another commercial space in the High Street.  This argument is explored in some detail in this 2010 article.
  • Private companies reduce the numbers, pension, terms and conditions of its employees. When taking over a service, LSSI re-employs staff on new contracts.  Recent research shows it retains the minimum of qualified library staff.  It is worth noting that, for its size, 100 “qualified” staff it promotes as being employed by the company is fairly low when compared to the industry standard. Also, there is the question as to what level these staff are qualified to.  It appears that LSSIde-unionises its libraries in the USA.  “Lower salaries, paraprofessionals instead of librarians with master’s degrees, reduced benefits and a heavy reliance on volunteers for work and for fundraising is the consensus in a series of community reports.” (Toronto News).  Having said that, one should point out that reducing library worker pay, if allied to no overall decrease in service quality, would be a strong positive for any council – although it is a hard ask.

“The number of professional librarians at Santa Clarita has been reduced from 14 to nine. Overall, LSSI has budgeted for 59 positions, or about 48-50 FTEs for the three branches, compared to the 99 positions that the county had budgeted for in FY10, or about 60 FTEs… The library workforce is no longer represented by a union… Ebook availability is more constrained under the new system…when asked to disclose salaries, for example, the company declined to release any information…” (Library Journal, 26/7/11)

  • US contracts appear to be written in favour of LSSI. There is a lack of legal definition of what a well-run library is and what it provides. LSSI oversees its own contract with the authority.
  • Public libraries increasingly run events/coffee shops etc inside them and do not recognise the “slacks and trainers” stereotype that LSSI suggests.  
  • There is also some disquiet, unarguably present regardless about what one thinks of its trace of xenophobia, about an American company taking over a British local government service.  Politically, this would seem to be the opposite of “localism” that is promoted in Government as there will be a loss of local community control.  The experience of LSSI in the USA is that they are deeply unpopular with library workers, unions and at least a significant portion of the public. So unpopular in fact that Californian legislation is currently being introduced to prevent privatisation without a public vote.
  • Privately run libraries will seek to charge as much as possible for their services, making social mobility more difficult - “Information is the key to social mobility. By privatizing public libraries, we are putting this key in the hands of companies whose raison d’être is to seek to monetize the right to information. Growth is imperative to a private company – the only way this can be achieved in the case of a public service like libraries would be to maximize revenue and minimize the service provided. Information is too important a resource to allow it to be reduced to a simple matter of profit. Lack of freely available information and advice would deal a serious blow to our democracy. Free access to information allows people to make informed choices. A well-functioning democracy needs well-informed citizens. So information must remain free and highly accessible. Information should not be allowed to become a mere commodity to be traded. Access to knowledge should be a right for every citizen regardless of their ability to pay.” Towards a 21st Century Library.
  • Allied to this argument is the one that Libraries are the last public space.  All of the other shops in town are there to make money.  The library expects no monetary return from its clientele and, indeed, lowers charges for those on lower income and often waives charges.  Private companies will seek to maximise return from their asset and thus further alienate the less-prosperous sectors of the community – “those who serve the disenfranchised all bow down at the altar of profit when managed by private companies”.  Although, it is fair to say, employees of privatised public libraries dispute this.
  • LSSI has a poor record in the USA.  “In Santa Clarita, public officials made the decision to privatize their city libraries despite a public outcry from community members who wanted to maintain public control over their precious investments. So far, that city’s taxpayers have had to cough up $12 million in extra expenses for a privatization scheme they were told would save them money. Other communities have seen experienced librarians replaced with less qualified staff and hours reduced. Elsewhere in the nation, the Linden, N.J., library terminated its contract with LSSI after determining the town could offer the same level of services for $300,000 less. Fargo, N.D., also terminated LSSI’s contract after the company repeatedly requested budget increases and failed to pay bills on time.” ((Molly Spore-Alhadef in Mercury News, USA)
  • Friends groups may withdraw support as may other groups.  Volunteers and other supporters may choose to cease support for a service whose primary aim is to make a profit for its shareholders.
  • Ethics - Committee on Standards in Public Life has produced a report (2013) saying outsourcing services such as libraries “brings a “significant new risk” to standards and ethics in public life,”.
  • See also – The battle against privatisation (New Statesman, June 2013).

“I categorically do not believe that private providers are inherently better than public sector providers, and I would not support an approach to reform that implied that they were…I will take a hard line, too, against any attempts to replicate the mistake of skewing the market against public-sector providers.” (Nick Clegg)

“When I go into a library, I don’t have to worry about who is holding whose copyrights, why this book didn’t sell enough to continue to be available in any marketplace, how many other stories there are out there that I am missing because the storytellers don’t have the money or the property rights to tell them. In the library, I am in a space beyond the marketplace, beyond consumption, beyond the money censors, beyond the noise. I am in a place where librarians have accumulated the knowledge and the stories important to me and my community.” Jeff Chang on Libraries and “Our Collective Imagination”Racialicious (USA).

“The greedy ghost understands profit all right. But that’s all he understands. What he doesn’t understand is enterprises that don’t make a profit, because they’re not set up to do that but to do something different. He doesn’t understand libraries at all, for instance. That branch – how much money did it make last year? Why aren’t you charging higher fines? Why don’t you charge for library cards? Why don’t you charge for every catalogue search? Reserving books – you should charge a lot more for that. Those bookshelves over there – what’s on them? Philosophy? And how many people looked at them last week? Three? Empty those shelves and fill them up with celebrity memoirs. That’s all the greedy ghost thinks libraries are for…” Philip Pullman

  • #1 written by Julian Wood
    about 2 years ago

    Thanks for this incredible web-site
    I work at Bristol University library, and am doing the MSC at Aberystwyth. I am very interested in social justice, so will keep coming back to this website.

    Thanks again, how fantastic


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