The pros and cons of commercial involvement in libraries

There was an interesting difference of opinion shown over the decision by the Society of Chief Librarians to welcome the involvement of 2,000 Halifax Bank employees offering their time to help out as IT volunteers in public libraries.  This in turn opened the whole topic of for-profit companies being involved in public libraries. This page aims to review the arguments on both sides and add a few thoughts of my own.  It does not claim to be comprehensive and I am happy to add further views (or even evidence, of which there is remarkably little).

In favour

“This joint initiative will enhance our existing range of services for small businesses across Greater Manchester, strengthening the significant contribution of public libraries to supporting the creation of new jobs and growth within the local economy.” Sir Richard Leese, Leader of Manchester City Council on the Google Digital Garage.

  • Currying political favour. Partnering with private companies very much ties in with the preferences of the current Conservative Government and, to some extent, with the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties as well.  This can improve the reputation of the library (or, more cynically, the partnering organisation) with central and local government.
  • The idea that public libraries are some temple of virtuous neutrality is a pipe dream now, if it ever existed in the first place. Public libraries accepted the money of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie a century ago and that did not do the sector any harm. Besides, if such esteemed places like the National Gallery has a Sainsbury Wing then it a special kind of narcissism to think that public libraries should not.
  • Even if neutrality is the ideal, that is hardly relevant in the current climate where every penny counts. Would you prefer a closed library or the Ronald MacDonald Library? If the answer is the former, do you think the actual users of the building , who rely on it, would take such a principled stand? In a less extreme example, there are hardly enough staff (especially specifically trained) to go around in many libraries at the moment so any extra assistance, especially provided in an expert and structured way, is a bonus.

“To reassure stakeholders and customers who will understandably have a view that all off this sounds to be contrary to the ethos of library services to provide free and neutral public spaces, there is no hard sell (or even soft sell) from the Digital Inclusion Stakeholder partners in libraries. The significant workforce volunteer hours presented by Barclays and Halifax are focussed on supporting people’s digital skills in communities. The volunteers from both organisations are very well trained, very skilled, and very dedicated. Just as library staff and volunteers are, of course. So one group should compliment the other.” Nick Stopforth, Libraries Task Force.

Against

  • The gains can sometimes be remarkably small.  Even at tops, the Halifax involvement of 85 days represents around one full-time equivalent member of staff, at perhaps £25,000 equivalent for the whole country. The time spent in implementing the programme in individual branches, not to mention the national roll-out over the 151 different library services, could conceivably come to the same amount. of management staff time.
  • When it comes to banks involving themselves in public libraries, there is the problem that it was the banking crisis that kicked off the credit crunch and thus the cuts to local council budgets in the first place.  Private companies are also – including Google, who signed a “sweetheart deal” this week of paying just £130m to cover tax from 2005 to the end of 2015 in the UK – sometimes accused of tax avoidance.  The lack of tax collected from these companies is responsible for a large part of the budget deficit and thus the cuts to public libraries.  We should therefore not be grateful for the companies who are at least partially responsible for cuts to public libraries improving their reputations (or taking advantage of cheap or even free room hire) by using library buildings.
  • Libraries should be entirely neutral in all things. The public who believe in the neutrality of public libraries may think again if they think the answer received is biased due to commercial consideration.

“nothing is free”. Barclays aren’t offering this for free with no immediate return. They are doing it because there is a business advantage in them doing so. ” Ian Clark

  • Reputational damage.  Public libraries are seen as some of the most trustworthy institutions in the country and tieing in with companies with poorer reputations (e.g. banks, fast food outlets) damages that reputation.
  • Commercial partnering is about currying political favour with the government.  Libraries should be above this and, indeed, stand against the current political views which have resulted in the cutting of library budgets and the closing of hundreds of libraries.
  • The socialist view is that private companies are, by their very nature, suspect and should not be welcomed in to the public sphere.  Holders of this view would likely be against any such partnering or investment at all, regardless of the benefit to the service.
  • Gives the possibility of negative headlines.
  • One of the unique selling points of public libraries is the absence of commercial advertising messages: it is a space where you need not spend money and where the only sales messages are likely to be non-profits.  This sanctuary on the high street will be lost if there is too much commercial involvement.”
  • Private companies have an ulterior motive in helping public libraries.  For examples, Barclays may be directing those learning how to use IT to sites which are favourable to the bank.
  • We are devaluing libraries by saying we cannot do certain things: librarians are information professionals who should provide the IT support themselves. “We know this stuff. We know this stuff better than Barclays do. “
  • In practice, it would be difficult to withdraw from partnering deals without suffering reputational damage, even if such schemes are proven to be detrimental. If the SCL or Task Force are closely associated with a project, with political backing, then walking away from it may rebound.
  • Carnegie was a philanthropist, not investing in libraries for profit. Comparing his investment with that of the Halifax therefore does not stand.  While on this theme, while it is true that the US does indeed gain more funding for public libraries through philanthropy, this is not the same as for-profits.  Such philanthropy (e.g. the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) is non-profit and is not normally intended to directly benefit the private company, In contrast, Halifax and Barclays are for-profit and are doing the work for gain, albeit probably for reputational reasons than the simple bottom line.

Further reading

January, 2016

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