Privatisation of public libraries – Reasons against

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.

This can be emotive subject and information is scarce.  Please therefore email in any further information, arguments or thoughts to myself at

  •  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.
  • There’s also a cost to the privatisation process itself.  Croydon put aside £250,000 for the cost of  transferring its libraries to the private sector.
  • Private companies care more about gloss than substance – Private companies are often excellent at being able to bid for tenders and can produce a highly glossy leaflet and convincing website.  However, when it comes down to what is happening on the ground, the reality is very different, with services cut to the bone.  For example, Carillion have worked with the University of Sheffield to research reinventing local public libraries but it’s unclear how effective that is other than as a public relations tool.
  • 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.
  • The contract for libraries can be sold to another company – Laing sold the public library contracts it held to Carillion as part of a larger deal in 2014.
  • 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.  LSSI CEO Frank Pezzanite was quoted September 2010 in the New York Times, talked about “a lot of libraries” as saying “their policies are all about job security… You can go to a library for 35 years and never have to do anything and then have your retirement…You come to us, you’re going to have to work.”.  It is worth noting, at his point, that Mr Pezzanite went on a 112 day round-the-world cruise at the start of 2012.
  • 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.
  • In those situations where a private company is taking control of a public library which would otherwise have closed, there is a risk the company may go bankrupt. This has been a point raised by the giving away of several libraries to a small company, Eco Computers in Lewisham.  “Lewisham Council has a responsibility to provide a publicly funded library service for local residents; making their survival dependent on the success or failure of business or charities is a risky move.”  In case campaigners could be accused of having their cake and eating it in this regard, remembering that one of the other arguments against private public libraries is that they do not suffer from risk, it should be pointed out that this risk only applies to small companies taking over discarded libraries and not in a situation where a private company is given a contract for a whole service.
  • 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.
  • Passing on the running of libraries to other people mean the council can avoid difficult decisions.  It means that the Council can say someone else closed the library/increased charges/sacked all the librarians not themselves. The Council may be able to save money themselves through efficiency rather than giving the service to someone else to run.  For example, in Croydon, the suggestion is that a reduction in overheads could avoid the need. However, councils need to be careful about passing the buck as “the state can never contract out of its human rights obligations. It remains the responsibility of the state to ensure that any private provider continues to operate to standards that meet those obligations”. (from It does not matter who provides public services, especially when they go wrongDemocratic Audit).
  • There can be a lack of transparency in the decision making for transferring the service.  In America, there is a strong suspicion that ideological or other reasons have driven the move to privatising libraries.  The timeline of the transfer of Santa Clarita libraries, including non-minuted meetings, has cast as a shadow over the process there.   In the UK, as in the USA, there may be a desire not to publicise the process due to the perceived unpopularity of the move.  However, it is precisely in this circumstance that it is important for the council to be as open as possible in order to avoid suspicion that the process is a pre-ordained one.  This lack of transparency is made even worse due to the Freedom of Information Act not being applicable to any organisation not wholly financed through public funds.
  • 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).  Similarly, there are eyewitness reports of problems in libraries run by Carillion.
  • 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

Further reading

CILIP Update 9/11/11 “Monster or Saviour” article

Carillion and Libraries


Much of the evidence for this article comes from “Show me the money: Privatisation and the public library”. See the blog “Stop the privatisation of UK public libraries” for comprehensive, if obviously partisan, coverage of the issue.  For similarly partisan – but this time American – coverage see Privatization Beast.

UNISON have produced a report on The Rise of the Public Services Industry which gives a general overview. However, it has only one paragraph on libraries. Unite the Union response to consultation on the commissioning of Bromley Library Service looked at GLL: “We aim to show throughout this report that the safest and best place for a library service is to remain within the public sector. Our stance is not limited to protecting jobs, pay and conditions. These are, of course, central to our aims as a trade union. However, this goes hand in hand with our strong commitment to defend public services. Not only do our members work in public services – they also use and rely on them. Therefore, we have an interest in making sure that public services have a long term future. ”

The American Library Association (ALA) have produced the report Keeping Public Libraries Public (June 2011) in response to the growing concern over privatising public libraries.  The report itself is not without its critics though – see The Annoyed Librarian.

American Libraries have produced an interesting survey Who’s the Boss about librarian attitudes to privatisation that has been accused of innate bias towards LSSI (for example,”When asked to choose between two options—whether public library management should remain in the public sector to avoid a focus on profit or whether management should be privatized if it means providing better services at lower costs [my italics] —a full 87% of survey respondents agreed with the former.”).  Also from America is Keep Public Libraries Public: A checklist for for communities considering privatization of public libraries.

Toronto in Canada is wishing to privatise its libraries, leading to the formation of the Our Public Library campaign website.  A thorough viewpoint from the Toronto Star on privatisation is Would privatizing Toronto’s libraries really save money?

We Own It have produced a report arguing for keeping local government services in public hands called Better in Public Hands (August 2013).

Unison have produced several guides on various aspects of outsourcing (accessible only to Unison members):

Bibliography from Alan Wylie

The following is from Alan from his “Stop the Privatisation of Public Libraries” blog.  It was compiled in March 2014:

UK – a resource list compiled for library campaigners, includes links to info on library privatisation. – the main union for library staff in the UK and a key partner in the Speak up for Libraries coalition. – Save Croydon Libraries Campaign. Croydon Libraries, along with Hounslow, Harrow and Ealing, are now managed by Carillion, a private construction firm. – SCALP: Sheffield Communities Against Library Privatisation. – info needs updating.
US – SEIU represent many public library staff in the US and helped organise the ‘Privatization Beast’ campaign. – “PrivatizationWatch is a daily news blog covering privatization, and is a joint project of Essential Information and The Center for Study of Responsive Law.” US based but very comprehensive and informative. You can sign up for their daily alert service. – “Resources brought to you by the library at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees” – You can sign up for their daily alert service. see also; – the American Library Association (ALA),  see especially Keeping Public Libraries Public: A Checklist for Communities Considering Privatization of Public Libraries (PDF).
International – PSIRU was set up in 1998 to carry out empirical research into privatisation, public services, and globalisation. – The Outsourcing and PPP Library provides analysis and information on the consequences of outsourcing public services, Public Private Partnerships, PFI projects and strategic partnerships.

Other useful resources/articles/reports – ‘The Real Cost of Privatisation’ – excellent article outlining 7 reasons to oppose library privatisation. – A conference held in 2013, see ‘Conference Papers’ for presentation by John Medhurst of the PCS. – article  from 2011. – article for VFTL from 2011.

  • #1 written by Julian Wood
    about 11 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


  • #2 written by Tino Rozzo
    about 6 years ago

    My city wants to privatize the library saying it costs $350,000 a year. LSSI wants my Library and we are fighting it. What weapons can you give me, when I speak in city hall against LSSI and Privatization.


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