Public libraries can be run by private companies on contract from the local authority.  In the UK, Carillion run the library services in  Croydon, Ealing and Harrow, having lost Hounslow in 2017. In the USA, there are 18 such services (75 branches for 18 “clients” in six states) in the USA (Libraries Systems and Services, widely known as “LSSI“, started its first public library contract in 1997 although it started as a company in 1981). Sweden has six outsourced branches in Stockholm.  In February 2013, a Netherlands council announced it would pass over four branches to a private company, Karmac, for half the price that the branches currently cost. Civica operates some school libraries in Singapore and backroom tasks in Boroondara, AustraliaIntegreon runs some specialist and legal libraries.

Slightly differently, Slough Borough Council’s library service is run by Essex County Council.  This is outsourcing, and the contract is presumably a commercial one, although it is interesting to note that this is generally not seen as a privatisation issue by campaigners and Slough boasts of improvements in its service.

In addition, the social enterprise GLL runs Greenwich and Wandsworth library services.  It is a non-profit company.

To give an idea of the broader picture, outsourcing throughout the whole UK public sector accounts for over £100 billion.  See this report for some views on this.

Legal issues


There is no legal barrier to private companies running public libraries on behalf of a local council in the UK.  It does not constitute a contravention of the 1964 Act as long as the council merely subcontracts out the running to a private company rather than divesting itself of the service altogether.

Furthermore, it is worth noting that the Localism Bill, should it become law, will mean that privatisation will need to be considered as an option regardless of any council opposition to it. It contains a “right to challenge” for anyone who thinks they can run the service better.  Publicised as a chance for community groups to take over failing or inefficient services, in reality it may be private companies that use the legislation to force competitive tendering. Cllr Theo Blackwell of Camden Council has said that “we are in a slipstream of privatisation that will prove hard to stand up against. This bill is a one-way ticket towards privatisation. We would like to make a strong statement, ruling out private firms, but have been advised that when the new bill becomes law, this could actually be illegal.” .  The LGA calls the Localism Bill a “Centralism Bill” being it gives so many more powers to the Secretary of State including a direct power to interfere in the manager of local councils (e.g. by forcing the election of mayors) and in the way (not just the efficiency) of the way services are delivered.

The White Paper Open Public Services was launched on 10th July 2011.  This is widely seen as another highly pro-privatisation move by Government leading to comments such as “The Open Public Services agenda will almost certainly mean takeover of the Library Service by a private company” in open forums although remarkably no response as yet by any library organisation.

Surprisingly, given its traditionally more free-market attitude, there is a significantly more comfortable playing field for privatisation of libraries in the UK than in some parts of the USA. California has recently passed a bill specifically to make it harder to privatise libraries.  It’s key provisions are that councils must:

• pick a contract after a competitive bidding process.

• give four straight weeks of public notice before enacting a change, doubling the current requirement.

• prove through a broad analysis that a switch away from the free public library system saves the city or county money.

• show that the cost savings are not simply a factor of lower pay for the private company’s employees.

• require an audit before hiring a library contractor charging more than $100,000 a year.

• ensure that the public employees don’t lose their jobs.

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