Privatisation of public libraries: reasons in favour

There are a couple of companies interested in running library services: LSSI is prominently featured below due to the wealth of information from its services in the USA.  In the UK, Laing sold its library arm to Carillion and so there are references to those as well.

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


    • Private companies are seen by many as being intrinsically more efficient than the public sector.  This view is something that, of course, companies are keen to support. LSSI is reported as offering to run libraries at 35% less cost while still making a profit.  It is claimed that such an improvement will come by outsourcing back-room tasks such as acquisitions to other private companies and by offering economies of scale (so, for instance, Carillion currently runs the services of four boroughs and so can merge support services accordingly). Moreover, companies can use expertise from outside of the library arm of its business (again, in the case of Carillion) to bring new perspectives to the branches it runs.
    • Privatised libraries can be more innovative.  For instance, Carillion was the first in the UK to introduce Lego Education tools and has used its commercial expertise to help pay for this via charging for the service.

  • LSSI are also positive about putting in services which will generate income such as cafes, bookstores and IT, although of course many council-run library services already charge for these.

“We are very much aware of the depth of feeling for libraries and share that. We love libraries and that is why we are in this business. Libraries are what we do. Our business depends on getting our service right in every branch, every day.” Stuart Fitzgerald, Vice President LSSI (UK)

  • Private companies can think longer term and bigger picture than councils.  Librarians in councils have to necessarily focus on the aims of the council and work towards delivering the service the way the council wants within the budget it has.  Anything more than that could be seen as wasteful and may be unlikely to gain support.  Private companies, on the other hand, can think in a wider contest – not being directly answerable to a councils budget or oversight – and so can do some things councils simply cannot.  For example, Carillion have worked with the University of Sheffield on “Reinventing Local Public Library Services” with research aimed at reversing decline. Similarly, LSSI provides scholarship awards in the USA.
  • Fire and forget – A library service run by a private company can run itself without intervention by the council.  Often, the contract is for a period of years, with a set service level agreement, with performance indicators. Therefore, there’s a lot less work involved for the council itself.
  • Although it has denigrated some of the working practises (“slacks and trainers”) of librarians and reduces employment costs (pensions, salary, etc)  by around 15% compared to US state libraries, LSSI does continue to employ 100 qualified librarians in USARiverside County (USA) expanded opening hours and bookfund/usage while cutting costs. LSSI also report that library usage increases when they take over a contract as they give the public what they want.
  • Private library companies will need to ensure that they continue to provide an effective service or they will lose the contract at the end of their fixed term, normally  three or five years.  Also, being there are companies competing in the UK, there is competition even if the authorising council remains wedded to the concept of private enterprise running the service.  LSSI say their standards need to be high as USA councils give them annual contracts, meaning if they fail to succeed, they lose business.
  • Expectations are very high of the improvement to be gained by privatisation.  In the case of Wokingham, the council expected the move to make a saving of £170,000 per year as well as ensuring no libraries close, that services and usage will be boosted and, presumably, there will be a worthwhile profit for the company involved.

“The alternative is libraries closing so we have to consider what they are offering,” cautions Mark Smith, chair of Norbury Green Residents Association which has fought a vigorous campaign to save its library run by Croydon Council. “It is a very divisive subject and feelings run high but our position is, if we can keep the library open and meet standards on staffing and service, let’s see what it brings. We have fantastic library staff who know most people by name and they may not stay. That is a big concern because their presence makes the library what it is, just as much as the books and the building do. We want to protect them but, ultimately, we are fighting to keep the library open. If we were in one of the nearby London boroughs, the library would have been closed and everything would have gone.” Sunday Express.

Further reading

  • #1 written by Jason Quinn
    about 11 years ago

    Profit motive is not the issue here. Public Libraries are not designed to make profits. They are a public service funded by the tax payer. This is the problem when talking about privatisation. There are very few opportunities in public libraries to make money.
    Of course, this won’t prevent councils from doing it. They see libraries as a liability and simply do not understand why people need them.

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