Around the World in 80 Ideas   

6: Success on the shelf
Contract management of public libraries

The problem: declining local services

Throughout the world, users of public libraries are suffering a vicious circle of decline in services. Free or near-free libraries are commonly provided by city or district governments. But local government budgets are always under pressure - because their services are labour-intensive, their costs rise faster than inflation and local taxpayers become less and less willing to pay for them.

So local governments are looking for cutbacks: and in the table of priorities, libraries feature pretty low. Other local groups - the disabled, the poor, tenants in squalid housing, schools, the police - all seem to have much more urgent claims.

Thus without any deliberate strategy being adopted, library hours are squeezed, staff are let go, some facilities are closed altogether. It becomes harder for the public to use the service, usage figures decline, and the politicians feel more justified in chipping away what remains.

The idea: shelve the system

Library users do not have to endure this vicious circle of decline. Some cities have started to think radically, and ask: do libraries necessarily have to be owned and run by governments?

Example: the origins of public libraries

Libraries have not always been under government control. In the United Kingdom in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, private endowments provided funds for libraries and education. The eighteenth century too saw the rise of libraries financed by subscription, and the founding of the British Library in 1759 was made possible principally through public donations.

In the 1881-1911 period, the Scottish-born US steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie provided funds to establish libraries in all the principal Scottish towns and elsewhere. Up until the 1970s, UK booksellers and retailers such as W H Smith, Boots, and the Co-operative maintained their own private libraries which lent books to their customers for a small charge. And despite changing technologies, video libraries still operate commercially today.

In 1850 some British towns started to finance their own libraries out of local taxation, though it was from 1900 onwards that tax-funded libraries started to grow quickly in number. By the end of the century, however, costs had escalated and services were being cut back.

Example: contracting-out today

What, then, can be done to stem the decline of public libraries today? One modest example from the United States might show the way.

Since July 1997, twenty-five public libraries in Riverside County, California have been run by Library Systems and Services Inc - a private-sector service supplier - working in partnership with the County. Under the $5 million contract, LSSI promised 25% increases in library hours and in the book purchasing budget. The results have been praised as showing that the library service can be managed very effectively by private concerns without compromising its ethos and integrity.

Before LSSI were brought in, Riverside had exactly the same problems that cause local authorities everywhere to cut back on service. Cash had been taken out of the libraries budget to meet the more electorally sensitive needs of local schools. Book purchases and opening hours were being cut in order to save money.

Now, complaints from users have virtually ceased. Circulation - the number of books and other items lent out - increased 10%. LSSI has expanded library hours by 34%, doubled book purchases, increased staff by nearly 50%, and maintained salary levels. And all within the same budget. Having seen the results, other US cities have been keen to sign contracts with LSSI.

Other townships have come up with their own solutions to the problem of failing public libraries. Elsewhere in California, libraries have been sold to non-profit bodies and staffed by local volunteers. Dayton, Ohio, contracted out the cataloguing function in its libraries to OCLC, saving 63% on the budget, with no loss of jobs.

Libraries are changing in the United Kingdom too. Instant Library, part of the Tribal Group consultancy, offers various services in librarianship - including purchasing, cataloguing, shelving, and processing - as well as records management, data management and document control, both to private-sector bodies and to public agencies alike.

The company's clients include Homerton College Cambridge, the government's Commission for Health Improvement, the Law Society, Readers Digest, and Loughborough University, as well as local authority libraries. Instant Library and the DS Group have formed a partnership with the British Library, enabling them to offer clients a wide range of high-tech cataloguing and bibliographic services

Assessment: bringing services to book

It may be hard for local librarians to accept that, just possibly, someone else could run the service more cost-effectively than they. Or they worry that if libraries are no longer run by public servants, their social-service dimension will be lost or they will be easy prey to publishers who want to push their own wares.

The same sorts of arguments were floated when refuse collection, school meals, and other local services were first put out to tender. Today, nobody thinks twice about it, because fresh ideas, new capital, better management and more competition have delivered better services at lower cost.

Clearly, libraries must remain community-oriented, serving local needs, including the social-service dimension. But they do not have to be managed and run by public servants in order to do that. With care, the whole of that public-service function can be captured in an operating contract. Indeed, the fact that it has to be specified with precision may make us more aware of the wider community role of libraries.

It may not be easy to specify or measure such wider values; but if we can, it makes the case for the preservation of library services stronger. And if we can cut costs and raise service quality by contracting-out, then the future for local libraries becomes even brighter.

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