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In 1990 the local authorities in Are, Sweden signed a contract with a private company to run the public library system for a period of five years. This caused a passionate debate among Swedish librarians and politicians. The private company went bankrupt in 1991 and Are public library was again run as a public institution. The wave of contracting out libraries continued and in 1993 about ten libr aries were at least partly run by contractors.
The current development causes some ideological and principal questions; what a public library is and what it stands for. Does it matter if the public library is run as a classic, old fashioned public sector institution, if it is contracted out to a private company or if run by a non profit orgaization.
It is likely that international documents as the UNESCO Public Library Manifesto has contributed to create this consensus. In the Public Library Manifesto first published in 1949 it was declared that;
"The public library is a product of modern democracy and a practical demonstration of democracy-s faith in universal education as a life long process"
It was further declared that:
Whatever might be the reason, there exists a strong international consensus of what a public library is and what it stands for.
Historically, Swedish public libraries had a very close connection to the voluntary educational movement. For a long time voluntary educational organizations run their own libraries. And municipal public libraries were primarily seen as tools to provide opportunities for volontary and non formal education. The public library played an important role in the general education movement and in the de mocratic process.
Since the 50-s Swedish public libraries are publicly funded institutions based on political decisions and the responsibility of the local authorities. Something that was never questioned until the early 90-s.
In many countries the public sector was forced to carry through heavy budget cuts. Public institutions were also expected to earn their income to a higher degree from charges and fees. The canging of attitudes became visible in Great Britain in the 70-s during Lady Thatcher-s era as prime Minister. But it would probably be unfair to blame or praise just Lady Thatcher.
The attitudes could be summarized as follows:
Contracting out was seen as a possible solution. Open competition was considered favourable to promote effectiveness and creativity. Contracting out in this context means that a local authority places activities in the hands of a private company. And pays for it. The municipality however retains the complete responsibility for the activity and determines quality as well as quantity of the service offered. Contracting out of public services is in this respect not something completely new. It has been practised for a limited range of activities, such as garbage collecting, catering and maintenance services such as cleaning and office services.
What was radically new was when in 1990 the local authorities in Are, Sweden signed a contract with a private company to run the whole public library system for a period of five years.
That was the end of that. But the ambition to find alternative solutions for the public library service continued. Two years later almost ten municipalities had contracted out, at least parts of the public library system. As the profit from running public libraries had proved rather poor the private sector lost interest. But other interested parties appeared.
By 1993 The Swedish National Council for Cultural Affairs carried out a survey to examine what happened to the contracted out libraries.
The libraries examined faced different solutions. One branch library (Jrna) was contracted out to a group of booksellers. Another example was Hllefors where the main library and a branch library were contracted out to a local book shop.
In some cases branch libraries were contracted out to the Worker-s Educational Association, or to the association for volontary education for the Centre and the Liberal Parties. These associations played an important role in the volontary educational movement in the beginning of the century and, as said above, they also run libraries during the first decades of the century. That means that these contractors had a tradition of running libraries even if the experience now is 50 years old.
In one case however a branch library was contracted out to the the National Association of Tenants Savings and Building Society (HSB). An association that can not be said to have any library experience whatsoever.
Still other examples were where branch libraries were handed over to Library Friends or other volontary associations. Maintenance of the library was in those cases based on unpayed volontary work.
The conclusions in the survey published by the Swedish National Council for Cultural Affairs in 1994 were not unambigous.
Three main reasons why alternative maintenance had been chosen could however be identified.
Firstly economical; alternative solutions for maintenance were supposed to save money.
Secondly; there was a paradigm shift from government that the public sector ought to compete with the private sector. Competition would lead to better cost effectiveness.
Thirdly; some local authorities had very strong ideological reasons for contracting out. Competetition with the private sector was intrinsically good, no matter the cost.
However, nothing proved that alternative maintenance had caused lower cost and/or better services. The purchasing procedure had been far from professional, which made it impossible to evaluate what was ordered and what was payed for. What was evident was that the libraries examined did not show any advantages that would not have been able to obtain in ordinary public institutions. This raised one crucial question, namely; what is it in the public sector that prevents creativity and efficiency ? And would it not be a good idea to get to the bottom of that problem?
Why did the contracting out of public libraries cause such a passionate debate, when contracting out of other public services such as garbage collecting did not ?
Garbage collecting is a very important public service in a civilised society. And if not properly operated it will immediately cause damage.
The explanation probably is that there is a principal difference between garbage collecting and public libraries. There exists a very strong feeling, not only among the profession but also among citizens, that some institutions ought to be run as public institutions.(Operated by the people for the people) In addition very few would find it a good idea to contract out the National Defence.
The public library is a part of a democratic society and profit should not be made on their maintenance. In the mind of people and of librarians the public library run as a public institution is a symbol for a democratic society.
It is thus probable that, as management and operative form for public libraries, contracting out will be of interest only as subject for discussion and will hardly leave any trace in the constant development of public library activities.
Borrowed time ? The future of Public Libraries in the UK. June 1993. Comedia, The Round, Bournes Green, Near Stroud, Glostershire GL6 7NL.
Bostedt, G., Bibliotek pa entreprenad, Kommunmedborgarna och biblioteksverksamheten i Are kommun en studie av forandrade kommunala verksamhetsformer, Sundsvall: Mitthgskolan. 1995
Contracting Out in Public Libraries. DHN Study. Report by KPMG and CPI. February 1995. The earned income of public library authorities; report on a study for the Office of Arts and Libraries by Capital Planning Information Limited. 1991.
Entreprenad till vilket pris ? En studie i alternativa driftsformer vid folkbiblioteken. Rapport fran Statens Kulturrad 1994:1.
Freden, Nils. Swedish Public Libraries Reorganise Experiments with changed Forms of Management. SPLQ n. 2 1993.
Lonnerblad, Bengt. Contracting out an alternative for Public Libraries ? SPLQ n. 2 1993.
Maurois, Andr. Public Libraries and their Mission. Paris, UNESCO, 1961.
Review of the Public Library Service in England and Wales; for the Department of National Heritage. ASLIB Report. 1995.
Thomas, Barbro. UNESCO Public Library Manifesto. Paper presented at the IFLA General Conference 1992. Thomas, Barbro. Public Responsibility for Public Libraries. Paper presented at the IFLA Seminar, August 1993, Guimaraes, Portugal.