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62nd IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 25-31, 1996

Contracting Out Of Public Libraries

Barbro Thomas
Swedish National Council for Cultural Affairs


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.



The paper is focused on the ideological framework of the public library as well as the principal question ; how should a public library be organized and funded and still be regarded a public institution. Does it matter who runs a public library ? To that issue I am refering to some current Swedish experiences of contracting out of public libraries.

The ideological framework

Since decades there exists a consensus of what a public library is and how a it should be organized and funded. Aims and objectives for the public library seem to be universal, even if due to local conditions differences exist.

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:

  • "As a democratic institution, operated by the people for the people, the public library should be

  • Established and maintained by the clear authority of law

  • Supported wholly or maintained from public funds

  • Open for free use on equal terms to all members of the community, regardless of occupation, creed, class or race."

    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.

    Public versus private

    During the last decade, at least in Western democracies there has been a political movement towards "privatization" of the public sector. The public sector and the welfare systems had in many cases grown out of control.At the same time as industrial growth faced a stagnation which in combination with the technical development caused high unemployment rates. Governments and local authorities were forced to reduce public expenditure and to try to find new solutions to maintain public services. The private sector served as a model. Competition from the private sector was the magic trick to make the public sector more effecive and above all more cost effective.Consultants experienced a golden age that they might never face again.

    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

    Alternative solutions for management of the public sector, including public libraries, has been discussed passionately in Sweden since the late 80-s.

    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.

    The Swedish experience

    Are was the first contracted out Swedish library system although alternative solutions, in house bids included, for the public sector had been practised for limited services. The contracting out of Are public library provoked and upset Swedish librarians and caused a passionate debate. By the end of 1991 the holding company that was contracted to run the Are public library went bankrupt. The cont ract was terminated and the public library was again run as an ordinary public institution. And still is.

    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?

    Three years later

    The results from the 1993 survey were not encouraging and not unambiguously in favour of contracting out. A quick survey, March 1996, showed that all libraries except one were still run by contractors. However, the wave of contracting out public libraries have faded away. Newcomers are more or less non existent. The whole thing of contracting out of public libraries has become a lame duck.


    The experience of contracting out Swedish public libraries causes some principal questions.

    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.


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