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April 4, 2013

New model for libraries in the UK raises questions

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Neoliberalism is bad for everything, but it is especially bad for libraries.

As budgets for libraries have shrunk, communities are starting to look to new ways to keep the doors open. In the UK, they’re turning to “social enterprise” companies, according to an article by Tim Smedley in the Guardian. “Social enterprises” are companies, as Wikipedia tells us, “that apply commercial strategies to maximize improvements in human and environmental well-being, rather than maximizing profits for external shareholders.” And they’re moving into the library field in a big way, picking up libraries along with other social services no longer adequately funded by local governments.

Smedley points to the example of Wigan, a town near Manchester (memorable to most from George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier) that “outsourced its entire leisure and culture services in 2003.” The Wigan Leisure and Culture Trust now runs everything from the libraries to the parks—and even the cemeteries. London too is facing these types of arrangements: one of the first “leisure trusts” to be established, GLL, was awarded the contract to take over the Greenwich libraries earlier this year.

Two things stand out as being particularly disturbing: 1) the undeclared abdication by local governments of their responsibilities for these services, and 2) the fact that these social enterprises really don’t want the libraries…because they don’t make money. For instance, the director of WCLT is quoted as saying that they might be interested in other library contracts, but only because “libraries may be part of a wider package…which would be our preference.” Other social enterprise-run libraries have attempted to monetize the libraries by installing cafes, using the spaces to sell recycled electrical equipment, selling off old library books, and—briefly but disastrously, at the Kirklees branch library in West Yorkshire—charging for internet access.

This is a distinct erosion of the library’s historic nonprofit nature, and though there may be some advantages in the social-enterprise view of libraries more as community centers and less as sacrosanct temples of Literature, the fundamental mismatch in priorities seems bound to cause problems. And in fact, a study from the European Services Strategy Unit suggests that leisure trusts like the WLCT are not demonstrably better at their jobs, notably bad on labor issues, and often leave communities in the lurch. I say, if you just want to run a high-profit Splash and Slide™ Water Park, with $10 hot dogs, go run your Splash and Slide. But stay away from my library.

Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.

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