Centre for Research on Globalisation
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The Corporate Takeover of Libraries

by Ruth Rikowski,


http://libr.org/ISC/    February 2002

Centre for Research on Globalisation (CRG),  globalresearch.ca,     February 2002


 <[email protected]>

How then, can we illustrate that the corporate takeover of libraries is on the agenda and indeed, is already taking place? The corporate takeover of libraries can be placed within three distinct categories: - commercialisation, privatisation and capitalisation, and these will be considered below. All three areas can help to fulfil the fundamental aims of the GATS - which in essence, is the opening up the public services to capital (see the articles under the section on the GATS in this issue, for further information). However, some would argue that our public services are not covered under the GATS. Lord Newby, for example, argued in the 'You and Yours' radio programme (BBC, 2001) that our public services are not covered under the GATS, and he said that:

My understanding is that services provided by government...by the public sector, the GATS Agreement as it currently stands, are not covered. (BBC, 2001)

However, if one reads the GATS (1994) document carefully, it is very ambiguous, to say the least, as to whether public services are included or not (Rikowski, 2001). 'Services' are defined in the GATS Agreement in Part 1 Article 1, on Scope and Definition' and in point (b), in the following way:

..."services" includes any service in any sector except services supplied in the exercise of governmental authority. (WTO, 1995)

Furthermore, Part 1 Article1(c) of the GATS Agreement indicates:

...a "service" supplied in the exercise of governmental authority" means any service which is supplied neither on a commercial basis, nor in competition with one or more service suppliers.

But this includes almost all public services; few public services have no element of competition today. In a document issued by the Trade Policy Directorate on 7th March this year it was argued that:

The GATS excludes from its coverage any service supplied in the exercise of governmental authority. Such services are those "which [are] supplied neither on a commercial basis, nor in competition with one or more service suppliers." Our interpretation (and that of the WTO Secretariat) is that this excludes public services such as health and education services (although private services would be covered by the GATS)... However, since the terms have not been tested in WTO jurisprudence, some commentators have suggested that the GATS poses a risk to state provision of these services. We do not believe these fears are justified. (Trade Policy Directorate, 2001)

Under this statement it appears that we are reliant on interpretations of what 'services' means under the GATS. Yet one possible interpretation could be that virtually all our public services would be included under the GATS. It is, to say the least, ambivalent.

2. The corporate takeover of libraries: commercialisation, privatisation and capitalisation

There are three interrelated aspects of the corporate takeover of libraries in England as driven by the GATS: commercialisation, privatisation and capitalisation. Sub-divisions within these can also be identified. All this will now be explored in some detail, followed by examples of where these developments are already occurring in libraries and information.

First, there is commercialisation. This can be broken down into four distinct sub-divisions. First of all, there is the creation of markets or quasi-markets in libraries. A second aspect of library commercialisation is that the library is viewed as a site for selling products and services, and this process is already well underway, with notions of income streams and income generation already well established.

The third sub-division is where libraries are viewed by private enterprises as sites for the promotion of their products: advertising, public relations exercises and product promotions are the primary mechanisms here. Private companies could rent out a small part of a library, for example, provide a 'service' and in this way advertise themselves. This third aspect of commercialisation links with the first, and the creation of a library service market means that individual libraries or chains of libraries, even library services within a still public library field, are forced to compete. This last element of competition points towards 'library league tables' as with schools and now hospitals and police services. As already indicated, this competitive environment is already being created, under 'Best Value'. Libraries are being forced to compete against each other (like schools and colleges) and an inspection regime (i.e. Best Value Inspections) will enforce competition as a core value. The aim within the library standards, for example, is to get all public library services into the top 25%, although this is clearly a logical impossibility. There are four 'Best Value' principles enshrined in the Best Value Guidance for librarians in England known as the '4Cs', and one of these '4Cs' is 'Challenge' and,

Challenge is intrinsically linked with competition (Best Value Guidance for Libraries in England, Watson, 2001, para 5.1)

Under 'Compete' (another of Best Value's '4 Cs') it refers to the creation of a market:

Library authorities should also explore potential future providers and take steps to encourage them to create a climate for competition that will enable the market to develop. (Watson, 2001, para 5.1)

The '4Cs' will be expanded on under the section on Best Value, but what is clear at this stage is that a market in library services is being nurtured by the Best Value regime. This market is a necessary condition for the opening up of public library services to corporate capital. The overall vision for this is GATS-inspired. Making these links is crucial.

The fourth form of commercialisation involves 'extraction'. Here, libraries can be used as sites for extracting money (and this money can then be distributed to various private companies), which in turn helps to provide investment and thus to ensure the continued success of global capitalism. Micropayments (small payments for Internet use) will be discussed later in this context.

The second aspect of the corporate takeover of libraries is Privatisation - and this and this can be sub-divided into three main forms. Firstly, libraries can be run for profits directly, with up-front charges for core services. This could involve privatisation of a complete library service, or parts of a library service. This will not happen in any significant way in the short-term, as not enough money can currently be made out of libraries, but it could happen in the long-term, when the 'market is ripe'. This would occur after various changes have taken effect. For example, voluntary organisations running public library services in the short-term and turning themselves into for-profit organisations in the long-term and the introduction of micropayment schemes on the Internet, when it is possible to obtain significant amounts of money from people undertaking transactions in libraries on the Internet.

A second form of privatisation involves companies making profits out of running libraries at a lower cost than the price they are contracted to run them. They might also develop new product lines, and engage in outsourcing and sub-contracting in order to make profits. This is the Government's preferred form of privatisation at the current time, as they can then still claim that library services are basically in the 'public' sector.

The third form is where the private sector takes over and runs capital projects, such as the building of a new central library or a service-wide ICT system. The Private Finance Initiative (PFI) comes under this category.

The third category of the corporate takeover of libraries is Capitalisation. Here, libraries are viewed as sites of capital accumulation and profit making. The capitalisation of libraries means that the other two processes - commercialisation and privatisation - are brought together to ensure that libraries and library services and operations become commodified (they can be bought and sold) and library services are established with profit making as primary directive and goal. Secondly, library enterprises become traded and enter into the humdrum world of the stock and futures markets. Thirdly, and most fundamentally, capitalisation involves a process whereby labour comes to take on a specific social form such that it is geared up to creating value and profit, with consequences for de-professionalisation and the recomposition of skills and responsibilities. This leads to endless library reviews and re-designation of jobs that function to smooth the way for the various forms of commercialisation and privatisation of library services.

The three aspects of the corporate takeover of libraries, with examples, are addressed in detail below. Collectively, they add up to a new library experience - for library and information users and library and information workers. This is an experience shaped by the forces of capital: the value form of labour, markets, library enterprises and the profit making process.

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Copyright   .  2002. Reprinted for fair use only

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