Turning Back the Clock

Macdonald Daly and Gordon Riddell look back and reflect on the changes in public libraries

In March of this year, the British Government's Office of Arts and Libraries published a consultative paper, Financing our Public Library Service: Four Subjects for Debate, which proposed, initially in England alone, the limited 'privatisation' of library services. Borrowers (renamed 'customers' by the green paper) would not be charged for reference materials, books and comparable printed matter, but it is proposed to raise money by introducing a subscription service whereby readers who can afford to do so may receive new novels and biographies on demand. Other suggestions include: the pursuit of joint ventures between public libraries and private businesses; the encouragement to contract out parts of the library service to private companies; and the restructuring of current powers to charge for 'non-basic' services, such as the provision of non-print materials.

These designs will not surprise anyone who has followed the present Government's legislative activities, and have generated a corresponding degree of opposition which, at its strongest, embodies a suspicion that these proposals are only provisional: they may prove to have been the first steps towards a more thoroughgoing future privatisation. For our purposes, the crucial political feature of the new proposals is their similarity to many of those recently forwarded by the Adam Smith Institute, which has used certain historical facts about the development of the British public library service to promote a case for the ultimately complete organisation of the service along private enterprise lines. In particular, in its booklet Ex Libris (1986), the Institute has argued that, historically, the growth of public libraries was not exclusively funded from the public purse, but relied heavily on income from private sources.

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