As a trainee librarian, I’ve grown to be accustomed to, but not accept, the ravaging of public libraries, as councils rush to close libraries, privatise them or turn them over to volunteers. Government cuts are biting hard and libraries are an easy target for local authorities looking to make efficiency savings.
Things have been better, but by no means perfect, in academic libraries. Year-on-year staff cuts are a reality for many universities’ library staff, as is the constant struggle to demonstrate our value to institutions who are scrabbling around for dwindling government grants, and looking to cut costs accordingly.
I’m all-too familiar with the constant threat to public and HE libraries, to the extent of viewing every new story of a library closed with as much resignation as indignation these days.
But sometimes this stuff hits so close to home it hurts. First it was my hometown. Now London Metropolitan University, where I’m halfway through my MA Information Management, is selling off its support services, including its libraries.
Quite how an institution that has taught librarians for over fifty years squares that with selling off its library services to the highest bidder is bewildering. The current government’s lethal addiction to selling off, privatising or outsourcing every last piece of public infrastructure has enabled a proliferation of self-serving doublethink that seems to be infecting universities too.
The mechanics of how a schism between university-run teaching services and privately run support services would work are questionable. It’s difficult not to think that the quality of library provision would be affected, partly because of any private provider’s profit motive, partly because of the kind of close, organic relationship with teaching staff and students that academic libraries need to thrive. Academic libraries aren’t straight-up support services; they sit in a unique place between the academic and support functions in a university.
Then there’s the triumvirate of companies taking part in London Met’s tender process. BT, Capita and Wipro. Wipro is something of an unknown quantity, but BT and Capita’s outsourcing arms could fill a hall of shame all on their own. Add up the millions of pounds of public funds wasted by the two on failed or over-run capital projects and you could probably plug a sizeable hole in the national deficit.
Without going into great detail, here are some of Capita’s greatest hits from the European Services Strategy Unit’s Cost overruns, delays and terminations:105 outsourced public sector ICT projects report:
Not exactly confidence-inspiring stuff. And it gets worse – Critical Education suggests the setting up of a subsidiary company for London Met’s support staff could provide a backdoor for private investment and profiteering.
So far, so grim. Though it’s hard to begrudge universities that are fighting for their lives the right to take tough decisions on how their services are run, being in a financially precarious position needn’t mean an institution selling its soul. Whether threatening the Trade Union Congress Library, selling off the Women’s Library or putting its own library services in private hands, London Met, an institution famous for running CILIP chartered library courses, seems to be doing exactly that.
What this all means for myself and my fellow students at London Met’s Information Management School is unclear. Our course is still running, and the practical implications of part-privatisation are more likely to be felt by the university’s hard-pressed staff.
But, on an emotional level, as someone who loves libraries, as someone who’s paying money I can’t really afford and spending time I don’t really have to study around a full-time job and a family, so I can become a librarian, it’s hard to stomach my uni throwing its libraries to the wolves.