Libraries and their users around the world are facing complexity and uncertainty, both in maintaining operations today, and in their future planning.
Clearly a main area of concern is how to reopen and resume services safely for users and staff, given that our understanding of COVID-19 is still developing. Library associations and authorities are working hard to collect and present the latest evidence in order to inform their members.
Two further areas of doubt are around funding, and legal guarantees for library activities and values. With some libraries already having to furlough or lose staff, and a strong likelihood of cuts in future, there will almost certainly be the need to engage in discussions about how – and how much – library services are paid for.
Meanwhile, with the pandemic forcing libraries alongside many others to switch to digital service provision, the legal basis on which libraries can provide access to information, education, research and culture online has become a major topic.
In both cases, there is an underlying question – to what extent is it advisable for libraries to rely on choices made by private actors – companies, philanthropists, others – in order to carry out their work?
This blog looks at the issues.
Complement, don’t Compete: Funding
The most obvious area where the balance between the public and private comes up is in funding. The Public Library Manifesto makes it clear that this should come from local and national governments.
This reflects the point made in the Manifesto that public libraries are there to deliver on a range of public interest goals. Yet the same goes for other types of library – national libraries which safeguard the historical record, academic libraries that enable research, school libraries that support literacy and education and as well as many special libraries.
Part of this is down to the sense that public funding should – ordinarily – be more stable. It is rare – although not unknown – for governments to ‘fail’. It is also the case that when there is a proposal to amend library funding, this should be subject to due process, with opportunities for review and influence.
The focus on public funding is also, arguably, linked to the mandate of many libraries to serve all members of the community without discrimination, just as other public services are expected to do.
In contrast, private actors can face situations that would force them to stop providing support, or simply can change their minds without such strong obligations to explain themselves. Especially when services are offered on a market basis, they can also often be little direct incentive to serve the poorest and most vulnerable.
This is clearly not to exclude the possibility of private funding. Libraries globally have benefitted from engagement with the private sector in order to invest in capital – both buildings and equipment, where local laws allow for this.
Partnerships can enable the provision of new services, either through corporate social responsibility, or an understanding that investing now – for example by offering internet connectivity or coding classes – can build demand later on. Sometimes, even, private funding allows for pilot projects which are then taken over and scaled up with public funding when they show their worth.
This is welcome, and we can be grateful to library benefactors for all they do. What is clear, however, is that this support should be additional. It should complement existing public (or institutional, in the case of academic libraries for example) funding, rather than replacing it, in order to ensure that libraries retain their universal, public service focus.
Guarantees, not just Goodwill: Laws
The second area where the relationship between the public and private comes up is in law, and in particular, how much legal certainty libraries and their users have in what they do.
A key function of the law is to step in when there is a risk that, otherwise, people’s rights may not be respected. This can happen when one actor is stronger than another – because they are bigger, richer, have more information, or indeed have been granted monopoly powers by other laws.
Key laws for libraries include copyright and privacy. In the case of copyright, most countries – and indeed international law – recognise that there is a need to guarantee the possibility to carry out certain activities – such as quotation, preservation or education – as exceptions to the monopoly rights offered to rightholders.
Yet due to the concept of freedom of contract – i.e. that the terms of contracts override what may exist elsewhere in the law – these exceptions frequently do not apply in the case of digital content (usually acquired or accessed under a contract (or licence)). While some countries – including those in the European Union – have moved to limit the possibility for contracts to override exceptions, his is far from universal.
The impact of this has been clear during the COVID-19 Pandemic, with contract terms limiting the possibility for libraries to give remote access to works that could have been accessed on-site.
While there have been welcome initiatives from many publishers and rightholders to provide access, it seems contrary to the objective of exceptions in the first place to need to rely on goodwill, rather than legal guarantees in order to be able to support, education, research and access to culture. At least ensuring that the law offers a back-stop, where voluntary action is not taken, seems necessary.
Privacy too is a major concern. With many services collecting data from users – either in place of, or in addition to, fees – there is a particular need for effective laws that protect against unauthorised and/or unethical retention and use.
With a much greater share of teaching, research and simple communication needing to take place online currently – in particular outside of campus networks – the risks of tracking usage and behaviours, as well as vulnerability to cybercrime, grow.
There is therefore a pressing need for companies to be held to high standards, with the law providing a guarantee for privacy. It should not be the case that users need to rely on the goodwill of private actors not to gather private data without full and meaningful consent.
Attitudes towards reliance on private funding and goodwill to support libraries will vary from culture to culture, and depend very much on the prevalent political philosophy.
Nonetheless, as highlighted at least the Public Library Manifesto, there should not be any question of excluding public funding. As a result, it is more a case of finding the right balance.
The COVID-19 pandemic – and its aftermath – is likely to force reflection on this balance. It will be important to ensure that we can make the case a situation where libraries can offer a stable, public-focused universal service, and can rely on the law in order to fulfil their missions.