Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Public Libraries Corner: Commercial Partnerships in the Public Library

Sarah Ormes looks at the increase of net access in public libraries.

When walking into Bath Central Library readers would find it impossible not to notice Cybercity. Cybercity, as the prefix 'cyber' suggests, is an Internet project. Situated just beyond the issue and return desk Cybercity' consists of a screened off area which contains five PCs. Each of these PCs offers access to the Internet via a broad bandwidth leased line. The centre is fully staffed and has instantly available technical support. It is usually extremely busy with members of the public (at certain times of the day) queuing up to use the computers.

mini-thumbnail of library Users of the centre range from children and their parents, to Internet enthusiasts to OAPs. The centre offers access to the full range of Internet services including the WWW, local information e-mail. In fact, the centre has become popular with tourists who want to check their e-mail back home. Since its installation in March 1996 it has been extremely successful and Jane Carey, Bath's Librarian considers it an extremely positive addition to the library.

Other public librarians when reading about Cybercity may immediately wonder how Bath can afford to provide such a service. Chris Batt, Librarian of Croydon Library Service, has calculated that a well used leased line Internet connection alone would cost the average library £11,500 per annum - without considering staff, technical support and equipment costs. For most public libraries this is simply beyond their means as they struggle with annual budget cuts. They do just do not have the available funding to set up such a centre as their resources are already over stretched. The only way that most libraries could manage such a centre would be with additional funding from an outside source.

Bath, however, received no additional funding and sadly, like most libraries in the country, operates on an already over stretched budget. The library is able to provide Internet access only because Cybercity costs the library nothing to install, nothing to equip and nothing to manage. The only cost the library has to met is in terms of the floor space the Cybercity uses.

Cybercity is in fact not a library service at all but a cybercafe (without the coffee!) which is run for profit by a local company called Global Internet. Cybercity, like all cybercafes, offers charged access to the Internet. How it differs from other cybercafes is that instead of being situated in a shop/cafe it is found in the public library.

The partnership between Bath library and Cybercity came about when the library was approached by Global Internet. Global Internet felt that the public library was excellent site from which to offer Internet access 'to the lowest common denominator'. In return for space in the library the centre allows the library to be associated and seemingly provided a service that it could never afford to provide on its own.

The attractions of a public library site for a commercial company like Global Internet are fairly obvious. Libraries are used by a large number of people, usually have a very central position, are open long hours and are traditionally associated with high quality, positive services. The company does not have to pay rent for its site and has reduced overheads because it is inside the library. Global Internet is not alone in identifying the benefits of working with a public library in this way. Across the country other companies are working with libraries in a similar manner.

The most well known company working in partnership with public libraries is Input/Output. Since opening their first centre in Marylebone Library in November 1994 the company has expanded to having ten centres in public libraries across the country with three more currently being planned. Input/Output differs from Cybercity by setting up centres which not only offer public access to the Internet but also to software packages such as word-processing, spreadsheets, desktop publishing and so on. They also run a number of computer training courses.

Both their success and Global Internet's gives a strong indication that such partnerships between public libraries and these type of commercial companies looks likely to increase. They also show that there is a real demand from the public for these types of services. There is also obviously demand from public libraries themselves to host these centres.

Jane Little, Westminster Libraries Manager explains Westminster's reasons for going into the partnership with Input/Output:

We already had PCs for hire in our reference library at Marylebone. They were making a fair income but also a lot of work for the staff: people needed help setting the margins, etc. Our reference library staff weren't geared up to this and it was taking them away from their "real" work. David and James (who later became the directors of Input/Output) saw the PCs (they live locally) and came to us with a proposal: they would set up and run a centre, and we would share the income. We had a spare room and it sounded like us to be a good proposition: a service we knew our customers wanted; professionally-run; no risk to us; and it would generate income.

A similar successful story can be found at Richmond on Thames. Sheila Harden, Area Librarian for the London Borough of Richmond, calls her authority's experience of hosting a commercial computer centre a 'win/win situation'. Reader surveys had indicated to the library service that there was a demand for computer services to be provided but:

We had no opportunity within our current budget restraints to set-up, maintain and staff a computer centre and were unlikely to have in the foreseeable future.

By working with a private company enables public libraries to provide their users with access to service which the public want but the library itself could never afford to provide. All the centres seem to be very successful and well used by the public. Libraries involved have also noticed unexpected advantages in the partnerships with increases in the number of visitors to the library and a greater level of kudos with Council Members and with their readers.

These partnerships really do seem to be, as Sheila Harden calls says, a 'win/win situation'. But is it that straightforward? Are the benefits really that good for public libraries? Is it a positive partnership?- there are some librarians who think not.

Angela McCormick is the manager of The South Ayrshire Cyber Project, an IT initiative funded by South Ayrshire Council. The project is committed to maximising equal access to IT resources for members of the public. The authority aims to open a number of Cyber Centres in libraries across the county which will provide public access to the Internet, software packages and CD-ROMs. The first centre opened in June 1996 in Carnegie Library in Ayr and others are planned.

Angela McCormick has worked in the field of public access to computer technology for several years and is very aware of a desperation in people to become computer literate. People want to become computer literate in order to support their children's computer skills, join in conversations and generally feel involved in the information age. Computer literacy, she feels, is therefore simply too important an issue to be left to commercial companies. The main reason for computer centres in public libraries should be to help develop a computer literate population rather than make profits. She says

Computer literacy and the information available over the Internet are just as important as literacy and information was when Andrew Carnegie funded libraries one hundred years ago. Why charge so heavily for it?

Whereas Carnegie's libraries encouraged literacy for free, these partnerships ensure that computer literacy will be achieved at commercial rates. Rates which will too high for many members of society. Some librarians are uneasy about these partnerships and feel that they are incompatible with the public library ethos.

John Murphy, Group Manager of the Central Information Service of Sheffield Library and Information Service is another librarian who is concerned about the appropriateness of these commercial partnerships for public libraries. He says:

Whilst this appears on the surface to be a good way forward in that it allows libraries to achieve levels of investment in equipment, training and expertise which may not have otherwise been possible, the main problem is that such companies will always be driven by the commercial imperative to make a profit. This is not compatible with ensuring public access to information.

As John Murphy implies commercial companies will not be interested in the providing services to members of the public who cannot afford to pay - the very members of society who could benefit the most from access to information resources and IT. Commercial companies will not open computer centres in libraries which will not be commercially viable. Small and rural libraries will not be approached to host one of these computer centres. It may not be such a clear 'win/win' situation after all.

Both John Murphy and Angela McCormick are also concerned about whether libraries are making artificial distinctions between book based services and digital resources. By agreeing to work in such a partnership the library is making a distinction between book based resources, which they provide for free, and digital resources, which the company will charge for. As both books and computers are now mediums in which people need to be literate in order to take their place fully in society they wonder at the appropriateness of charging for computer access. As more and more print material becomes available solely in electronic form libraries will no longer be providing free access some resources simply because the medium through which it is accessed has changed. Libraries would not charge people access to books and print based medium - so why should they charge access to electronic media when the end result for the user is the same?

A debate on this issue recently took place in Denmark. Danish libraries were forced to come to a decision as a profession over whether the Internet was a new service or simply a new medium which was used to offer traditional information services. This distinction had to be because if the Internet was only a new medium it could not be charged for as information services are provided for free. If the Internet was classified as a new service then libraries would be free to charge for it as it was an additional service to the core free services.

After considerable debate it was decided that the Internet was a new medium for information services and therefore must be provided as a free service. This decision lends credence to John Murphy's and Angela McCormick's argument about the inappropriateness of working in partnership with companies which charge commercial rates for, in particular, Internet access.

For John Murphy there are serious consequences for the whole public library service if libraries continue to enter into these partnerships:

I believe the public library has to re-assert its role of providing free access. We lost the plot with audio-visual material several years ago, there is a grave danger we will do this again with electronic information resources. As these come to dominate informational publishing where will that leave the public library in its role as an information provider to all citizens?

Working with private computers therefore may be convenient in the short term but be in effect could be helping to weaken the future role of public libraries in society. With lending figures seemingly on a terminal decline public libraries could become sidelined unless they provide and run electronic information services themselves. But the question that needs to be answered if libraries do not work with private companies are how are libraries to afford to run and set up these services when they are suffering from such a budget crisis?

The question of whether to work with a private partner of not to provide Internet access and computer access presents a complex problem to the public library profession. Libraries who are involved in such partnerships are extremely pleased with the way the partnership works and have had positive feedback from the public. But the arguments against such partnerships are very worrying and do question the future implications for the library if such partnerships develop. It appears to be an insoluble difference of opinions and beliefs.

One development which may work to help resolve some of these issues will be the success or failure of the current LA/LIC Millennium Bid. If the Bid is successful and every library has free Internet access having a commercial company in the library charging for access to the Internet becomes a nonsense. One model suggested by Global Internet in a post successful-bid public library service is newly connected libraries turning to companies like themselves - who already have the expertise and experience of running public Internet services - and contracting them in to run their Internet services. The commercial companies would charge the library to run their Internet service and these costs would not be passed on to the user. The centres would then be run to the public library dictated ethos rather than simply to commercial aims and would operate at a professional and effective level.

But even in this model of service the questions about whether public libraries should provide computers for hire for purposes other than Internet access need to be addressed. There is also the danger that the Millennium Bid will not succeed. So either way the issue of whether to work with a private company or not will still be one that most library authorities will have to address at some point. It will be up to each authority to decide whether it is in fact a positive partnership.