Ssshhh! The noisy US revolution coming to British libraries

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The Independent Culture

Public libraries could be set for a radical overhaul that could see books offered alongside coffee, murder mystery nights, poetry evenings and open mic sessions, should the plans of a private US company be given the green light. Library Systems & Services, a Maryland-based firm, runs 13 public libraries in the US. Its aim in Britain is to manage 15 per cent of public libraries within the next five years.

LSSI is in consultation with local authorities across the UK, proposing to transform libraries into "multifunctional spaces". It hopes to have won contracts in at least four local authorities by the end of the year.

The company's entry to the UK is being managed by Stuart Fitzgerald and Jim Lynch, former inspectors for the Audit Commission. "There is an inefficiency that has crept into library services," Mr Fitzgerald says. "It's wrong. And it's not how public money should be spent."

LSSI's entry into the UK could also mark the start of a fierce transatlantic bidding war. Its main UK rival is John Laing, which manages libraries in Hounslow. The two have already competed head-to-head in a number of tenders, including the £10m contract for Slough's libraries which was eventually awarded to Essex Council last year.

The revenue model will differ for each council, although LSSI claims it can run public libraries at a fraction of the cost of local authorities.

The "slacks and trainers mentality" among librarians will be abolished, Mr Lynch says. In its place will be "a rigorous service culture".

Mr Fitzgerald adds: "We will work with local partners: the health services, the police, the fire service and business to get their messages across. Those agencies will pay to keep the library building open, people will come in to get books and at the same time these events will be happening in the libraries with these agencies as our partners."

But it might not be a smooth transition. In California two lawsuits have been filed to block local authorities from withdrawing from the state system and outsourcing to LSSI. Roberta Stevens, the president of the American Library Association, warns: "One of the biggest risks is the long-term nature of these contracts and their lack of transparency, particularly for librarians. Local authorities have to be absolutely clear on long-term commitments before signing these deals."

Peter Allenson, Unite's national organiser for local government, said: "The prospect of libraries being taken over by private companies, which will invariably be seeking to make profits, will lead to a much diminished service for the millions of people that use libraries in the UK."

Mr Fitzgerald insists that book borrowing will remain free, while peripheral services, such as coffee shops, IT centres and bookshops, could be added. "This is not selling off the crown jewels," he says. "It is about putting the library in the hands of experts who will remain answerable to the council at all times."