Centralized Library Services on a Spectrum

The collapse of Carillion in the UK was of passing interest but I only knew it in Canada as a construction company.  I hadn’t realized that it also had a unit that did library outsourcing work.  Library outsourcing – and in particular, law library outsourcing – has been something that has always been a curiosity for me.  If you consider the spectrum of one site-one-organization-one library all the way out to one-site-many-organizations-many-libraries, there are a wide variety of options for centralizing services before you reach outright outsourcing.

An Australian law librarian, Fiona Brown, did a nice survey of the state of law library outsourcing in 2014, focused on the UK experience with a company (Integreon) that was moving into Australia.  LAC’s founder, Deb Schwarz, summarized her views on why the changing world of law firm libraries would impact outsourcing in 2016.  It’s interesting to contrast the views of librarians in Brown’s article – that space and location was critical to quality delivery – with Schwarz’s, that libraries are more service than destination.

Carillion had apparently already been on the radar for government units tasked with delivering public library services.  The gripes in this Guardian piece are pretty standard – you’d fire a library director or an outsourcing firm if the service was suffering.  It’s a different spectrum, but the piece also notes that Carillion’s exit means no more commercial outsourcing of libraries in the UK:  it’s either the municipality, a non-profit outsourcer, or the volunteers in 350+ libraries.  The choice has essentially been made to run it with tight funding or toss it over the wall to volunteers to figure out.

Public library outsourcing in the US has resulted in law suits.  The tensions seem to be the same.  The funders want to deliver a service but not at the current cost.  The people affected, whether staff delivering the service or the customer, identify ways that the service will be cheaper but not as effective.  It’s hard to tell what’s up and what’s down.  In an everyone’s-a-winner, vendor-powered awards, Library Systems & Services, a leading public library outsourcer was a winner.  They have clients who renew.  So while not everyone’s happy with outsourcing, there appears to be a model that works in some environments.

As I started, outsourcing is just the final point on a discussion of centralization.  It’s interesting to me that we have seen outsourcing in private law firm libraries but not in public law libraries, although we’ve seen them in public libraries.  I expect it’s because, as a rule, it’s not a sufficiently lucrative environment.  Where there are statutes requiring law libraries, they may have such a low minimum of funding that it doesn’t make sense to try to build – and charge for – something larger.

Many of us are already on that spectrum.  Participate in a consortium that centralizes purchasing or license negotiation?  List your collection in a shared catalog or, like my library, run it on a cloud provider that is running many iterations of the same integrated library system?  Some of us are in government run attempts at more efficient delivery.

It’s tricky because once you leave one-site-one-organization-one-library, you rely on others to deliver the services and collection in the same way you do.  The London bar libraries had a purchasing arrangement where each focused on a particular collection, but that makes the assumption that everyone’s funding stays strong or that the collection will stay in place.

The benefit of an outsourcing arrangement is that it’s a business relationship, and so what’s being delivered and what it costs is contractual.  The Harrow councillors can complain because they knew what they were paying for.  Ad hoc arrangements to share or coordinate or collaborate aren’t worth the paper they’re written on if they only restate the collegial relationships we’ve already agreed to, and have no method of enforcement.  You can’t base law library operations on wishes.

In such a small (law library) world, I’ve never felt that there were enough good examples of relinquishing control for greater benefit to see patterns or benchmarks.  But that doesn’t mean the slider has a sweet spot for every type of library, between one and many.  I expect we could all be more aggressive at moving that slider further away from us to deliver services that are less location-dependent in a more efficient way.