There has been disquiet for a long time in the library field over commercial sponsorship such as Tesco with the Summer Reading Challenge in Scotland or Barclays Bank sponsoring wifi in public libraries in England. However, this brave new world of commercialisation and entrepreneurial one-upmanship chimes perfectly with the government’s neo-liberal economics, plans for a smaller state, and self-funding – or at the very least income generating – public services.
This is an approached accepted by both the Libraries Taskforce and SCL. For some it is seen as a pragmatic solution to fund projects and services that might otherwise not happen and there is no denying there is validity to this argument.
But equally commercial sponsorship is fraught with difficulties and ethical dilemmas for libraries and it’s wrong to consider those who raise such concerns as naive or un-realistic. The fundamental nature of public library provision and who funds it is at issue.
This is because much is made of libraries as safe, trusted, and neutral places. But in this context what does ‘neutral’ actually mean? Does it mean neutrality in terms of the endorsement of a product ? Do users ‘trust’ us not to promote the interest of one commercial company over another or indeed promote them at all?
An interesting and informative blog by Ian Clark, Barclays and the library marketing opportunity, highlights the difficulty regarding the use of Barclays Digital Eagles within libraries:
“BUT signing them up for a Google account, and visiting the Barclays Internet Help pages in the same session will significantly increase the chances of the individual in question receiving targeted ads in their inbox promoting various services Barclays delivers. In short then, Digital Eagles in libraries is a great opportunity for the bank to deliver direct advertising to individuals who are not currently online, who lack digital skills and, potentially, are not existing customers of Barclays (their Internet Help page also promotes their online banking services).”
The post ends on a very telling point about the future of library services if we hand over the responsibility for digital literacy:
“The skills and knowledge we have around using the internet effectively we are not passing onto the general public, we are asking providers of financial services to do it for us. How did we get into this mess? Is it a question of leadership? Is it the hollowing out of public services by central government? Is it the decline in professional ethics? For me it’s all these things and more. One thing is for certain, the future is bleak if we continue to believe that others can do it better than us.”
So, by encouraging and accepting commercial sponsorship and external help does the profession relinquish the right to claim libraries as safe and trusted spaces? Even more so, are we inadvertently allowing our users to be targeted for specific commercial interests? In which case, the claim for trustworthiness rings hollow.
Advocates for sponsorship would argue that this is a small price to pay for the continuation or development of library services.
However, the potential for reputational damage to such a trusted brand is high. Certainly, if we are to learn from the commercial sector then this is a valuable lesson to consider. After all, companies are quick to react over scandals that might impact on brand reputation, cases in point being the withdrawal of sponsorship over scandals affecting Fifa and the IAAF.
Barclays is a bank that has been beset by financial scandal resulting in a staggering £20 billion in fines and taxes imposed in recent years (imagine how little of that money could fund a well resourced and genuinely national library service). This includes Barclays being handed the biggest bank fine in UK history over manipulating the foreign exchange markets.
The Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds and HSBC have all faced fines for similar misdemeanours. In fact Britain’s biggest four banks have racked up almost £50billion in charges to cover fines and lawsuits since the financial crisis, with HSBC admitting to money laundering and then last year paying a huge fine over allegations its Swiss private bank helped rich clients avoid taxes.
And it’s not just banks. Tesco is the largest retailer in the UK, third largest in the world, and through its banking arm sponsors the Tesco Bank Summer Reading Challenge Scotland.
All fairly innocuous and philanthropic it might be assumed. However, Tesco itself is not free from scandal. It has been under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office and faces a £500 million fine for accounting irregularities. This is in relation to a shortfall in the retailers 2014 accounts and rigging its financial results to cover falling sales.
In addition, the Groceries Code Adjudicator, Christine Tacon, stated that Tesco “knowingly delayed paying money to suppliers in order to improve its own financial position”, and said the supermarket had seriously breached the industry’s code of conduct. She found extensive evidence that Tesco had acted unreasonably when delaying payments to suppliers.
Recently Tesco was also accused of inventing fictional farm brands that misled customers into thinking they were buying British produce, when in fact the produce was often sourced abroad.
So the question becomes, does the profession’s alliance with scandal riven banks and retailers undermine the very trust and neutrality we so often boast of?
But then again perhaps such ethical considerations are secondary to attracting funding, not just to conform with government expectations, but in order to ensure libraries continue to operate and offer much needed services. Perhaps, even, the public don’t actually care who funds wifi or literacy in libraries.
After all, every little helps..!