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This blog post was published under the 2015-2024 Conservative Administration

Life in an outsourced library service

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[Editors note: Guest blog from Peter Barr, adapted from an article he wrote for the CILIP Update magazine]

The pros and cons of outsourcing within the public sector is a political debate to be had elsewhere. For library staff who find themselves working under an outsourced arrangement, they are a practical reality that need to be understood. Outsourcing can be used as something of a catch-all term and can mean anything from outright sell-off to mutualisation. There are likely as many kinds of outsourcing arrangements as there are organisations willing to outsource. Therefore, we can only speak from our experience of working under an outsourced agreement to manage the library service at Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth (BRNC).

Britannia Royal Naval College. Photo credit: Andrew/flickr
Britannia Royal Naval College. Photo credit: Andrew/flickr

Britannia Royal Naval College library

BRNC Library was outsourced as part of a wider outsourcing of Royal Naval Training. The Navy naturally maintained key aspects of training for itself but decided to rely on a contractor to provide the rest. It is easier to understand how the library's outsourcing functions in this context. The Library was not ‘sold off’. The Navy still owned it but paid the contractor to manage it. When contracted staff deliver seamanship training, they do so with MOD owned boats using MOD owned life jackets. Similarly, for the library, the study space, its systems and its collections are all MOD assets paid for with MOD money. The staffing is provided by the contractor but, in the case of BRNC – at least initially – these were inherited from the civil service.

On day one of outsourcing, the library service would have looked identical to the last day of civil service control. Similarly, when there is a change of contractor, the staff are not replaced wholesale but rather pass over to a new employer. The joke often is that it is the same people in different polo shirts. This changeover is governed by TUPE (Transfer of Undertakings – Protection of Employment) arrangements that allowed staff to maintain their previous terms and conditions so that former MOD employees retain their civil service terms even after outsourcing (although TUPE rights can be lost if an employee signs a new contract).

Tips for success

Outsourcing is governed by a contract arrangement between the authority and the contractor with the potential for all the added elements of modern librarianship – particularly information literacy support – to be excluded. I believe we were able to deliver a successful academic library service because of the individual relationships that were established, overseen by a sound governance procedure. To rely on a business document to define the full scope of our service would have been folly. It was necessary to work proactively with the authority to develop their understanding of the library's offer, as an acrimonious relationship between authority and contractor ultimately benefits neither side.

Most of the MOD's KIM (Knowledge and Information Management) specialism remains within the organisation, and our ability to tap into this wider network was testament to the generosity of the staff even while the wider institution remained exclusory. To return to the point with which we began, the decision to outsource or otherwise is a political one and usually not a choice made by the library professional. They are a practicality and, as such, it proves more practicable to work with and around them, rather than directly against.

Adapted by the author from an article that appeared in CILIP Update. Peter now works at Sheffield University.


Please note, this is a guest blog. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of Libraries Taskforce or the DCMS.

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