Skip to content or view screen version

New research shows public libararies at threat under GATS

Stuart Hodkinson | 25.04.2005 14:23 | Education | Globalisation

Publicly-owned, publicly-accountable libraries in the UK could be under serious threat unless citizens wake up to the planned liberalisation and expansion of international trade in services being negotiated behind closed doors in the World Trade Organisation (WTO), according to a new book by respected British academic and information expert, Ruth Rikowski.

Globalisation, Information and Libraries examines the implications for the world's state-funded libraries of the WTO's most infamous treaties - GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services) and TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects
of Intellectual Property Rights). GATS is a set of trade rules whereby WTO member countries must open up their service sectors to the global market.

Rikowski provides compelling evidence that assurances made by the UK government, the European Commission and the WTO at various times that all public services such as health, education, water, housing, and libraries are exempt from GATS are in fact bogus. The steady process of commercialisation and private sector involvement in public services in the last decade means that the public sector will inevitably come under GATS rules.

Consequently, state-funded libraries in the UK and across the world could be forced, in time, to turn into profit-making enterprises that will open the door to long-term privatisation. Although the UK (under the EU) has not so far committed its Library Service to the GATS, this could easily change in future negotiations with other advanced industrial countries, particularly as private companies search for ripe opportunities.

TRIPS, meanwhile, is about the trading of various intellectual property rights, including copyright, trade marks, geographical indications, patents, industrial
designs and trade secrets. Rikowski shows that TRIPS is not concerned with moral and humane issues in regard to intellectual property rights but instead allows corporations to appropriate, patent and then profit from the traditional knowledge of indigenous populations in the poorest developing countries without giving due recompense.

In essence, Rikowski argues that through GATS and TRIPS, services and intellectual property rights are being transformed into international tradable commodities, which are then sold in the market-place for profit. Library and
information professionals, therefore, urgently need to become more aware of how GATS and TRIPS threaten their professional ethics and principles, and impact on
issues of copyright (such as the balance in copyright), and the public good.

Speaking in advance of her forthcoming book launch, Ruth Rikowski said: "In Britain today we already have examples of private companies running public library services (e.g. in the London Borough of Haringey), and many examples of public-private partnerships building new libraries. Coupled with the growing pressures on libraries to generate income and operate more like private companies rather than public good providers, the 'commercialisation by stealth' of
British libraries and information is an everyday reality. When a country signs up its Library Service to GATS it means that foreign corporations must be allowed the
right to compete with local authorities and domestic firms for the provision of public library services. This will open up the way for privatisation which could, in
the future, threaten the British public library free at the point of use."

"Capitalism is based on aims and drives such as making profits for companies,creating markets, buying and exchanging commodities and money. Our public services, including our public libraries are based on a completely different set of principles: community, sharing, the public service ethos, the notion of libraries being a 'public good' and human self expression", said Rikowski.


1. Ruth Rikowski is a well-known author and academic with 25 years experience as an information professional. Ruth is an Observer on the EBLIDA (European Bureau of Library Information and Documentation Association) WTO Working
Group. She is currently a Visiting Lecturer at London South Bank University and the University of Greenwich. She is also the Commissioning Editor for the Chandos Series for Information Professionals and co-editor of the ejournal
Information for Social Change, available at

2. Her new book is entitled: Globalisation, Information and Libraries: the Implications of the World Trade Organisation's GATS and TRIPS Agreements (Chandos)

3. There will be a book launch for the book at London South Bank University on Tuesday, 26th April 2005. This will be introduced by Professor Deian Hopkin, the Vice-Chancellor there, who amongst his many achievements has published widely on Labour and press history. In addition to Ruth, other speakers will include: George Bell, Tom Lines, Helena Kotkowska, Dave Black, Dr Lee Rose, Matti Kohonen, Professor Dave Hill, Linda Kaucher and Dr Glenn Rikowski.

Martha Spiess from the States, who has worked with Indymedia Maine, is coming over to video the book launch, primarily for the purpose of sharing the information and ideas with concerned citizens and campaigners in the US and

Stuart Hodkinson
- e-mail:
- Homepage: