The Society of Chief Librarians has agreed to partner with CILIP, the library and information association, to develop an ethical framework regarding commercial partnerships following the fallout from its controversial deal with the Home Office.
The SCL recently secured a contract with Home Office division UK Visas and Immigration to deliver biometric visa support services in 56 libraries across England, Scotland and Wales. However, the contract was condemned by library professionals, with 80 signing an open letter calling for workers to resist the scheme arguing that the "creeping normalisation and increased presence of Home Office divisions" in public libraries would "actively work against" the creation of an inclusive and diverse public library service.
CILIP said it had been contacted by “a number of parties” raising concerns about the new contract.
Among them were worries about the appropriateness of associating public libraries with visa and immigration processing and the risk this may present to the perceived neutrality and trust in public libraries, as well as the lack of prior engagement with CILIP before the announcement, given the potential reputational and ethical risks. CILIP also said that library staff had been in touch to express their discomfort about being asked to be involved in the service.
The organisation said that the trusted status of public libraries depended on the ethics of professional librarians, who "promote an ethos of public service, neutrality and respect for civil liberties including the right to privacy". It added that while it recognised that the "intense financial pressures" affecting many library authorities created an "impetus to diversify funding sources in order to maintain service provision", it was important to ensure that the extension of public library services to new activities was "informed by a clear commitment to the ethics of [the] profession and do not unintentionally undermine public trust or deter current or potential users from accessing the library".
"In CILIP’s view, there is a risk that by associating UK public libraries with visa and immigration services, particularly at a time of heightened public concern, this may cause reputational issues for the sector as a whole", said the body.
To address the concerns, CILIP and the SCL have agreed to partner on the development of a guidance note on commercial partnerships, which will include guidelines on ethics-based decision-making and negotiation, and to establish an ongoing dialogue between the two organisations concerning forthcoming contracts to ensure that "actual and perceived ethical risks have been taken into account and that the implications are discussed openly and transparently with affected staff".
The organisation has further encouraged the SCL to monitor the arrangement with service provider Sopra Steria and any reputational issues arising from it, and in the event that it is seen to be impacting either on usage or perceptions of the library service, take action to mitigate these. CILIP has also urged the SCL to liaise with library staff to allay concerns about potential ethical conflicts.
SCL chief executive Isobel Hunter said: "It is important to us that our members are supported and informed whenever we begin a new service in libraries. It has been really fruitful to discuss these complex issues with CILIP and we are pleased that we now intend to work together to develop a shared set of commercial principles to guide future work."
CILIP members working in public libraries may raise any concerns about this or related matters with the organisation by emailing chief executive Nick Poole at firstname.lastname@example.org.