Privatization, Volunteer Management, Digitization and Closure Threats
An interview with Stefano Parise, president of the Italian Library Association

Interviewer | Sergio Calderale, Tropico del Libro

Interviewer’s note: It is currently a difficult season for libraries in Europe: threatened by budget cuts, pressed by the issue of digital lending, lured by the sirens of privatization and volunteer-run management.

We asked Stefano Parise, president of the Italian Library Association (Associazione Italiana Biblioteche – AIB), what solution he envisions for each of these matters. (Click here to view the original Italian version of the following interview.)


Sergio Calderale: In an effort to avoid the closure of some of its libraries, the local administration of Cornwall, UK, is considering the option of a partial privatization. How does this possibility sound to you?

Stefano Parise: Local authorities have always been at the core of public libraries’ history in the UK, creating and sustaining the public reading service, among other things, by establishing local taxes. Free-of-charge service, representing a guarantee to fair and universal access to information and knowledge, as well as a management entrusted to public authorities, have always been the strong points of the public library service. The idea that the State is now throwing in the towel and encouraging citizens to “make do,” despite being a sign of the times, is a little upsetting.

It is possible that the British are moving towards a model that has already been tested in certain schools, not managed by the state, where private institutions supply education services on the basis of an accreditation implying a certain standard of quality. Whatever path the UK may choose, the decisive factors to define a public library still lie in its free-of-charge access, in the universal availability of a service that should be accessible to anyone and in the presence of a professional management.

Calderale: And what do you think about a possible privatization of Italian libraries?

Parise: The Italian context is completely different. In our country, libraries are simply one of the services supplied by the state and by local authorities; their creation was never the result of a public debate about their importance (and, consequentially, a growing awareness of it). This may be the reason why their level of attendance is not remotely comparable to the one in Anglo-Saxon countries or Northern Europe.

Entrusting libraries to private investors in Italy would be unrealistic, unless we chose to turn them into a service available to a small minority of people, and only accessible by paying a fee. In this case, perhaps, we might find some entrepreneur willing to invest, though this would go against the general public interest. The only possible answer to budget cuts is an awareness of the benefits provided to the whole national community by libraries in fine working order, as well as a serious review of their organization.

The current financial crisis might be a chance to reexamine old-fashioned management formulas. Privatization, on the other hand, is nothing but pure demagogy. The value of some assets—libraries are among them—cannot be determined from a financial standpoint.

Calderale: The UK also shows a growing tendency to entrust library management to volunteers. What do you think are the opportunities and risks connected to this choice?

Parise: My view on the matter is very simple: The management of public service libraries should be entrusted to professionals, as libraries are among the basic functions of local authorities. They are the tools to create a more cohesive and democratic (thus, more free) society. Libraries are not mere dispensers of books, they are a complex information system in need of an appropriate standard of management.

Personally, I think any group of citizens has a right to create a library that is open to the public and manage it however they see fit: These private libraries carry out a public service without actually being a public service. It’s very different when a volunteer participates in managing a library owned by the state, whether it be through a local or central administration. In this case, the volunteers’ availability must be supported by the fundamental presence of librarians. Nevertheless, I must also highlight that not nearly enough professional librarians are hired in Italy.

Calderale: Italy is just starting to experiment with cultural institutions ‘saved’ by local communities. A poignant example is Rome’s Teatro Valle theatre, which, after being threatened with closure, has been turned into a foundation created by private citizens. How do you think a similar model of management and administration coming ‘from below’ could be applied to libraries?

Parise: I think the idea of widespread citizen support of culture seems very positive; their partial funding of cultural institutions through self-taxation is an interesting concept, though I doubt a balanced budget could be reached without any contribution from the public sector. Such experiments have the advantage of reminding us that culture is relevant to the whole of society.

However, in my opinion, it is inconceivable that the state could totally withdraw from supporting the cultural sector. The Teatro Valle example could never be applied to libraries, as they are a service based on free access. Without a ticket booth—without events—it would be hard for libraries to make ends meet just by providing their everyday services. Not one public library in the world, so far, has been able to do it. I would be happy enough to see the importance of libraries being publicly acknowledged: This alone would be a momentous turning point.

Calderale: Libraries, bookshops and publishers should put on a united front, now more than ever, against the threat of global financial crisis. Sandro Ferri recently appealed to publishers to lend a helping hand to independent bookshops: His appeal caused some controversy, but it was also a chance for the Association of Italian Bookshops (Associazione Librai Italiani – ALI) to call for the start of a constructive dialogue. What about libraries? Has anyone thought of involving them in this debate?

Just a few weeks ago, as you may recall, you were complaining about how the Levi Law (an Italian law regulating book prices) had triggered a “competitive,” rather than synergic, “dynamic between libraries and bookshops.”

Parise: The AIB has an open, positive and ongoing debate both with the Italian Publishers Association (Associazione Italiana Editori  – AIE) and with the ALI. I have a great relationship with both Marco Polillo and Alberto Galla. Previously, not too long ago, a lack of consultation with all involved parties has originated conflicts that are of no help in creating the impression of a cohesive system, dedicated to the defense of its prerogatives. The Levi Law is a perfect example of this, being a measure that has unjustly and unnecessarily penalized libraries: Our involvement in its preliminary stages would have been enough to avoid a useless conflict.

In a time of serious crisis we must try to raise public awareness of the importance of consolidating the role of independent bookshops and of publishers, especially smaller ones, as well as of the need to preserve the library service. These are the fundamental conditions for the protection of ‘biblio-diversity’ and, consequentially, of readers’ freedom of choice.

We need to convey the idea that the closure of libraries and bookshops, or the collapse of many small publishers, crushed by the unbearable weight of competition, is a problem affecting not only a few professionals in this sector, but our country as a whole. Our associations must put on a united front in striving towards this goal.

Calderale: Let’s talk about digitization: How urgent do you think it is for libraries to equip themselves for digital lending, and to be prepared to overcome its potential difficulties?

Parise: Digital lending is the natural evolution of library service, and it is destined to integrate libraries’ reading offerings in the next few years, by joining the lending and the consultation of paper works. Judging from the pace of e-book diffusion in our country, for the time being at least, I can’t foresee any drastic fracture in this sense.

Several libraries in Italy are experimenting with the use of e-readers, while the Media Library Online network is constantly expanding. We are equipping ourselves to bring our readers into the future. The main obstacle to the diffusion of digital lending, at the moment, is the structure of Italian copyright law. The lending of paper books is not in any way comparable to digital lending.

This is a juridical issue that non-professionals are not clear on, but it may be simplified by saying that what we define as lending is actually very similar to renting: In the first instance, a book’s copyright is exhausted when a library buys it, and by virtue of a specific law, can proceed with loaning it out. In the second instance, we find ourselves before a temporary concession of content by license, and copyright is never exhausted: In order to loan a certain e-book, a library must be granted permission from the copyright holder (usually a publisher, to which the author has ceded his work’s commercial exploitation).

If we want libraries to play a role in digital lending, we need to create a structure of rules allowing their lending activity. This is precisely what our two main international organizations, IFLA (which has created a working group to draft a background paper on digital lending before the end of 2012) and EBLIDA (which is planning to define a memorandum of understanding for e-book lending, to be submitted to the European Publishers Association) are trying to do.

The AIB gives this strategy its unconditional support and tries to endorse it on a national level.

Calderale: How do libraries, as “public squares of knowledge” (as coined by the librarian and essayist Antonella Agnoli), need to change if they intend to come back to life?

Parise: Italian libraries cover about 12 percent of the general population. It’s not a small percentage (out of about seven million people), but it’s very little when compared to the average of other European countries. In order to change this situation we should highlight the central role of library patrons,  destined to become the main focus of library service, defining its features and, to a certain extent, its rules.

We should also widen our scope by reexamining the “study-research-leisure” model that has marked libraries’ development in Italy during the past 30 years. Providing basic training on the use of IT and on informative research techniques, supporting a proficient exploration of the web, encouraging individual growth: These, I believe, will be the main activities of libraries in the next few decades, increasingly oriented to the creation of widespread competence and skill. In order to achieve this, of course, we will need librarians equipped with a much different set of skills from the current ones.

(Translated from the original Italian by Cecilia Martini)

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About the Interviewer: Along with Francesca Santarelli, Sergio Calderale is the founder of Tropico del Libro, an Italian website covering the independent publishing and literary scenes in Italy. Prior to launching Tropico del Libro, Calderale spent more than ten years as an editor of Italian fiction. Calderale is also the creator of Super Reader, an Italian comic strip about a character plagued with an inordinate passion for reading.


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