Taking out contracts on the reader: the excesses of contractualisation

Over the past two decades, libraries have seen a proliferation of charters and contracts laying down the terms for borrowing, using the library services (particularly computers), collection development, school contact, and so on. While it is clear that we are living in an age which tends to impose legal frameworks on contacts between legal entities, what is the reasoning behind a public library contractualising its relationship with its users? Is the trend driven by a fear of conflict, or of not being able to impose practices considered obsolete by users? The author draws attention to the excesses of contractualisation, arguing that while charters are more flexible from a legal point of view, they are also more fragile. He argues that while users do not have a “face-to-face” relationship with institutions, they are nonetheless at the heart of libraries. The educational role of libraries – if it is agreed that that is indeed their role – could be weakened by the drive towards contractualisation that turns users into customers or beneficiaries.