Invoking the names of international trade pacts is enough to drive the usual activist troops to the streets. But this week, when the joint Canadian and American Library Association conference comes to Toronto, it will be the habitually hushed book pros that wrestle with globalization. At issue is whether the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) - designed to level trade barriers against international corporate service providers (whether in banking, broadcasting or education) - will strip libraries of the right to offer some of their newer services to the public.
Beyond their traditional habit of stockpiling hardcovers and newspapers, the last decade has seen libraries loaning CDs and movies (Toronto libraries alone have 280,000 videos and 180,000 CDs), digitizing and publishing, and offering Internet access and training. It's these services, library advocates worry, that may have them butting heads with smaller players like Internet cafés and corporate big boys like Blockbuster, putting them at risk of violating the latest trade agreement.
At a seminar on the subject at the Toronto Reference Library a few weeks back, a provincial rep assured the audience of over 50 seniors, intellectuals and students that libraries are technically safe from any outside attack because Canada has opted to leave education, health and cultural services off the negotiating table. "Canada has no commitments in these areas," said James Pertulla from the trade branch of the provincial Ministry of Enterprise, Opportunity and Innovation.
But the devil is in the details, say other panelists. Paul Whitney, director of the Vancouver Public Library and former president of the Canadian Library Association, says GATS's fine print reveals that government services will be excluded from the trade free-for-all only if they are offered free of charge or have no private sector competitors.
Whitney argues that libraries' newer services do compete with the private sector and are therefore up for grabs. "To suggest that our lending of DVDs and videos is not in competition with Blockbuster is problematic," says Whitney. "And the provision of Internet access clearly puts us in competition with internet cafés."
The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) tells NOW in a later interview that these less traditional library offerings would be protected. But back at the panel, even Pertulla admits that the GATS wording purportedly protecting such government services is not perfectly clear. "There are some concerns," says the official to the knowing nods of a handful of audience members.
Trade lawyer Steven Shrybman says that as more companies move onto library turf, the treasured institutions are at increasing risk of breaching the pact and sparking disciplinary action. "A claim could be (made) that libraries give away what companies want to sell, so (subsidies) for library services become unfair trade or investment practice." If complaints get loud enough, says Shrybman, Canada could be brought before the WTO and retaliatory trade sanctions be launched.
Almost more dangerous, says Whitney, are the companies that have tried to offer library-like services, like e-publisher Contentville.com and e-library Questia, and largely failed. Their inability to charge for what libraries offer for free may lead to questions regarding public subsidies when other companies try similar formats. "Like a wounded animal, (they are) more dangerous," says the library director.
Shrybman warns the audience that Canadian library subsidies have already come under fire, pointing to the pending UPS suit against Canada Post, which targets, among other things, the subsidized book rate offered to libraries. Though the case was launched under NAFTA regs and not GATS, critics worry about the precedent for libraries when GATS negotiations wrap up in 2005.
But Toronto Public Library collections manager Susan Caron questions how its stash of multilingual cooking videos and classic DVDs can really come in conflict with the Blockbusters of the world. She says the TPL does offer top-40 CDs and feature films, but only six months after they're out in video and record stores. Regardless, AV circulation has skyrocketed 37 per cent since 2000.
In the meantime, more librarians on both sides of the border are prepping for battle in several GATS-centred workshops this weekend."We're not going to make international trade deals go away," says Whitney. "But we can't have GATS coming in and eroding our ability to function."