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General Agreement on Trade in Services: 
A Resource for Librarians


What is GATS?

History of GATS

Present of GATS

GATS &  Gov't Services

WTO &  Gov't Services

Application of Regulations

Libraries as a Cultural Industry

Protecting Culture

Concerns for Libraries


Works Cited


Concerns for Libraries

In his report to the CLA, Shrybman states that "[p]ublic sector libraries are the expression of a public policy agenda that intends to correct the failure of free markets to meet broader community goals such as universal access to information and literacy" (1). For this reason, he feels that "[i]n many ways the rationale for public sector service delivery is in conflict with the principles of trade liberalization that are fundamental to [. . .] GATS" (Shrybman, i). This statement is at the heart of the fear that many library advocates have about the effect that GATS will have on libraries. It is important to note throughout this discussion that even Shrybman admits that the exercise is "largely speculative" and that the impact GATS will actually have on libraries is not clear (Crawley, 5). Schrybman does support his opinion, however, by pointing out that in previous disputes "Canada has consistently underestimated the Byzantine nature of trade law - and lost" (Crawley, 5). It is therefore necessary to consider the effects that GATS may have on libraries and to act now to ensure that negative outcomes are avoided.

Of the 145 Member Governments that compose the WTO, 13 countries have committed their library sector to GATS and they are: Bolivia, Gambia, Iceland, Sierra Leone, Venezuela, Central African Republic, Guinea-Bissau, Japan, Signapore, Ecuador, Hong Kong, New Caledonia, and the USA (European Commission). Shrybman notes that "Canada has as yet made no commitments with respect to library services as defined by the service sector classification scheme" but that two of its largest trading partners, the United States and Japan, have placed libraries on the GATS schedule of services as part of their national commitments so it would seem likely that Canada will be under increasing pressure to do so as well (iii). The situation is further complicated by new proposals in the current round of negotiations "to expand the GATS from a bottom-up agreement which requires all services covered to be listed in the [a]greement to a top-down agreement where all services are included unless specifically exempted" (Whitney, The IFLA). If this change were to take place, library advocates would need to take a very proactive role in lobbying governments to exempt libraries from these commitments. So far lobbying efforts on the part of libraries regarding GATS have met with only mild interest and kind reassurances from governments.

The commitments that Canada has already made are of particular concern to library advocates because some of the committed service sectors have analogs in publicly funded libraries. Although it was noted above that Canada has made no commitments under GATS that specifically discuss library services, the government has made commitments in the areas of computer technology, communications, and research and development sectors may affect library services and funding (Shrybman, iv). Under the description of Canada's computer technology commitments, there is an inclusion of database services, which Shrybman states are "defined sufficiently broadly to capture at least some of the on-line services that libraries may provide" (22). Shrybman also states that there is "clear overlap with certain library services" and the research and development commitment that Canada has made (23). Shrybman is particularly concerned about Canada's commitments in the communication sector, which specifically list online information and database retrieval, electronic data interchange, and online information and/or data processing, as these are services that publicly funded libraries in Canada offer and government funding for such services may be judged to be in conflict with these GATS commitments (23).

These concerns have been raised in the American library community but appear to have generated less public concern within that community than they have in Canada. In 2001, Fiona Hunt started the debate in the American library community when she published an article critical of the WTO and illustrating potential threats that public libraries face under GATS. Specifically, Hunt pointed out that the Canadian government was certainly looking at libraries as a potential exportable service when in 1999 the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade sent out "a questionnaire to public libraries asking them to identify where libraries might have 'export' interests" (32). Although her analysis was dismissed by Weingarten, Nisbet, and Sheketoff in the following issue of American Libraries, (her views were later defended by Paul Whitney, the IFLA representative to the WTO, in a letter to the editor of that journal) her comments did generate some activity in the American library community. John W. Berry, the president of the ALA at that time, expressed the ALA's concern about GATS potential affects publicly funded libraries in the United States to Robert B. Zoellick, the U.S. Trade Representative. Zoellick gave assurances that "the interests of publicly supported libraries are and will continue to be protected" (Weiner and Susman, 16).

It is surprising that this assurance alone appears to have mollified the ALA. Weiner and Susman do not raise any concern about the veracity of this statement in their article. They report that Zoellick stated that there was "no intention of diminishing the role of public libraries in this country, nor to diminish government support for libraries' core services" (Weiner and Susman, 16). Paul Whitney takes exception to the Weiner and Susman article as he states that the "ALA correctly asserted that a negative impact on libraries by GATS was not intended by its drafters. It is safe to say [. . .] they never think of libraries. What has to be of concern are the potential GATS unintended consequences for libraries and other public sector institutions" [emphasis in original] ("Libraries" 2). As mentioned above, Canada's commitments in the communication, research and development, and computer technology sectors may have an impact on libraries but the definitions of these service sectors do not specifically mention libraries in their scope. It therefore appears that any effect on library service or funding at all because of these commitments would be unintentional. Paul Whitney advises that the "ALA Washington Office staff, and the US trade officials with whom they consult, would be well advised not to be too complacent based on their current reading of ambiguous GATS language" (Letter).

Shrybman advises that "[t]he most effective way to guard against the corrosive influence of this regime would be to establish that public sector libraries are entirely exempt from the application of GATS disciplines as services delivered 'in the exercise of government authority' under Article I:3 of the text" (Shrybman, ix). To this end representatives from IFLA, ALA, and CLA attended the GATS meeting held in Seattle in 2000. The WTO invited more than 700 Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) to attend those meetings. Unfortunately, since NGOs have not played any role in GATS negotiations in the past, there were no invitations to attend the individual meetings even as observers and, as a result, their concerns were not advanced during these negotiations; however, the library agenda was raised in informal meetings of the NGOs in attendance (G.F., 32). At this meeting, Brian Campbell of Vancouver Public Library said that the meeting was useful for advancing the library agenda because "most of the groups there had not thought about library services" and the informal talks raised awareness of common issues with these other organizations (G.F., 32).

Site created by Sandra Anderson in April, 2003 as part of
LIS 583 - Globalization, Diversity and Information, a course offered at the
School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Alberta.
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