1964 An Act of Omission

The following post was contributed by Bob Usherwood, Emeritus Professor, The University of Sheffield. 

On Friday January 24 1964, the Minister of Education, Sir Edward Boyle introduced the Public Libraries and Museums Bill in the House of Commons. At about that time, as a new student at the then School of Librarianship at the North Western Polytechnic, I was working on my first assignment. Edward Dudley had asked us to consider the implications of ‘the University of the Air’ for public libraries.  Harold Wilson had outlined his vision of what became the Open University at the 1963 Labour Party Conference and after Labour won the election appointed Jennie Lee as Minister for the Arts. This was good news for the OU and for public libraries. However, those were very different times .The Bill had cross- party support and The Library Association had status. It’s then Secretary observing; “The welcome given to me [by MP’s and Peers] as representative of the Library Association was… exceptional” (Barry 1964). It was an auspicious time to start a library career.

Today we are enduring the municipal nightmare conjured up by Thatcher’s local government minister, the late Nicholas Ridley, who fantasised about American local authorities that met annually to finalise contracts with private companies providing services. The aims and values of public libraries have been redefined by the DCMS and the Arts Council so that numerous local councils are not meeting the requirements of the 1964 Act. As a result many people, often the vulnerable, have lost valued professionally run services. This seems more like an ideological experiment than an attempt to “promote the improvement of, the public library service”.Such thoughts caused me to exclaim to a colleague, in a ‘we are doomed moment’, “What have I been doing all these years?” Her reply indicated this was the wrong question. I should have asked, “What is to be done?” So now Voices for the Library has also put me on the spot, herewith a few suggestions.

Firstly, the statutory legislation enshrined in the 1964 Act must not be weakened or removed. Given the changes that have taken place since 1964 it will require updating. It must take account of new methods of recording information, ideas and works of imagination and increase the range of freely available materials and services to include digital and electronic formats. It never was logical to provide one format for free and to charge for another.  (Why charge for the DVD of a Royal Shakespeare Company performance of Hamlet when the book can be borrowed free?) A comprehensive service also has to be universal and not subject to a “postcode lottery”. Minimum national standards for materials, professional staff, access et. al. should be re-established.  These would help define “comprehensive and efficient” and make it more difficult for a Secretary of State to avoid her or his responsibilities. The Library Association’s Model Public Library Standards “proved to be invaluable to local councils in preparing their plans” (Shimmon quoted in Local Government Chronicle 1999) and contributed to the Standards introduced by Chris Smith in 2001

The Arts Council (2013) has stated approvingly, “There is no national standards framework that must be applied, giving local authorities a lot of freedom to design their services to meet local needs and aspirations within their available resources.” Too often this has been the freedom to do nothing and or to ignore the 1964 Act much to the detriment of local communities.

Research shows that standards  “introduced in Wales … have helped create greater consistency of the library offer across all 22 local authorities, and have also led to service level improvements….” (Creaser 2014). The fifth quality framework of Welsh Public Library Standards 2014-2017, (CyMAL 2014) introduces evaluation of the impact and benefits for individuals using a library. Something similar is needed in England. Public Libraries should be evaluated as public goods and a fundamental right of citizenship, not as commodities distributed according to the mechanics of the market place.  Politicians and others must be made aware of the services entire contribution. This can not be completely revealed by traditional measurement. Moreover, it is essential that the Secretary of State is prepared to intervene when local authorities fail to comply with the 1964 Act. The delivery of the public library service can never be really “comprehensive and efficient” if resources continue being withdrawn and the Secretary of State refuses to use the powers of intervention available.

Remembering my student days, I recall monitoring the 1964 legislation via Hansard (1964). I recently refreshed my memory and established that, when he introduced the Second Reading in the Lords, the Conservative Lord Newton observed, “differences in standards at present go far beyond those which … geographical considerations would justify. It is important that these disparities should be reduced and the general level raised”. The former Prime Minister, Earl Attlee argued, “Every library should have a chief librarian who should be regarded as one of the principal local government officers…” and declared himself totally opposed to, “any idea of making …libraries entirely subservient to …commercial interests’”. Both would be dismayed by the acts of omission by some politicians and professionals currently responsible for implementing the 1964 Act.


Arts Council of England (2013) Community Libraries: Learning from experience: Guiding principles for local authorities. For Arts Council England and Local Government Association by Locality http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/media/uploads/pdf/Community_libraries_research_2013_guiding_principles.pdf

Barry, H. (1964) The Public Libraries and Museums Act, 1964 A report by the Secretary. The Library Association Record 66(9) 375-6

Creaser, C (2014) New Standards for Welsh Public Libraries. School of Business and Economics. Loughborough University. http://blog.lboro.ac.uk/sbe/centre-for-information-management/welsh-public-libraries/

CyMAL (2014) Libraries making a difference The fifth quality framework of Welsh Public Library Standards 2014-2017

Hansard (1964) Public Libraries and Museums Bill, HL Deb 30 June 1964 vol 259 cc514-76

Shimmon, R. (1999) quoted in: Government Champions Public Libraries – Library Association Comment Local Government Chronicle 19 Feb. http://www.lgcplus.com/government-champions-public-libraries-library-association-comment/1429685.article

2 thoughts on “1964 An Act of Omission

  1. Shirley Burnham

    This is the contribution that resonates particularly with me.

    You state that “the statutory legislation enshrined in the 1964 Act must not be weakened or removed”. I am wholly with you on that.

    I foresee real danger in calling for a re-tweaking of the Act which would delight the wily folk in Government of whichever political party. Crossing all the t’s and dotting the i’s is not what Legislation is. The Act is not to blame for the current crisis; its substance and spirit are clearly understood by DCMS – It is they who are to blame, by refusing to acknowledge either. All of us should be very careful what we wish for.

    Thank you VftL for enabling the anniversary to be marked so eloquently. Thank you to all the contributors who each have something dynamic and useful to say. And to you, Mr Usherwood, for yours – the reading of which has been like a drink of clear spring-water to this parched public libraries advocate!

  2. John Pateman

    I like Bob’s question ‘What is to be done?’ I recall that Lenin asked a similar question. The problem with the 1964 Act is that it lacks definition and teeth. Public Library Standards and Annual Library Plans were a step in the right direction but many Chief Librarians either paid them lip service or used them to define minimum levels of service provision. We should keep the Act, update it for the modern age, provide a strong and enduring definition of Public Library Purpose and Values, and create a framework of Outcome measures. We also need an OfLib to monitor and enforce these standards. Public Libraries are an island of Socialism in a sea of Capitalism. Only radical measures will ensure their survival. Venceremos!

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