The 1964 Act: a missed opportunity

The following post was contributed by David McMenemy, lecturer at the University of Strathclyde and author of The Public Library.

The 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act was an important piece of legislation because it attempted to provide a guarantee of sorts for citizens of England and Wales with regards to their library services.  As well as ensuring a minister of state had oversight over the service, and the authority and responsibility to intervene where authorities were seen to be failing, it also created advisory bodies to ensure that library strategy was not static.   Sadly it was also a majorly flawed piece of legislation, lacking clarity in how it defined service levels, and vagueness in terms of how local authorities could be held to account over their managing of services.  These flaws have meant that the legislation has largely been toothless as a tool for defending public library services.

Of course the primary purpose of any Act of Parliament is to provide a legal safeguard; but what value has an Act where the only ability to see it utilised on behalf of citizens is at the whim of a minister of state?  Reticence to use the powers available to them is not a party political issue: in the 50 years the Act has existed the minister responsible has intervened only twice, once in 1991 in Derbyshire (under a Conservative administration), and once in 2009 in Wirral (under Labour).  The over-riding principle favoured by almost all ministers responsible was to trust the judgement of the local authorities as the people best placed to make local decisions for local people.  In an age of austerity it is not difficult to work out where such a mindset can lead.

The scope of any “outside interests” to intervene was clearly addressed in 1980 when the Library Association sought legal opinion on restructuring that was going in in Kingston upon Thames (Whiteman, 1986, p.155).  Informed that the concept of a “comprehensive and efficient” service had not been clearly enough defined, and that outside of the minister no one could use the Act to intervene, it was clear that the legislation was not quite the robust weapon against service decline that had once been hoped.

What could an Act with bite achieve?

In a short 2009 paper I reflected on the Wirral intervention and argued for a new Act to represent a modern library service (McMenemy, 2009).    Floating some ideas to the specific things an efficient Act might cover, I suggest it could:

  • define children’s services provision from point of view of professional staff per capita;
  • similarly, define ICT-based and reference services from the point of view of minimum levels of service provision per capita;
  • provide clear expectations of how regional agreements should work in terms of shared provision between library services across large regions; and
  • provide a clear definition of the process that must be gone through by a local authority if a public library is to be closed or merged, along with easy to understand guidance as to the rights of the community.

At the time, before the library closures really started to take bite, I believed these simple provisions could help provide a quality benchmark in several areas that if guaranteed nationally could ensure a more robust example of “comprehensive and efficient” than the 1964 Act.   The legal system is there to provide rights to citizens, and protect their interests.  An Act that can do neither of those things with any efficiency is, sadly, of limited purpose.

It would be churlish to suggest that the statement the Act sent out in 1964 was not a positive one; that the State thought public libraries to be so important that it believed each local authority should provide such a service, and that this provision would be superintended at national level.   Statements have limited shelf lives, however, and a 50 year old Act with limited powers that has rarely been used, has to be seen as largely a wasted opportunity.


McMenemy, D. (2009) “Public library closures in England – the need to Act?”  Library Review.  58 (8).  pp.557-560.

Whiteman, P. (1986) Public Libraries since 1945: the Impact of the McColvin Report.  London: Clive Bingley.

One thought on “The 1964 Act: a missed opportunity

  1. Steven Heywood

    I can only agree with David: the potential of the 1964 Act has never been realised and the legislative framework for the public library service needs to be revisited along the lines he suggests. Sadly, I think the chances of this happening in any positive way any time soon are slim given that most of our political parties are wedded to the idea of slimming down or slashing local government services.

    I am willing to be churlish about the impact of the Act: I think it took librarians’ eyes off the ball as they seemed to see it as an end unto itself. Throughout the 1990’s and 2000’s the squelch point of any conversation or meeting about the need for advocacy for public library services was: “They can’t cut libraries: we’re a statutory service.” We’re now reaping the harvest of a generation of complacent public librarians.

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