Time for a new Public Libraries and Museums Act

The following post was contributed by Dr Steve Davies, Cardiff University.

The 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act[1] was a landmark piece of legislation. Moore (2004) argues that you can trace the modern British library to 1965, the year that the Act came into force. It was a real product of its time, reflecting the mood of optimism and progress associated with the 1960s and the expectation of change captured in Prime Minister Wilson’s phrase about the ‘white-heat of technology’ with his new reforming Labour Government.

But it also built upon the past. It rested on reports published under the Conservative governments of the late 1950s and early 1960s and illustrated the extent of cross-party consensus over the public library service. The most important of these reports was the Bourdillon Report which systematically set out a series of recommendations for the level of resources required by a public library. These included:

  • annual additions to stock should be not less than 250 volumes per thousand population
  • at least 90 of the 250 should be adult non-fiction
  • one member of staff for every 2,500 population served
  • 40 per cent of staff should be qualified librarians
  • no-one, except in rural areas, should live more than one mile from their nearest library service point.

National averages at the time just about met these targets (although there were wide variations across the country) but this simply illustrates the fact that these were recommended minima to provide a basic service. Obviously an authority that wished to provide a good or excellent service would be expected to exceed these minima.

The Act itself had four key elements: the provision of a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ public library service became a statutory requirement; the basic lending and reference services should be free at the point of use; in England and Wales the Secretary of State was given responsibility for supervising and promoting the service; and the effective lower residential population limit for a public library authority was set at 40,000. In addition, the Act also required libraries in Wales to take a responsibility for promoting the Welsh language and culture (De Almeida, 1997: 145).

The impact of the Act was such that Moore (2004: 41) describes the decade that followed as ‘the golden age of public libraries in Britain’. A massive infusion of resources took place – in England for example, councils increased library spending by over 50% in real terms; staff grew by 40%; training provision for professional librarianship expanded; book stock increased; and there was an increase of almost 60% in the number of libraries open for more than ten hours a week. Within this picture of general growth there was also a greater diversification of services with an expansion of children’s and reference library services (especially technical and commercial information services); better school support, particularly in the rural areas; the widespread availability of sound recordings collections and the establishment of programmes of extension activities.

This ‘golden age’ was soon brought to a halt by economic crisis, with first an end to expenditure growth followed by actual cuts. Economic problems exacerbated by the oil price rises of the mid 1970s saw governments of both major parties look to public expenditure restraint.

The period we face now is in marked contrast to that when the Act was passed. Despite being a much richer country than we were in 1964 (even with inflation and the impact of the 2008 crisis taken into account), it seems we are expected to believe that the country cannot ‘afford’ the same level of library service that we had ten, twenty or thirty years ago.

The situation is further complicated by the impact of devolution with public libraries as a devolved service in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. While funding is ultimately controlled through the block grant provided by the UK government, the devolved administrations have made efforts to counter the effects of cuts on the library service.

Although it may have represented the beginning of a confident ‘golden age’, the experience of the last 30 years has shown the limitations of the legislation. The Act requires local authorities

to employ such officers, to provide and maintain such buildings and equipment, and such books and other materials, and to do such other things, as may be requisite. [Section 7]

In order to comply with the Act, a library authority is obliged to keep adequate stocks of books, other printed matter, pictures, records, films and other materials in sufficient number, range and quality to meet the public’s requirements and the special needs of adults and children [Section 7(2)(a)]. In addition, library authorities are required to encourage and advise adults and children to maximise the use made of the services [Section 7(2) (b)]. Section 10 of the Act allows for central government action if library authorities default in their obligations to the public.

But the vagueness of what constitutes a ‘comprehensive and efficient service’ and the fragmentation of responsibility, has allowed a succession of UK governments (of all parties) to preside over cuts, while pleading an inability to intervene or an unwillingness to override local democratic decisions. The position is particularly acute in England which no longer has a set of standards against which to measure the quality of the public libraries service.

A sanction that is rarely, if ever, used ceases to be an effective sanction and, as Conway (2008: 11) notes, local authorities are well aware of this unwillingness to intervene and ‘know it is most unlikely any real action will be taken by DCMS as a consequence of a reduction in service standards.’ The exception to this was, of course, the inquiry into the library service provided by Wirral Council, under section 10(1) of the Act to gather information to help decide whether the council’s planned library service cuts were consistent with their statutory duty to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ service. With the publication of the Inquiry Report (DCMS, 2009), the council withdrew its programme of closures.

The lack of a specific definition of what constitutes a ‘comprehensive and efficient service’ remains the major weakness in the 1964 Act. But it is not the only weakness. Unsurprisingly, there are elements of the Act that are out of date.  One obvious aspect is that the Act’s wording is open to interpretation in relation to new formats (which did not exist in 1964). CDs and DVDs – products of the 1980s and 1990s – are now being replaced by digital files downloaded via the internet. Similarly, the Act requires that no charge should be made by libraries for borrowing books, but allows charges for other material. In the world of e-books and e-magazines, this is neither a desirable nor sustainable position and is unlikely to attract younger library users in particular.

So we probably need a new Act, with clear library standards as statutory guidance as to what constitutes an acceptable level of service, and that reflects the fast changing requirements of the modern public library service in today’s digital situation. I say ‘probably’ because there are forces of darkness that would be only too happy to repeal the Act and replace it with a much weaker framework – or nothing at all. So the drive for progress on this may have to come from the devolved administrations as there seems much more inclination outside England to defend and build upon the current library service, while it still exists.

[1] Her Majesty’s Stationary Office. (1964). Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. The Act applies to England and Wales but similar legislation exists for Scotland and Northern Ireland.Available from http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1964/75

Conway, P (2008) Professional Standards of Service. A report for the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, 28 May, 2008.

De Almeida, C (1997) ‘Is there a public library funding crisis’, New Library World, Vol. 98, No. 1135, pp. 144–155.

Department for Culture, Media and Sport (2009) A local Inquiry into the Public Library Service Provided by Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council. Led by Sue Charteris. September 2009. London: DCMS. http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http://www.culture.gov.uk/images/publications/wirral_local_inquiry.pdf  Accessed 22 July 2014.

Moore, N (2004) ‘Public Library Trends’. Cultural Trends, Vol. 13, No. 1, pp. 27-57.



One thought on “Time for a new Public Libraries and Museums Act

  1. Christopher Pipe

    I believe in the 1964 Act. It is important to note that it was enacted at a time when Britain was much less well off than today, and it sought to enforce local spending on effective libraries. It is not weak in itself; successive ministers and Secretaries of State, however, have repeatedly broken the law, dispensing (without Parliamentary approval) with mechanisms established by the Act and failing to enforce the Act as it was intended to be enforced.

    The lack of reference in the Act to more recent media and technologies would not be a problem if government wanted libraries to work well. The spirit of the Act is all too clear.

    Although it might be helpful to have some definition of “comprehensive” and “efficient”, there must be an awful lot of local authorities who would be deemed in breach of these requirements if a case were brought before the courts, since however they are defined there are authorities flouting them.

    As I have argued elsewhere, public libraries should serve all age groups: children, young people, working and unwaged adults, the elderly. They should serve all social classes: the working class, the leisured middle classes, the senior executives and politicians. They should serve those of all educational standards: those with learning difficulties, those flying through school and needing to read voraciously, those struggling through college, those undertaking study or research. They should provide for those of all ethnic groups and for those with physical disabilities including mobility difficulties and visual impairment. Library stocks should include a comprehensive range of media formats (printed books, maps, sound recordings, films etc.) covering a full range of subjects at all levels of understanding and from a range of viewpoints (political, social, male/female etc.). Without this range, libraries cannot serve the three categories of users mentioned in the 1964 Act, namely those who live, work and study in the area.”

    All of this, I believe, is implicit in the Act.

    And don’t get me started on efficiency – is it efficient for me to buy all the resources I need that are not online but which I require for only a very limited time, maybe only for an hour or two’s reference? Any calculation of efficiency must take into account the costs of alternative provision, whoever has to bear those costs – and the likelihood or otherwise of any alternative provision being sought, with all the negative consequences for education and employment when people do not or cannot obtain the resources they need.

    Bring back the Act, I say!

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