Public libraries are protected by law

This letter is reproduced with permission from Mr. Francis Bennion, a retired barrister and active writer and academic, who drafted the Bill which later became the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, the law which makes public libraries a statutory service. It is in response to the article written by Caitlin Moran, which is reproduced with her permission here. The paragraph that was omitted from the published letter (in square brackets) may be of particular interest to campaigners who are currently working on, or considering, legal challenges to library cuts.

I read Caitlin Moran’s account of the debt she owes her threatened public library as the only alma mater she has ever had (The Times Magazine, 13 August 2011) with particular sympathy. Nearly half a century ago I was struggling to draft appropriately the Bill that became the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. I was instructed to draw a reasonable line between the requirements of the public and the limited resources of local authorities. The Act is still operative. Various attempts to enforce it by judicial review are pending.

The Act says a local authority which is a library authority must “provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons . . . whose residence or place of work is within the library area of the authority or who are undergoing full-time education within that area”. Its stock of “books and other printed matter, and pictures, gramophone records, films and other materials”, must be “sufficient in number, range and quality to meet the general requirements and any special requirements both of adults and children”.

[Under this provision a severe reduction now in the public library facilities which were being provided by a particular library authority two or three years ago is likely to be unlawful. This is because there is a presumption that the earlier provision did not exceed what was required under the Act.]

The Act also says that the Government must “superintend, and promote the improvement of, the public library service provided by local authorities in England and Wales, and . . . secure the proper discharge by local authorities of the functions in relation to libraries conferred on them as library authorities”.

It does not appear that the statutory duties I have mentioned are being adequately fulfilled at present. The Act does not contain any provision for reduction of the duties because of a need for “cuts”. [1]

[1] Published in The Times 16 August 2011. The important passage in square brackets was omitted.

6 thoughts on “Public libraries are protected by law

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  3. Stuart Fitzgerald

    Interesting and fairly helpful stuff this, from the man who wrote the Bill. It would be useful if that alone could keep libraries open and force government to take its libraries duties as set out in the Act seriously. However, I fear we may simply now move from a debate about “comprehensive and efficient” to one – or more likely two – debates about a) the definition of Bennion’s “severe” and b) the presumption made that the comprehensiveness of the service did not exceed need when the “cuts” were threatened or made.

    Further, we mustn’t lose sight of the significant increase in provision and methods of library service provision (beyond the buildings themselves) that came about since 1964.

    It is awful to even dream about closing libraries or reducing the service but to do so using a nigh on half century old Act, albeit that’s all we have, is not the strongest case. I feel pressure should be brought to update the legislation by way of ensuring the quality of provision NOT merely the number and proximity of branches.

  4. Martyn Everett

    Stuart, Much of the UK legal system is based on legislation much older than the 1964 Public Libraries Act. Besides which it would be difficult to frame legislation which incorporated every imaginable format of material provided by libraries, without updating it every 5 years – think cassette, floppy disks etc.

    In fact the Act is pretty good, because it talks about the quality and extent of the service. Pressure to update the Act now, would in fact lead to its emaculation, as the government is clearly quite happy to see as many libraries as possible closed, or transferred out of local authority control. Unfortunately any move to change the Act now finds the ‘burglar’ in charge of the library.

    Well done Francis Bennion, not only for writing the original Act but also for speaking out now.

  5. Pingback: Voices for the Library» Blog Archive » Drafting the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964

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