Category Archives: 50th Anniversary 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act

Happy Birthday Public Libraries and Museums Act

The following post was contributed by Professor Charles Oppenheim, formerly Professor of Information Science at Loughborough University.

It’s now 50 years since this key piece of legislation became law! In my view, it is high time it was updated to reflect the technologies that have now become pervasive in public libraries, especially, of course the Internet, but also to give the Act teeth. It has in theory some teeth, but in practice the teeth rarely bite. I am referring to the power of the Secretary of State to intervene in cases where the duty of every library authority to “provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof” is not being provided. This is enshrined in section 10 of the Act:

Default powers of Secretary of State.




a complaint is made to the Secretary of State that any library authority has failed to carry out duties relating to the public library service imposed on it by or under this Act; or


the Secretary of State is of opinion that an investigation should be made as to whether any such failure by a library authority has occurred,

and, after causing a local enquiry to be held into the matter, the Secretary of State is satisfied that there has been such a failure by the library authority, he may make an order declaring it to be in default and directing it for the purpose of removing the default to carry out such of its duties, in such manner and within such time, as may be specified in the order.

The clear implication of this is that if ANY complaint is made, whether by an individual, a group of people, or an organisation, that the Secretary of State shall cause a “local enquiry” to be held. Yet in practice, the Secretaries of State over the years have rarely exercised their powers under the Act, even when pressed to do so by campaigners. A typical example is the recent proposed restructuring of Lincolnshire Public Library services, where campaigners had to take the matter to Courts rather than asking the Secretary of State to intervene .

So why is this important? Because in recent years, the question of online access to information for educational, social and recreational use for those without the resources or technology to set up networked computers at home, and do not have appropriate access at work or in educational establishments they belong to has become problematic. This is in part due to the trend towards having such information resources only available online (or if available in other formats, at high prices), whilst at the same time that public libraries are having their funds cut because of restrictions on local authority budgets imposed by central Government.

As a result, many public libraries are closing, have reduced hours, or are being handed over to volunteers to run. These volunteers are, almost by definition, unable to provide the level of commitment and service that paid professional staff used to do. They do not understand the subtleties and weaknesses of search engines and other popular Internet tools; they may well not know the most reliable sources for a particular query, and will not have the necessary reference interview skills to tease out what a patron really is after.

Looking at the combination of trends – reduced public library service provision combined with increasing dependence on online sources – it seems that we have a perfect storm approaching. A well-informed, socially and professionally engaged population is not just an ideal to strive for; it is necessary for the economic well-being of both the individuals and the country as a whole. A well-resourced, efficient and effective public library service with an emphasis on providing high quality information to all citizens in whatever format is appropriate for their needs is an essential component of today’s world. Right now, we should be investing heavily in public libraries to develop and enhance their role, not cutting back on them. Furthermore, token gestures such as the recently launched Access to Research are just that – token gestures. The initiative does not cover all public libraries, and the restrictive terms and conditions imposed on users of the service make it virtually useless. We need to address the fundamental problem.

I believe it is time to revisit the 50 year-old Act to make it more relevant to 21st century conditions and priorities. In particular, the obligations on the library authorities for a comprehensive and efficient service should make it explicit that this must include reasonable free of charge provision to networked information services, and the obligations on the Secretary of State to investigate complaints should require them to justify why they won’t investigate, and require them to investigate whether they like it or not when more than a certain percentage (10%) of taxpayers in a particular library authority request an investigation. It should also oblige the Secretary of State to include at least one local user of library services in any investigation team that is set up. Finally, if the Secretary of State refuses to hold an inquiry following a complaint, that refusal should be subject to review by an independent body.

One final thought. The response of the main professional body representing librarians (CILIP) to these issues has been muted. This is in part because of its charitable status, which prevents it from engaging in explicitly political lobbying. CILIP’s timidity in the face of a direct assault on its members is not surprising bearing in mind its long history of lack of backbone when faced with political challenges, but is still extremely disappointing. High time for a change in approach. Instead of being so risk-averse, it should push the boundaries of political action. But I am sure that plea will fall on deaf ears.


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.

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

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.

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.

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

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.  Accessed 22 July 2014.

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