Yes, it’s 50 years old and showing its age a bit – the 1964 Public Libraries & Museums Act.
This finally made providing (and promoting) public libraries a legal duty for councils, not just an option. And it gave the relevant government department a duty to oversee their quality (and improvement).
Voices for the Library has published a sheaf of very interesting comments on the Act.
It’s puzzling, though, that none of them refers to a recent-ish time when the DCMS actually did its job properly.
And it worked!
Good news – for a while…In 2001 (under Secretary of State Chris Smith) it issued official Public Library Standards.
These were quite detailed – including professional staff, spend on stock, number of ICT terminals, hours open, and even how near everyone should be to their local branch. And much more.
Every council had to report how well it was meeting each Standard, every year. And you could check every council’s performance on the DCMS website. It had a very salutary effect.
Check out the details (now buried in the National Archives) at, for instance: http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/
It worked – so they junked it.
In the DCMS’s own words: ‘The aim of the Standards was to help create a clear and widely accepted definition of a Library Authority’s statutory duty to provide a “comprehensive and efficient service”, and set for the first time a performance monitoring framework for public libraries.
‘Since then there has been a significant increase in library opening hours, improvements to stock and ICT provision, an increase in user satisfaction and visits.’
They still have Standards in Wales and Scotland, and they still work. Library quality and usage continue to improve nationwide.
But the English standards were revised (mostly downwards) and finally junked. The result is the nightmare we are living with today.
There was a second chance that DCMS also muffed. The one and only time the DCMS used its – actually quite draconian – powers to hold a proper enquiry was at Wirral in 2009.
Wirral aimed to close a lot of libraries, and local people protested long and hard. Sounds familiar….
The DCMS was lobbied to intervene by the librarians’ professional body and the quango in charge of libraries. That sounds very UNfamilar these days.
…and they junked it!
The report by Sue Charteris was a masterly updating of the real meaning of the Act – especially in terms of councils’ duty to promote equality and protect vulnerable people. Very useful. More relevant today than ever. Widely praised.
But DCMS wimped out of endorsing it in any official way. Because the ruling scared Wirral into reversing its cuts, said DCMS, there was no need to take matters any further.
It was just a Wirral thing… OK?
The 1964 Act has some holes in it these days.
But the main message is this – it won’t matter what any Act says if DCMS declines to do one darned thing to get it implemented.
And that’s where we are today…