Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Third Report

2  Background and context


7. The modern public library service has its roots in the Victorian agenda for social reform of the mid-nineteenth century.[5] One of the respondents to this inquiry, Mr Nick Moore, summarised the development of the service from its humble origins to the present day describing early growth at the beginning of the last century, consolidation between 1920 and 1964 and concluding with a description of performance in the last decade of the twentieth century.[6]

8. Mr Moore described how the passing of the originating statute, the Public Libraries Act 1850, gave legitimacy to a range of facilities designed to support mass education that was already in place: an early manifestation of the role of libraries in social inclusion. The Act placed responsibility for the nascent service firmly at the door of contemporary local authorities (rather than national government). The Act was permissive in that local authorities were allowed to choose to provide library services but there were constraints on the amounts an authority could spend. There remained much reliance on philanthropy and voluntary donations. In this climate, levels of participation by local authorities were low and even where the Act was adopted, mainly in the industrial North and Midlands, the level of service provided was poor by the standards achieved in the mid-1900s.[7]

9. Implementation of the 1850 Act, and improvements in library provision, accelerated between 1900 and 1919 precipitated by substantial grants donated by the philanthropists Andrew Carnegie and Passmore Edwards. The resources they committed were used both to improve book stocks in existing libraries and to construct new libraries mainly around London and the South East.[8] Steady growth continued through the 1920s followed by understandable stagnation of the service in the following decades as financial crises and war interrupted further development. In the 1950s, however, book stocks began to rise and levels of usage of libraries, and the range of services they provided, increased.[9]

10. The Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 updated the 1850 legislation and placed the public library service provided by local authorities under the "superintendence" of Ministers giving the relevant Secretary of State the power to require information necessary to demonstrate that an authority was fulfilling its statutory obligations.[10] The Act made new provision for regulating and improving that service and, perhaps most noteworthy of all, set out the duty of every library authority to provide a "comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof".[11] In addition to supervision, the relevant Secretary of State was given the duty to "promote the improvement of those services generally".[12]

11. The 1964 Act gave central Government an overview of local library services for the first time. The legislation allowed for action if library authorities defaulted in their obligations to the public[13] and the Act stated in general terms what those duties were: "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."[14] The Act also set out that, in fulfilling its duties, a library authority should have regard to keeping 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.[15] Library authorities were enjoined to encourage and advise adults and children to maximise the use made of the services.[16] The 1964 Act still governs the extensive public library network in the twenty-first century.

Recent developments

12. In 1998 the Government moved to establish national standards for libraries and to put some meat on the bones of the statutory duty to provide a "comprehensive and efficient" service. The Government required all library authorities to submit Annual Library Plans to DCMS.[17] These plans were to incorporate reviews of past performance and set out strategies for the coming years.[18] In 2001 DCMS launched a set of 26 Public Library Standards the aim of which was to create a clear and widely accepted definition of a library authority's duty to provide a "comprehensive and efficient service."[19] In Standards and Assessment, which sets out the standards, they were described as complementing Annual Library Plans. However, towards the end of 2002, the system of Annual Library Plans was discontinued and replaced by Public Library Position Statements. These Statements were comparatively streamlined documents which were said to be aimed at outlining a local authority's compliance, or "engagement", with the Government's new strategy—Framework for the Future.[20] This strategy was published in February 2003.

13. In 2004 the original 26 national standards were dropped and a simplified set of ten—the Public Library Service Standards—were announced.[21] Public Library Position Statements also turned out to be transitional as DCMS then moved towards a system whereby authorities must report on their performance against the ten national standards as part of an annual return to the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) who are sub-contracted to collate the results.[22]

14. The table below (Table 1) summarises the development of the library service and focuses particularly on those changes introduced in the last seven years.Table 1:

1850The Public Libraries Act
1964The Public Libraries and Museums Act
1998Annual Library Plans
2001Public Library Standards (26)
2002Public Library Position Statements

(replacing Annual Library Plans)

2003Framework for the Future

(national strategy)

2004Public Library Service Standards (10)

(replacing Public Library Position Statements and the original Public Library Standards)

15. On the release of the top ten standards Lord McIntosh, Parliamentary-Under Secretary of State at the DCMS, stated: "The new standards are fewer in number, but no less stretching. They mean library users will now know what they have a right to expect, and how well their own service is performing compared to others."[23] We note, however, that the new standards document, Public Library Service Standards, says that authorities should continue to collect and monitor their performance against the original 26 standards (now dropped or amended); if they thought it "worthwhile". [24]

16. Some witnesses, for example Mr Coates,[25] suggested the Government's various initiatives had been weak and failed to clarify who was responsible for the performance of the library service. He said that: the DCMS had failed to make Annual Library Plans function as they should have done; the first set of national standards was produced without associated training or guidance; the second set was published without analysis of why the first set failed; and that Framework for the Future was a policy statement without an accompanying management strategy for meeting the needs of the public which, in any case, have never been subject to professional assessment.[26]

17. Some of these criticisms were echoed by the DCMS's own ministerial advisory panel which reported that: "At a time when libraries are doing an increasing amount to contribute to the shared priorities of central and local government, it is a matter of concern that the regulatory framework that underpins DCMS's and library authorities' linked statutory obligations has been watered down with the demise of, first, Annual Library Plans and, now, Position Statements." The ACL said that the current set of 10 standards—which it had played a major part in devising—were "hoped" to guarantee "at least a minimum level of service for users across the 149 English library authorities."[27]

18. In contrast, the 2004 DCMS report set out a picture of more orderly progress. The Department said that the Annual Library Plans (ALPs) were introduced in 1998 against "the backdrop of the decline of some of England's public library services" to encourage "better planning". The DCMS stated that ALPs, having improved markedly over four years, were discontinued in 2002 having achieved their aim. The wisdom of abandoning an improving product seems to us to be open to question. The much more "streamlined" Position Statements were said to be aimed at eliciting the engagement of local authorities with the Framework for the Future agenda. DCMS reported that in September 2004, when the Statements were discontinued, 6% of authorities had achieved an "excellent" assessment in relation to the new strategy, and a further 81% had been assessed as "good".

19. However, the degree of engagement with a new agenda is, of course, not in itself a measure of the quality of services. In 2002—the very year that DCMS dropped the detailed Annual Library Plans, reporting "job done"—returns against the original set of library standards, together with a major report from the Audit Commission, "confirmed what the Department had long suspected" in indicating that half of all library services were unsatisfactory.[28] In evidence to us, the Audit Commission asserted that, in its opinion, this 50/50 split remained the position.[29]

20. We commend the Government for attempting to establish a national strategy for the provision of library services, and national standards for the quality and performance of those services, in accordance with its statutory responsibilities. We were, however, dismayed by the chopping and changing that has taken place in the process of trying to settle on a set of workable arrangements. We suspect that the overall policy of granting "freedoms and flexibilities" to local authorities may have been applied too liberally by DCMS in this area to the detriment of improvements in library services; not least the 50% of such services that remain persistently below standard.


21. The following tables set out recent trends in public library services provision (expenditure; opening hours; books in stock and acquisitions; and opening hours) and use of those services (book-borrowing; library visits; and stated reasons for visits).
Table 2:

Table 3

Table 4:

Table 5:

Table 6:

Table 7:

Table 8:

22. We regard the overall picture to be one of decline—both in provision and usage—especially in the provision of books which many see as a library's key function. It is difficult to argue that the library service is simply responding to reduced demand from the community when: overall expenditure is rising in real terms; demand for books and information from other sources is also rising; and evidence shows that library improvement and/or refurbishment schemes can boost visits and, in particular, book issues by a significant degree. We believe that a situation in which core performance indicators, and gross throughput, are falling—but overall costs are rising—signals a service in distress.

British Library

23. The British Library has a close working relationship with local libraries nationwide.[30] All public library authorities are registered users of the British Library's remote document supply service which accounts for 45% of total inter-library lending in the UK.[31] The British Library's website, which includes selected British Library material, can now be accessed via the People's Network located in public libraries. The British Library has been sharing its expertise with national library organisations on a range of subject areas such as the positioning and marketing of libraries and exchanging information on working with the business community.[32]

24. We commend the British Library in its efforts to support and advise the public library sector and recommend that such links be developed further in the future with achievable targets being set to enable progress to be monitored and assessed.

Public Lending Right

25. The Public Lending Right Act 1979 confers on authors, and other contributors such as an illustrator, a right to receive payment from central Government for the free lending of their books by public libraries.[33] The Public Lending Right Scheme (PLR) established in 1982, gives effect to that right. Eligible authors currently number well over 30,000. The amount paid to each author under the PLRS depends on how often their books were taken out but is subject to an annual ceiling (£6,000) and floor (£5). The Registrar of the Scheme makes an assessment on the basis of loans data from a large and rotating sample of some 400 library branches across the country.[34]

26. The PLRS is obviously a pot to be shared by participants rather than being demand-led; for example the "rate per loan" determined in February 2002 was 2.67 pence. Total funding for the Scheme has been increased to £7.4 million for 2004-05.[35] Overall, £77 million has been distributed to eligible authors since the Scheme started.[36] The importance of the Scheme should not be underestimated and Jacqueline Wilson told us that PLRS payments were a crucial element of income for less well-established authors.[37]

Table 9:

PLRS resources
Total eligible authors 7,56232,000
Total funding (£m) 2.07.4
Funding per eligible author £264£231

Public Lending Right Review
Table 10:
PLRS accounts 2002-2003
Payment bands (£) 5-4950-499 500-2,4992,500-5,999 6,000Total:


Authors earning 10,1406,609 1,653415 245Total:


National Audit Office: HC 1139 of 2001-2002.

27. We support the continuation and development of the Public Lending Right Scheme as a mechanism for encouraging and sustaining writing talent. Furthermore, the PLRS contributes to the development and maintenance of important links between writers and libraries and, through libraries, to readers.

5   Public Library Trends, Cultural trends, Volume 13(1), No. 49, March 2004, p 28  Back

6   Ibid, pp 27-57 Back

7   Ibid, pp 28-29 Back

8   Ibid, pp 30-31 Back

9   Ibid, pp 32-39 Back

10   The Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, Section 1(1) and DCMS Report, paragraph 16 Back

11   Section 7(1)  Back

12   DCMS Report, paragraph 15 Back

13   Section 10 Back

14   Section 7 Back

15   Section 7(2)(a) Back

16   Section 7(2)(b) Back

17   DCMS Report, p4 Back

18   Ibid Back

19   Ibid Back

20   Ibid, p 5 Back

21   New Public Library Service Standards, DCMS, October 2004 Back

22   Ibid Back

23   DCMS, press release, 138/04, 25 October 2004 Back

24   Introduction to Public Library Service Standards, DCMS, 2003 Back

25   Who's in charge? Responsibility for the Public Library Service, Tim Coates, April 2004 Back

26   Ev 1-3 Back

27   DCMS Report, Annex 1 (Report to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport from the Advisory Council on Libraries) Back

28   DCMS Report, paragraph 27, and Building Better Library Services, Audit Commission, 2002  Back

29   Ev 54, Q 94 Back

30   Ev 114 Back

31   Ev 117 Back

32   Ev 118 Back

33   DCMS Report, p 17 Back

34   Public Lending Right Review, DCMS, 2003 Back

35   Ibid Back

36   DCMS Report, p 17 Back

37   Ev 87, Q 203 Back

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