Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Sara Wingate Gray, Alice Corble, The Itinerant Poetry Librarian

Our submission specifically addresses the first question only, namely:

What constitutes a comprehensive and efficient library service for the 21st century?


Ambiguity of Clause 7 terms of 1964 Act.

Ineffectiveness of measurement relating to past, present and current levels of service provision.

Requirement to update the 1964 Act in the context of a 21st century world.

The role of the intellect in manifesting personal and community development.

Misconception of definition of “efficiency” in Clause 7.

Clarifying what “comprehensive and efficient” public library provision is in relation to previous misconceptions.

Concluding statements on what constitutes “comprehensive and efficient library service for the 21st century”.

1. In order to have an informed understanding of what could constitute a “comprehensive and efficient library service for the 21st century”, it is first essential to establish a definition of “comprehensive and efficient” in specific relation to the public library service. This is only achievable by tracing the genealogy of these terms as they appear in formal documentation, reports and legislation completed by, and on behalf of, the UK Parliament, often in tandem with the public library service’s relevant professional body (specifically in this historical context known as the Library Association).

2. Firstly, it is important to note that prior to the 1964 Act these terms (which appear as Clause 7 in the Act, page 6) did not appear in the relevant preceding Public Libraries legislation, as up until the 1964 Act provision was not a duty, and therefore defining terms regarding “ duty” were not called for (“Clause 7 […] is an entirely new provision in public library legislation.”)1

3. Definitions of what exactly the terms mean remain ambiguous within the text of the Act, but according to the then Minister of State for Education and Science, Clause 7 (2):

indicates under three headings what is implied by the words, “a comprehensive and efficient library service”. First, the authority must secure adequate stocks both by buying [them] itself and by arrangement with other library authorities. Secondly, it should encourage the public to use these stocks and provide them with the necessary advice and help. Thirdly, it should secure full co-operation with other authorities concerned.2

4. Baroness Wootton of Abinger was quick to point out that such implied meaning was decidedly inadequate, noting, “The noble Lord, Lord Newton, said that the purpose of the Bill—and this we welcome—is to lay down standards of efficiency. He added that there has been insufficient appreciation of what constitutes an efficient library service. I am not sure that that appreciation is even now sufficient” additionally noting “I think it is most important that before standards of efficiency are determined some attempt should be made to know what is the judgement of those persons who actually use the libraries and to give these at least equal weight with the judgement of those persons who administer the libraries for the benefit of other people.”3

5. Baroness Wootton was not alone in her concerns; there were many others in both Houses who expressed similar reservations. It is not, however, our main intention here to discuss issues around the exact appropriate methods for the measuring of “comprehensive and efficient” public library service provision, suffice to say that standards of public library service, based around measurement of stock, staff, reference services etc. came into being based on a requirement to superintend this new statutory service, and have remained with us to this day. That they have been iterated with regularity, and in a multiplicity of ever-changing formats producing a “plethora of systems”,4 we would suggest lends weight to the argument that “the aspects in question [public library services] do not lend themselves to this [“numerical or quantitative”] kind of treatment.”5 We would point the Committee to the current research of Christine Rooney-Browne6 (University of Strathclyde) who is making significant and recognised progress in exploring this area.

6. What we can take from this is that though “it is always difficult to measure the influence of institutions on the well-being of the community”,7 as influential librarian and author of the “ The Public Library System of Great Britain” 8 Lionel McColvin would have it: “a sound public library service” is ultimately what we are all working towards. Therefore, contemporary public library legislation and concomitant provision (and standards) must exist for 21st century communities. The 1964 Act is in some aspects woefully out of date and needs revision. Part of this revision must be an understanding of what comprehensive and efficient means for contemporary 21st century users, who now live in an age where information access to the world’s knowledge may be possible at the press of a button on their home PC keyboards or mobile devices. The 1964 Act, in following the originating 1850 and corollary Acts, does however contain one fundamental principle on which our submission resides: namely, the universal provision of free access to information.9

7. This was a radical vision in 1850, and it behoves us to congratulate Parliament, then and now in mandating this principle.

8. This vision recognises that “[t]hinking ultimately is that which moves and develops society, and we shall not have a real democracy until we have a well-educated people.”10 Adams’ statement was made in 1924, but its sense and meaning has been consistently re-iterated in every single report or inquiry undertaken by UK parliament into public libraries since. A striking example of this can be found in one of the most recent government publications on public libraries: “Reading and free access to books are fundamental rights and our libraries act as the democratic gateways to knowledge for all”.11 Times may have changed, but the founding principle of the public library service has not: universal free access to information as a human right.

9. Adams’ reference to “thinking” can help us to understand some of the confusion surrounding the term “efficient”. Thinking is an intellectual action that determines our ability to communicate, and thus forms the way we can choose to live and develop our shared lives. It enables us to reach towards personal and community development and wellbeing in a rich and diverse 21st century global society.

10. Given this, we can now re-read Clause 7 of the 1964 Act, where “efficient” is used to describe the statutory provision of public library service. The adjective “efficient”12 according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is defined chiefly as: “1. Making, causing to be; that makes (a thing) to be what it is; chiefly in connection with cause.” This definition is etymologically linked to Aristotle’s “efficient cause”,13 defined by the OED as “the force, instrument, or agency by which a thing is produced.”14

11. Public libraries are the “force, instrument, or agency” by which we are able to produce and enact changes in thought, feeling, being and living, and which therefore create the wellbeing of individuals and communities. They are the houses of thinking, reading, learning, the knowledge economy; they are places where we meet each other or have the space to be comfortably alone. This is what makes them so amazing: just like the printing press and the internet they are a revolutionary invention which enables social and cultural change.


12. A “comprehensive and efficient library service in the 21st century” should thus mean two things:

13. Comprehensiveness of provision requires all types of library, in all types of sizes, in all types of places, as universality of provision is only possible in this way. This can also mean library services that are mobile: itinerating librarians who wander your city, and just like the internet, bring the library to you wherever you happen to be; the library catalogue available in a suitable mobile format for easy access on your mobile phone.

14. Efficient provision requires that the objects and interfaces we find in a public library should evolve just as the forms of these already have, to match the learning needs and desires of users. This means that alongside books and the internet, toys, games, guitars, and any other types of learning tools should be available, and the library as place should offer skills-labs, hackspaces or makerlabs where invention and creation preside. As centres of information access, library wifi hotspots should extend out into the very streets of the communities they serve.

15. Libraries must be all things to all people, one size does not fit all.

16. [I]t is certain that the love of literature adds to greatly to the happiness of each generation, and also that the diffusion of knowledge and the direction of thought which a well-organised library system can promote deeply influence the progress of the community.15

January 2012

1 Lord Newton, Minister of State for Education and Science. HL Deb 30 June 1964 vol 259 cc517–18.

2 Lord Newton, Minister of State for Education and Science. HL Deb 30 June 1964 vol 259 cc517–518.

3 Baroness Wootton of Abinger, HL Deb 30 June 1964 vol 259 cc517–18, 534–5.

4 Rooney-Browne, C. “Methods for demonstrating the value of public libraries in the UK: a literature review”, Library and Information Research, Vol. 35 No. 109, 2011: page 6.

5 Bourdillon Report—Standards of Public Library Service in England and Wales’, Report of the Working Party, Ministry of Education, 1962: page 4.

6 For a detailed exposition on this specific issue see Rooney-Browne’s “paper (cited above).

7 Adams, W G S, “A report on library provision & policy”, Carnegie United Kingdom Trust, London, 1915: page 24.

8 McColvin, Lionel R. “The Public Library System of Great Britain: a report on its present condition with proposal for post-war reorganization”. Library Association, London, 1942: page 1.

9 “the great mass of the public … having free access to books”[a] and thus “the opportunity of reading, gratis”[b]. [a] Excerpts from the Report of the Select Committee on Public Libraries, 1849, pg 190, Q2948. [b] Ibid, pg 78, Q1194.

10 Adams, page 24 op cit.

11 Rebuck, Gail, Chair and Chief Executive, The Random House Group, quoted in “ The modernisation review of public libraries: a consultation document”, DCMS, December 2009.

12 “efficient, adj and n”. OED Online. December 2011. Oxford University Press. 07 January 2012
The etymology lists Edmund Burke’s 1759 text, which relies on Aristotle’s four causes for its thesis. (1759 E. Burke Philos. Enq. Sublime & Beautiful (ed. 2) iii. §4. 174 The efficient cause of beauty.”)

13 Aristotle, Physics, Book II, 350 B.C.E., translated by R P Hardie and R K Gaye. Published online:

14 “cause, n”. OED Online. December 2011. Oxford University Press. 7 January 2012

15 Adams, op cit: page 24.

Prepared 5th November 2012