HC Deb 14 March 1961 vol 636 cc1355-68

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. E. Wakefield.]

11.40 p.m.

Mr. Austen Albu (Edmonton)

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry for Science has waited a rather long day for his first appearance at the Dispatch Box to answer a debate in his new position. I hope that he will feel that although the hour rather late this subject is worthy of his attention on the first occasion when he answers a debate on matters dealing with science.

Before I proceed with my argument I want the hon. Gentleman to bear in mind that nothing I shall say should be taken in any way as wishing to hold up the progress of establishing the National Reference Library for Science and Invention. The Patent Office Library was started about a hundred years ago and is situated at present in very overcrowded premises which it has occupied since 1902. They are quite attractive in what I should call the cast-iron style of the end of the last century. I am not sure that when the Library is moved and they are taken down they will not attract the attention of John Betjeman.

Far many years the Patent Office Library has been starved of money and its enlargement is very much overdue. The proposal that the Library should be taken over and turned into a National Reference Library for Science and Invention was made in 1951 under the Labour Government, and in 1952 the Conservative Government endorsed the proposal for a reference library as part of a science centre. Putting this proposal into operation was, however, deferred on the ground of economy. Since that time there have been repeated references in the annual Reports of the Advisory Council on Scientific Policy. In 1958, Lord Hailsham, then Lord President of the Council, announced that the Library would be housed in the new Patent Office on a site on the South Bank. Last year, as Minister for Science, Lord Hailsham said that he hoped that a start would be made on building in 1963 and that it would be completed in 1965 and would form part of the British Museum Library.

One of the great advantages of the Patent Office Library has been that it has open storage access. This is very much appreciated and is extremely important for research workers. This, however, has already been partly lost through storage of the growing acquisitions in basements and in other buildings outside the main building. I understand that as at present planned the actual stock of the library has been fixed at a completely arbitrary figure of 500,000 and these will be current books, the remainder, the non-current books, to be kept at the British Museum.

The definition of currency varies greatly with the age of a subject. There are some subjects—for example, mechanical engineering—in which some books fifty or sixty years old may be current. This is important for patent officers and agents who may be searching for an invention made many years ago, but which has only now become feasible due to the developments of complementary science. If the size of the library, considered as the number of publications it is to hold, is compared with libraries in other countries, it is very small indeed. The stock would have to be twenty times what, in fact, is proposed.

There are a number of points I want to put to the hon. Gentleman to which I hope he will be able to give replies. The first point is: what steps are to be taken to ensure that the non-current books, that is to say, the books not held in the new library but stored at the British Museum, will be readily available? This will be extremely important, as it will be very annoying for those who wish to consult books if there is undue delay in obtaining them. At present, even though they are stored sometimes a little distance away, I understand that the time taken is not very great and that they can be obtained almost immediately or in half a day.

The second point I put is this: in view of the growth in the number of publications—and no one can doubt that that will go on with the growth of science, probably at what the scientists would call an exponential rate—is there room for expansion on the site? Some measure of the existing size of the problem was given by Dr. Killian, the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who said that in science technology alone the annual rate of world publication for journals is 55,000, for hooks 60,000, and for research reports 100,000. I understand that the library at present takes about 7,000 periodicals.

There are already signs that the Patent Office is needing to expand itself, and the danger, with the two bodies in one building or, at any rate, on the one site, will be that the Patent Office requirements will tend, unless we are careful, to squeeze the space available for the library, so that it may already be insufficient, or insufficient if one takes into account the need for growth. This is an important aspect which must be watched. I should like to know whether there is more land available on the site and, if so, what steps the Government are taking to acquire it from the London County Council. It would be very annoying if, having set out on this great task, we were to find in a very short time that the whole thing was on much too small a scale.

I come now to my third point, the recruiting of staff. The new library, enlarged and, perhaps, with some new functions, will undoubtedly require more scientific staff of high calibre. Are steps being taken now to recruit that staff? This is necessary not only because of the new and possibly enlarged task which the library will fulfil in the future, but because it is necessary immediately to form the nucleus of a staff capable of assessing and exploiting the greatly enlarged stock the library will acquire when it takes over the British Museum stock and the British Museum stock is put to its new purpose and becomes part of the National Reference Library. The recruiting of staff, of course, needs funds. Will the funds be available during the next twelve months for this purpose when the planning of the library and the assessment of the new stock should begin?

Although I realise that there may well be advantages—I think that this is generally agreed—in the control of the library being in general under the British Museum, there may well be confusion of responsibility. After all, the Patent Office, of which the library remains part, or with which the library remains associated, at any rate, is responsible to the President of the Board of Trade. The British Museum, of course, is responsible to the Minister of Education. Perhaps the Department most interested in the National Reference Library for Science and Invention is the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, and the D.S.I.R. is responsible to the hon. Gentleman's noble Friend the Minister for Science. The D.S.I.R. will have responsibility for the other library, the lending library of science and technology just about to open in Yorkshire, and, of course, it is very important that developments in the two should take place along parallel lines.

This could be the cause of serious conflict, I believe, and it is my own view that the D.S.I.R. and, therefore, the Minister for Science has the greatest interest, in the end, in the new developments which are taking place. I want to be quite certain that there will be no confusion of responsibility and that the whole scheme does not fail or become treated as of less importance than it should be as a result of the division of interest between the various Ministers and Departments.

Does the hon. Member feel that the whole scheme has been fully thought out, and has the task which the new library will have to perform been thoroughly considered? Obviously, it will not remain just a library for the Patent Office—not that the present one has been that. The Patent Office Library is, perhaps, for 60 per cent. of its use, used by industry, by scientists and research workers or by information officers in industry, and it is not by any means used only for patent purposes. Nevertheless, it is clear that the new library will require some new functions and that the work that it carries out for industry and research workers will be greatly increased.

For instance, will it provide an information service? This may be especially important for small and medium-sized firms which have not got skilled and trained information officers of their own and also for research workers in borderline subjects between two disciplines. Research workers working for a single discipline can very often obtain the information they require from the libraries of their professional organisations, but when working between two overlapping disciplines, as so frequently happens today, it may be more difficult and in this field this library may make a substantial contribution.

Is it considered desirable—has it been thought about—that the abstract services at the library should be centralised? I have no opinion about that and do not know anything about it. It is a subject which has been raised and it should be considered. Will the library provide translation services? All these problems provide a field for what I might call operational research, both on the functions of the library and on the use of the space it will have.

There is a body—the Association of Special Libraries and Information Bureaux, A.S.L.I.B., as it is called, which could perform a very useful function. A.S.L.I.B. represents perhaps the largest body of potential users, namely, industrial firms and their information officers. It might well be asked to assist in carrying out research of this type and in the planning of the library, which should be taking place at present. Does the Parliamentary Secretary think that the whole conception has been thought about on big enough and broad enough terms? The building of the new library provides a great opportunity for the dissemination of scientific information and research into many aspects of it.

The Report of the Advisory Council on Scientific Policy for 1960 suggested that this type of research might be centred in the library and also in the Lending Library in Yorkshire. Work of this type has already been done to some extent by A.S.L.I.B., with grants from D.S.I.R. and the American National Science Foundation. The ideal solution would be a National Institute of Scientific Information, closely associated with the Library, preferably in the same building, of which A.S.L.I.B. might well form the nucleus.

There is here a very great opportunity, but it will be lost if the scheme is carried out without adequate vision or if it is subject at the opening stage to cheese-paring. This is the time when the ship can be spoiled for a ha'porth of tar. Many industries in this country are belatedly at the turning point from traditional to scientific methods in their design, development and manufacture. The Government should look on this new project as a major contribution to this change.

11.53 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary for Science (Mr. Denzil Freeth)

Mr. T. E. Utley, in his recent book, "Occasion for Ombudsman", describes what he imagines happens on an Adjournment debate in these words: The Parliamentary Secretary to the Department, whose unhappy lot it is to answer the debate, which lasts for half an hour, may drift in from a dinner party and read a prepared brief. I assure the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Albu) that I have not just drifted in from a dinner party, partly, I suppose, because nobody asked me to one, and if I have something with me which might be called a prepared brief it is because of my great interest in the subject which he has raised.

I should, therefore, like to begin by thanking him for raising this important subject, which has not been debated in the House, to my knowledge, for some considerable time, if at all.

As the hon. Member stated, the idea of forming a National Library for Science and Invention stems from the Report of the Advisory Council on Scientific Policy issued in 1951. The Report recommended setting up such a library, which would serve the Patent Office and its clients, working scientists in research stations and in industry, and those concerned with technical development work.

In addition to information on patents, it was also thought desirable to cover the natural and applied sciences, technology, geography, certain fine and applied arts, and other borderline subjects in so far as they were relevant to science. The aim, in fact, was to provide a complete reference service with all the information necessary to the library's full use, such as an expert staff and open access to the shelves. Accommodation for 500,000 volumes was thought necessary. The hon. Member suggested that this was possibly an arbitrary figure; at any rate, it was the figure given by the Advisory Council. It also suggested that there should be accommodation for a collection of patents with space for 600 readers sitting at any one time in the reading rooms or among the book stacks.

This proposal, as he said, was originally part of the more general scheme of providing a Science Centre on the South Bank of the Thames, which was abandoned in 1957. However, the proposals for a reference library on the South Bank were reaffirmed the following year by the library Sub-committee of the Advisory Council which reported and confirmed its earlier recommendations, and in May, 1960, my noble Friend was able to announce, in another place, that a building would be erected on the South Bank of the Thames to house both the National Reference Library for Science and Invention and the new Patent Office. It was hoped to start building in the spring of 1963 with a view to completion by the end of 1965. These dates still remain our targets.

The library itself will be formed as part of the British Museum Library with the existing Patent Office Library. We do not, in answer to the hon. Gentleman, anticipate any overlapping or confusion of responsibility. The National Lending Library for Science and Technology will be under the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, whereas this library, of course, will be part of the British Museum Library, and, therefore, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will, after its establishment, be answering for it in this House. The one is a reference library; the other is a lending library.

The new building will be erected to the east of the southern approach to Waterloo Bridge just north of the existing Cornwall House. It will occupy the whole of the available site. The library itself will have a total area of approximately 130,000 sq. ft. and will, in our view, be well suited to meet the Advisory Committee's recommendations with regard to the number of volumes which can be housed at any one time. There will be reading rooms which will total about 22,000 sq. ft. and will seat about 300 people. There will be seating room for a further 300 people among the book stacks. The total cost of the new building—although the hon. Gentleman did not ask for it—is provisionally estimated to be about £½ million. We therefore consider that the site is sufficient to provide a worthy national reference library.

In answer to the first two points that the hon. Gentleman made—I tried to note them down by numbers, but I lost count; at any rate, the first two points I did note—I can say that while, admittedly, the site does not give room for all the expansion in future years which might be considered ideally desirable, we do believe that it will provide a worthy national reference library. However, earlier publications will have to be housed at the British Museum and we believe that it will be possible to provide a speedy and an adequate system for enabling research workers to procure earlier works which they require.

I should inform the hon. Gentleman that legislation will be needed to enable the Trustees of the British Museum to house part of their collection in the new building and to move books from one building to another. The House will, therefore, have a further opportunity to discuss this arrangement in detail before the new library is opened. A substantial nucleus of the collection of volumes which will be housed in the new library will be provided by the present Patent Office Library, and in addition to that, as my noble Friend said on 31st May last, scientific publications at present in the British Museum Library will be incorporated in the new library.

As the hon. Member said, the present Patent Office Library was started just over a hundred years ago, like so many other things largely as a result of a suggestion by the Prince Consort. The present library building came into use in 1902, and we have yet to cross the bridge, if that is the right word, of Mr. Betjeman. Today, the stock amounts to about 210,000 volumes of periodicals, 100,000 volumes of patent specifications and 70,000 textbooks. Over 7,500 current periodicals are taken, including over 300 Russian journals. The hon. Member suggested that the library had been perpetually starved of funds. One can, of course, always suggest a larger sum of money for a project of this kind, but in 1960 expenditure on the library amounted to just under £180,000 and the staff numbered 72.

This library has always been run on the principle of open access to the collection on the shelves and it makes use of the photo-copying facilities on the premises. The hon. Member acknowledged the importance of this set-up. It will, therefore, be seen that the evolution of the new library from the very substantial nucleus of the present Patent Office Library will be a natural development. All concerned will take particular care that when this library becomes part of the larger National Reference Library for Science and Invention the services offered as a research library in the field of invention will be at least as satisfactory as they are now.

The hon. Member suggested that some kind of advisory committee, of which A.S.L.I.B. might be a member, should be set up to advise the British Museum and Patent Office during the preparatory stages of this project. He said however at the beginning of his speech that he wished to suggest nothing which might delay the completion of the building and the start of its use as a full-scale national reference library for science. The building plans which have already reached an advanced stage have been agreed in general form with the Patent Office and the British Museum and are about to be sent by the Ministry of Works to the London County Council as the planning authority.

As for the internal lay-out, a great deal of work is at present being done by Mr. Wilson, the Principal Keeper in the Department of Printed Books in the British Museum, and by Miss Webb, head of the Patent Office Library, and the architect of the Ministry of Works. In addition, Sir Frank Francis, Director of the British Museum, has been actively concerned with the scheme since its inception and has played a leading part in the library committee of the Advisory Council for Scientific Policy. I am sure that the House will agree that we are all grateful to these people for their help. Miss Webb was appointed in April, 1960, particularly with this preparatory work in mind. She is both a science graduate and a chartered librarian. She has had experience of the work of public libraries and of scientific information work in industry as well as of practical dealings in the patent field. I am sure that she will be able to appreciate the requirements of both scientific and industrial users of the new library.

It therefore seems to us that the establishment of a special advisory committee at this stage could result only in delaying the preparation of plans and the commencement of building work. Any suggestions which scientists, industrialists, librarians, research workers, and Members of Parliament, as well as workers in the patent field, may have for this building can, I would suggest, be more speedily evaluated and, where not conflicting, incorporated into the new library if they are sent to any of these persons or to myself, who can pass the ideas or to them, than if such information had to be submitted to a special advisory committee not yet set up. There is a very substantial difference between the establishment of an advisory committee at this stage and the establishment of the advisory committee which will be set up when the new library is brought into operation—to which my noble Friend referred in another place on 31st May last.

When the library is in operation there will be many problems still to be solved and I would remind the hon. Member that I am talking here about 1965. Some degree of selectivity must be exercised in the acquisition of literature, and some selectivity must be exercised in relation to which volumes are to be transferred to Bloomsbury. Advice will be needed on the use of micro-films, and of many other modern techniques.

The exact constitution of this advisory committee is as yet undecided, but we shall undoubtedly benefit from the experience of the National Lending Library for Science and Technology, which already has an active advisory committee of distinguished persons ready to give it counsel. My noble Friend is, naturally, fully prepared to consider any points that may be put to him on this matter, both as to functions and composition, but the hon. Gentleman will, I am sure, agree that, for the moment, it would be wrong to hurry this phase of the work.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the need for expert staff and to have scientists on the staff of the Library. This is a matter for consideration between now and 1965, but it will be impossible to have specialists in every single subject about which books are included in the library. I think that what we should aim at is a sufficient staff of persons with academic training, capable of extending their fields of knowledge in a scientific direction. We are determined to see that an expert staff will be there to do all that it possibly can to provide a first rate information service for the benefit of those using the library. The hon. Gentleman laid emphasis on this point and, as I have already said, the Patent Office has ample provision for providing photo-copying facilities which are being, and will be, widely used.

I would refer the hon. Gentleman to paragraph 35 of the 195–60 report of the advisory committee. The Government have already accepted the importance of research into information techniques and are now considering how this recommendation may best be put into practice. We fully agree that the new library, when it is set up, should co-operate in this kind of research in any way in which it may be able, but of course, the question of what research should be done, and where, must follow a decision upon what research is most vitally needed and would be most advantageous.

I cannot go farther than that, but I can say that my noble Friend considers this to be a most important and urgent matter, and that the National Reference Library will play a full part in any cooperative effort which may be undertaken. We consider this to be of the greatest importance to the future of the nation's scientific effort. The planning stage is almost over and nothing must hamper the speedy conclusion either of this stage or of the construction of the building which will follow. When the library is opened, the Government will co-operate with the advisory committee which will be set up to ensure the provision of a National Reference Library for Science and Invention which will be worthy of our nation and of those who carry out research in it.

12.9 a.m.

Mr. Frederick Peart (Workington)

I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Albu) is to be congratulated on raising this subject tonight, as is the Parliamentary Secretary on his very full reply.

There are just two points that I would raise in the minute left to me. My hon. Friend asked about translation services. Will they be afforded? The other point was the division of responsibility. My hon. Friend stressed this and asked whether it was to be with the Board of Trade, the Ministry of Education, or the Minister for Science. I believe that the main responsibility should be with the office of the Parliamentary Secretary's noble Friend and, in this House, with the Parliamentary Secretary himself, for answering Questions on matters affecting the new library.

Mr. Freeth

For translations we shall offer the best service that we can. So far as the second point is concerne——

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Tuesday evening, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at ten minutes past Twelve o'clock.