HL Deb 01 May 1900 vol 82 cc397-401


Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I rise to ask your Lordships to read a second time a Bill promoted by the Trustees of the British Museum in the interests, I hope, of that great institution. Its object is twofold. The first is to enable the Trustees to deposit copies of local newspapers with local authorities, and the second object is to enable them to destroy matter which is practically of no value and absolutely useless. I may say that the pressure on space in the British Museum has long been a source of great anxiety to the Trustees and authorities of the Museum. In 1882 it was calculated that the space available would be sufficient for thirty-three years, but since then there has been such an enormous accumulation of what are called copyright newspapers that the pressure on the space is becoming extremely inconvenient. Some time ago a great addition was made to the accommodation by the provision of space in the basement and new buildings, but that is being rapidly filled up. Such is the increase in copyright newspapers—those which the British Museum is obliged to receive under the Copyright Acts—that since 1882 they have doubled in number, reducing therefore the estimated period of thirty-throe years by half. In 1882 the number of copyright newspapers upon which the calculation of space was made was 1,673; in 1896–7 that number was double—namely, 3,343. The Bill asks that all newspapers issued since 1837 may be deposited with local authorities. It has been asked outside this House why the year 1837 has been chosen. That limit was fixed because up to 1837 the accumulation of newspapers was almost insignificant. The great and rapid increase has taken place from the year 1837 down to the present day, In 1837 the British newspapers occupied only about forty presses, as they are called—receptacles for books—whereas now the lineal measurement of British newspapers sent in under the Copyright Acts, taking three rows of volumes, extends to two and a quarter miles. The newspapers, therefore, issued before 1837 may practically be disregarded. Besides the newspapers which the Trustees are obliged to receive, a large number of colonial, foreign, and American newspapers also come in. These the Trustees do not propose to deal with. They will be kept in the same way as heretofore. Some objection has been taken to the British Museum parting with newspapers which may in course of time contain a vast amount of available historical and antiquarian data; but it is proposed in the Bill that the British Museum should retain possession of the newspapers deposited with the local authorities, and not part with its property in them. The newspapers, when they reach a certain number, will be very strongly and handsomely bound, and will be deposited with such local authorities as choose to receive them, but the British Museum will retain the right of inspecting them and of seeing that provision is made for their care and proper preservation. If such provision is not made the Museum will reclaim their property. The proposal to deposit them with local authorities arose, I believe, out of a suggestion made in 1880 or 1881 by Lord Lingen, the then Secretary to the Treasury. The idea has long been in the minds of the Trustees, and has been adopted by them as the best solution of the difficulty. I need not remind your Lordships that since that suggestion was made great local institutions have been set up. County councils have been established in every county, and these bodies are exceedingly anxious to have preserved under their own care and in their own locality the papers which refer to their own districts. British newspapers alone are now increasing in lineal measurement at the rate of over one hun- dred yards a year, and if this rate of increase continues the prospect of clogging the space available at the British Museum becomes positively alarming. The second object of the Bill is to enable the Trustees to destroy matter which is practically of no value. I have myself seen the kind of matter which it is proposed to destroy, and I need hardly say that this is a power which requires to be jealously guarded on behalf of the public, so as to see that nothing is destroyed which possesses any value whatever. I will give your Lordships an idea of the class of matter to which the power to destroy would apply, and it will be seen that it is such matter as can be of no conceivable value to anybody or to any institution. The following is a description of the classes of useless printed matter which it is proposed to destroy—

  1. 1. Wall diaries and books of blank forms, such as washing books, household and trade account books, etc.
  2. 2. Wall-sheets of texts, alphabets, or elementary instruction, and blank register and other forms for use in elementary schools.
  3. 3. Trade advertisements (excepting those which are well illustrated or which may be useful as showing the progress of manufactures, machinery, etc.).
  4. 4. Christmas, birthday, and similar cards and coloured texts. (Some publishers supply these mounted in bound volumes, which will sufficiently show the nature of these cards and the progress of printing in colours, etc.)
  5. 5. Children's toy books, packets of games, boxes of alphabets, etc. (The larger and better coloured children's books are catalogued and placed on the shelves.)
  6. 6. Single sheet and small miscellaneous religious tracts. (All tracts issued in series which can be catalogued together and bound in volumes are kept.)
  7. 7. Single sheet songs, ballads and hymns. (All those by known writers or of any interest, historical, political, or literary, are catalogued and placed on the shelves.)
  8. 8. Duplicates of single volumes, odd parts of periodicals or broken sets, together with duplicates of books complete but so valueless that no library would accept them as a gift.
Some trade advertisements would illustrate the trade of the day, and be a valuable record, perhaps, for some future historian in dealing with that particular item of history. Of course, those advertisements would be preserved. The Bill provides that in the case of matter to be destroyed the same rule and process should be followed as is followed in the Public Record Office Act, 1877, as amended by the Public Record Office Act, 1898. It is proposed that the rules should be laid before Parliament for nine weeks; and when the schedules of printed matter proposed to be destroyed have been pre- pared they are to be laid on the Table of both Houses of Parliament for another four weeks. With that precaution I cannot conceive that there can be much danger of the destruction of any printed matter. The question will not be left to any single authority in the British Museum. The chief librarian will not be able from time to time to destroy any printed matter. It will all be done methodically and regularly, say once a year. The chief librarian would schedule in a list the matter which it was proposed to destroy, and if the sanction of the Trustees was obtained to this destruction the schedule of these papers would have to be laid on the Table of Parliament for four weeks. I have explained the two objects of this Bill, and if it is passed into law Parliament will be doing three very good deeds—it will be encouraging local antiquarian and historical research, it will be paying a proper compliment to those great institutions the county councils and the municipal corporations, and it will, at the same time, prevent the British Museum from being suffocated by the accumulation of its own material.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Viscount Peel.)


Some two or three years ago, in my capacity as a Trustee of the British Museum, I was asked to introduce a similar Bill. I thought that the measure then proposed would rather rashly imperil some things which might be of great historical importance hereafter, but I am happy to say that I think every one of the objections which I then made have been met by the present Bill, which has my entire concurrence.


I had intended saying a few words in respect to this Bill, of which I highly approve, but my noble friend has put the matter so lucidly before the House, and has so clearly shown the advantages to be found in the Bill, that I am sure your Lordships will at once see the necessity of passing it into law. In depositing copies of local newspapers with local authorities we shall be placing them where they are most wanted, and not only will the space of the British Museum be relieved by the transfer, but the time will also be saved of persons who desire to search for any particular matter of importance, and who now have to wade through a mass of rubbish.

On Question, agreed to; Bill read 2a accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the whole House on Friday next.