HL Deb 12 May 1932 vol 84 cc427-34

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the Bill that I now submit to you for Second Reading is a very short, a very simple, a self-explanatory and, I think, a non-controversial measure. Your Lordships will know that under the Copyright Act of 1911 it is incumbent upon every publisher to supply to the British Museum a copy of the publication under a penalty of £5 for non-compliance. Your Lordships can very well understand that the carrying out of that obligation sends to the British Museum an enormous mass of publications every year. They receive some 40,000 books, 100,000 pamphlets, about 200,000 newspapers, and a large mass of miscellaneous matter. The Royal Commission on Museums had this matter under consideration, and they recommended that powers should be given to the Trustees of the British Museum under certain conditions not to accept certain material. I must say that the dealing with this mass of publications which comes to the Trustees involves a very considerable amount of labour in sorting, arranging and filing. As a matter of fact, it requires a mile of new shelving every year to accommodate the annual receipts.

The recommendation of the Royal Commission was that the Trustees of the Museum should not receive certain miscellaneous matter unless it wished to do so, and this Bill proposes to give power to the Trustees of the Museum to except from this compulsory obligation to supply copies certain material which is stated in the Schedule of the Bill. This Bill will not confer upon the Trustees of the British Museum the right to make those exceptions except by special regulations applying to a particular class of publication, and when the Trustees of the Museum wish to except any of the class of material enumerated in the Schedule they will have to make a regulation, and that regulation will lie on the Tables of the two Houses of Parliament for 28 days. The Copyright Act, 1911, was amended by an Act of 1915, which empowered the Board of Trade, in association with the Trustees of the Museum, not to make the sending of trade advertisements compulsory upon the publishers.

If your Lordships will be good enough to turn to the Schedule of the Bill you will find the list of the publications as to which it is provided the Trustees of the British Museum shall have the right to make regulations for exception. The first group is publications wholly or mainly in the nature of trade advertisements. As I have already told your Lordships, the Board of Trade have, under the Act of 1915, at the present time the power to exempt trade advertisements. The second is the registers of voters prepared under the Representation of the People Act, and there is really no need for these registers to be filed in the British Museum, because they are kept by the Home Office. The next group is specifications of inventions prepared for the purposes of the Patents and Designs Act. These specifications are kept in the Patents Office, and there is therefore no need for duplicating the file in the British Museum. The next comprises publications wholly or mainly in the nature of time-tables of passenger transport services, being publications prepared for local use. I understand that the full time-tables of the railway companies are already filed, and therefore it would be a duplication to keep the local time-tables, which are simply extracts from the full time-tables of the railway com- panies. The next on the list are publications in the nature of calendars, and also publications wholly or mainly in the nature of blank forms of accounts, and wall sheets printed with alphabets and other matter for purely elementary instruction.

As I told your Lordships, the Bill, when it becomes an Act, will empower the Trustees of the British Museum by regulation to except any one of the classes of publications enumerated in the Schedule from the compulsory obligation as to their transmission to the British Museum. That is, I think, as full a statement of the provisions of the Bill as I need make to your Lordships, and I think you will agree with what I said, that this is a very necessary power to give to the Trustees of the British Museum. I am quite sure that the measure will meet with your Lordships' approval. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Viscount Snowden.)


My Lords, I desire to say a very few words in support of the Second Reading of the Bill. I think it is a very necessary measure because the enormous amount of material which the noble Viscount has described and which accumulates in the British Museum adds considerably to the labours of the staff. Anything that will reduce their labours and prevent them from having any unnecessary work is certainly to be commended. As a frequenter of the reading room at the British Museum for many years I should like to say a word in giving credit to the attendants for the wonderful way in which, with great promptitude and accuracy, they are able to sort out and get any conceivable book from their vast stores. That refers not only to the manuscript room but to the newspaper room and other parts that are open to the public.

I should like to ask the noble Viscount whether these regulations can be retrospective; that is to say, whether the authorities of the British Museum will have power to destroy some of the accumulations of the material which is comprised under the various headings in the Schedule? I believe that want of space is always a very serious question and recently new premises had to be opened at Hendon for the newspapers. I should think they would be glad of further room if a good deal of what can only be quite legitimately described as rubbish could be destroyed. I dare say some of us might desire the destruction of even some forms of literature, but it is obvious that if you go beyond this into the realm of printed books, it is impossible to have any discrimination. The enormous amount of material that goes to the Museum—which, I suppose, is almost the biggest depository of printed matter in the world—should be restricted in this way, and unnecessary material such as that described by the noble Viscount should certainly be prevented from accumulating there. I have much pleasure in supporting the Second Reading of the Bill.


My Lords, perhaps you will allow me to say a few words on the point that has been raised by the noble Lord who has just sat down. It is rather a tempting proposition to give powers to go over the vast stores of the British Museum and select sonic of them for destruction. It would seem to relieve congestion and it would seem to prevent some of the labour which is involved in the continuing maintenance of the collection as it stands. That matter was very carefully considered by the Standing Committee of the Trustees, for whom I have authority to speak, and they came to the conclusion that on the whole it was wise not to ask for retrospective powers. They debated the matter with very considerable deliberation, and these are the reasons which led them to that conclusion.

It is not the first time that this matter of the possible destruction of certain materials which the British Museum has in its collection bas been considered in Parliament. Some years ago an attempt was made to give the Museum some powers to go over the stores and select some for destruction. But Parliament, in its wisdom, was very strongly against that course and said that this certainly could not be allowed. One has to remember that if the accumulation were so great that powers for destruction ought to have been asked for, it would have been possible to come at an earlier stage to Parliament for those powers. On the whole, we came to the conclusion that the right course is to embrace as much as possible and not to leave out anything which comes in the ordinary course under the Copyright Act. The purpose of this Bill as it stands is only to give what the Bodleian Library in Oxford and the library at Cambridge University have —namely, a power of selection. They have the right to call for everything. They have the right also to say that they will not receive and do not ask for certain books, as they are called, to be sent to them. The British Museum has no such power and the Trustees thought that by being given the right of selection, under regulation, they were asking for as much as in their national duty it would be wise for them to seek.

In regard to the Schedule of the Bill, after all one comes back to the question of what is a book? Your Lordships will see in the Schedule that the last but one of the publications referred to are publications wholly or mainly in the nature of blank forms of accounts, or blank forms of receipts, or other blank forms of a similar character. At the present time we have to receive books which are designed for the keeping of accounts, although there are no accounts in them. I believe that a learned author once said that a book is a book although there is nothing in it. But one has to reconsider that very learned observation to see whether or not the blank form is useful. No doubt, it may be interesting 200 or 300 years hence to see how this generation kept their accounts. But there really will be an opportunity of doing that because the books in which the accounts are kept and which are filled up will probably be available for the purpose, and it would be unnecessary to turn to an empty book for the purpose of seeing what was the form that might have been used, although, apparently, it was not in fact used.

With regard to time-tables, it may be wise to keep an indication of the speed at which we travel on the railway and, therefore, we by no means think it is unnecessary to keep the Bradshaws, but perhaps it is unnecessary to keep all of them and all local time-tables. It is in the spirit of discrimination between those that seem to us very unnecessary documents and others that we ask for powers for the future. We felt that in the interests of the public duty which the Trustees have to fulfil it would be open to a good deal of question as to whether they should go over their stores and release or possibly destroy some of those which have been already entrusted to them.

May I give your Lordships an illustration? Not long ago I wanted to say a few words about the discovery which was made by Harvey of the circulation of the blood, and I asked that the original book, the "De Motu Cordis" should be shown to me at the British Museum. It is a very small book, I think of about seventy pages, about as big as the book which contains the Orders of your Lordships' House; but bound up with it was Dr. Primrose's refutation of Harvey's discovery, in which he showed conclusively to King James that if Harvey's discovery was true it imperilled the Constitution and the stability of the Throne, If one had been considering that matter afresh one might, perhaps, have thrown away Dr. Primrose's interesting or uninteresting brochure. On the whole I came to the conclusion that Dr. Primrose had added to the gaiety of nations, and had certainly lightened my task. I found that what Dr. Primrose had written was a delightful commentary upon Harvey's great discovery. It was, therefore, very difficult at the particular time to determine what would be of interest and what would not. The Trustees are very anxious not to go beyond what is wise and prudent, and it is for that reason that they have taken these limited powers and do not ask for more.


My Lords, it is with some trepidation that I venture to say anything upon this subject in the presence of so many distinguished Trustees of the British Museum. I may say that I am entirely in support of the Bill. I have known for nearly thirty years what a continued problem want of space is. One's books seem always to be overrunning one's shelves. Though it is not within the scope of this measure, I should like, again very humbly, to lay before the Trustees the suggestion that it might be possible to economise space by taking powers, not necessarily in this Bill, but at some other time, to lend duplicates to some of the big provincial libraries. I would give one instance of duplicates that impressed me a good many years ago. No doubt many of your Lord- ships are acquainted with Rymer's "Fœdera," a compendious publication in twenty volumes. I wanted to get a copy, and I found it rather difficult to do so, but in going to one of the large public libraries I found that they had twenty copies—400 volumes—all put away, eighteen of them underground. The volumes were in fine bindings, but apparently the library authorities were precluded from making any other use of them except storing them in a cellar.

I believe that the three great public libraries have powers to dispose of duplicate volumes. I am not quite certain whether "dispose of" includes the power to lend. I rather imagine it does not, and I should think that if they had the power to lend more or less permanently to the large provincial libraries it would be a very valuable power. I do not suggest that the British Museum should turn itself into a lending library, but if it had the power, for instance, to lend for a term of years to Liverpool or Birmingham or Glasgow duplicates which were simply taking up space, and were of no use to the ordinary reader, it might be useful, and it might bring some economy of space. I am well aware how dangerous it is to extend these powers. I do not think any debate ever takes place upon this subject without recalling the exercise of its powers which one public library is reported to have made when it disposed of a first folio Shakespeare at a very low price because it had in its possession a later edition, the fourth.


My Lords, the principle upon which the Trustees of the British Museum have always acted is that unless the object is a duplicate it must be preserved. So scrupulously was that rule laid down that when a good many years ago the sea lion became so fly-blown that it was falling in pieces it was usefully employed in stuffing a newly acquired elephant, and the rule not to part with the property of the Trustees was thereby maintained. The Museum are entitled to sell and in fact do sell duplicates. It is commonly done, but if they have five duplicates and do not sell them it generally means they are retained because that number of duplicates is required for the service of the Museum. Although I am sure the British Museum does not possess twenty copies of Rymer's "Fœdera," I know that if they did a considerable number of those copies would soon be upon the market, and my noble friend Lord Mersey could obtain a choice copy bound in morocco.

When there is talk about lending duplicates, I recall that there are three copies of one of the first books printed in Italy, the "Subiaco Lactantius," but they are all wanted. Books perish. The rate of depreciation that occurs in a great library is astonishing, especially in a library where books are freely used. The rate of depreciation and wear and tear is very serious, and these great libraries must have duplicates, partly to serve readers who at the same moment want the same volume, and partly also that a hundred years hence a copy of the book shall continue to be available. I hope the Bill will pass in its present form, and will not be extended to include loans. It is really a very delicate and a very difficult subject, and one which I certainly think ought not to be dealt with at the present moment. It requires very close consideration, because the suggestion, if carried out, would really take us very far. The service rendered by a number of libraries which can and do lend books in London is much appreciated. I believe millions of books are available within ten miles of this House in other libraries than the British Museum. No public is better served with libraries, and no portion of any country is better served with libraries than London, and I think this measure will be useful. It will save a lot of space being wasted on useless objects, and, what is equally important, the time of very busy officials will be saved who now have to receive and give receipts, and schedule and house documents of every character which have no social and no historical interest at all.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

House adjourned during pleasure.

House resumed.