HL Deb 07 April 1970 vol 309 cc29-35

3.51 p.m.


My Lords, with permission I should like to repeat a Statement which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend, the Secretary of State for Education and Science, on the action the Government have decided to take on the Report of the National Libraries Committee, the Dainton Report. The Statement is as follows:

"The Government have decided to accept in principle the main recommendation of the Committee; namely, that a national libraries authority should be established, to take over in due course the administration of the present British Museum Library and National Reference Library of Science and Invention and other institutions. Further consideration is being given to the title, structure, scope and responsibilities of this organisation and to a number of other issues raised in the Committee's Report. These will form the subject matter of a White Paper to be issued after further consultation as a preliminary to legislation.

"Meanwhile, in the light of the Committee's recommendations on the siting of the British Museum Library and the National Reference Library of Science and Invention, and taking account of the latest technical developments in the storage of books, a new preliminary assessment has been made of the possibility of meeting the needs of both libraries on a smaller area of the Bloomsbury site than was previously envisaged for the British Museum Library alone. This gives grounds for hope that it might prove possible to meet the needs of both libraries, while providing considerably more housing on the site than was included in the earlier plan, preserving all the main listed buildings including the whole of the West side of Blooms-bury Square, and removing the need for a further site elsewhere in Central London for the National Reference Library of Science and Invention.

"In view of the results of this preliminary assessment the Government have decided to explore further the feasibility of a solution on these lines, in consultation with the planning authorities concerned. They will regard the provision of a new building for the National Reference Library of Science and Invention as having first priority in these fuller studies. In reaching their final conclusion they will of course pay full regard to the requirements of the users of both libraries. The Government appreciate the importance of having the Patent Office within easy walking distance of the combined libraries and are considering possible sites for the purpose."


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord the Leader of the House for repeating this important Statement, and I note what he has had to say about the establishment of a national libraries authority. I should merely like to ask, in that context, whether he can tell us approximately when we may expect to receive the promised White Paper. Meanwhile, I am sure many Members of your Lordships' House will recall the long debate which we had in this House before Christmas over two years ago, in 1967, and the disquiet which was expressed at the decision of the Secretary of State—indeed, it was the almost unanimous feeling of your Lordships' House that it would be a disaster if our great national collections and this great library were to be severed one from another. I am delighted that this is not now likely to prove the case, and I congratulate the Government on now seeing the light of day.

May I just add this? I think it is fair to say that the history of the replanning and the recreation of London in the de-cades since the war has been in many ways a rather sad one. We have missed many golden opportunities to enhance and embellish our capital city, and I think that posterity will not lightly acquit us, not only of a certain poverty of means but also of a marked poverty of imagination. May I express the hope that this opportunity will not be missed, and that those concerned will in fact be enabled to provide a really worthy frame for what is, after all, the greatest collection of its kind in the world?


My Lords, may I, on behalf of my colleagues and myself, say that we are delighted that this decision has been taken, even though it has taken a long time to get back to "Bloomsbury Square One". May I put just two questions to the noble Lord? Can he give us any idea as to how long it is likely to be before some sort of activity takes place on the site which has been selected? Secondly, what increase is there likely to be in the working space for users as a result of the new developments in the last two and a half years?


My Lords, may I, on behalf of the Trustees of the British Museum and all the scholars who come to the Museum from all over the world, express our great relief and warm thanks to the Government for this decision to build the new library on the Great Rus- sell Street site. After more than 22 years of fruitless argument, work can now begin on a complex of museum buildings which, as my noble friend Lord Jellicoe has just said, will be the envy of all nations, and without equal in either Europe or America.

May I ask two specific questions? The noble Lord referred to the structure of the new organisation. He will know that many professional librarians, and indeed the Trustees of the Museum themselves, see grave objections to the recommendations of the Dainton Report on this very vital matter. Now we are to have these discussions. Can we be assured that the Government have an open mind on the form of the management and control of the new libraries authority? Secondly, I was very glad to hear the reference to the National Reference Library for Science and Invention. The fragmentation of this library is indeed a scandal. May I take it that the Government wholeheartedly agree with the Trustees that this part of the British Museum Library should be reunited with the other books on the same site, and also that there is a very strong case for ensuring that the first block of buildings to be erected on the new site is devoted to the collection of material covering science and technology?


My Lords, perhaps I may reply to those noble Lords who have so far spoken. First of all, on the question of the date of the publication of the White Paper, I hope that it will be before the summer. I cannot guarantee this, because it is clearly important that there should be very thorough discussions with a number of bodies on this matter. Turning next, if I may, to the remarks of the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, I am particularly grateful for them, and I am grateful that this brief discussion is taking place in a rather happier atmosphere than marked the debate on the last occasion, when I am bound to say that I felt that some of the language used was extravagant be-yond belief.

I must make it clear to the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, that I am certainly not standing here in an apologetic way. I remember trying to persuade the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, ten years ago, when he was speaking on the British Museum Bill, that it was high time the Government of the day did something about the libraries, and in particular the National Reference Library for Science and Invention. In fact, what the Government have done is to carry out a proper inquiry, which revealed a number of facts (which I hope the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, and the noble Lord, Lord Byers, have studied in the Dainton Report) as to the use of these particular libraries and the particular relevance of their location. None the less, I find myself very much in agreement with the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles. Both he and Sir John Wolfenden, and before him Sir Frank Francis, were deeply interested in the library services of this country. I certainly should not blame them for the failure of past Governments to do some-thing about the National Reference Library for Science and Invention. Now, at last, after very thorough discussions we have the acceptance by the Government of the setting up of a national libraries authority and a decision to give priority to the N.R.L.S.I.

My Lords, I was asked certain questions by the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, on the subject of the management which is proposed in the Dainton Report. Clearly, it is not possible for me to bind the Government, one way or the other, but I assure him that it is intended to have meaningful discussions. This is a vitally important body, probably one of the most important institutions for the future of this country that we are setting up in the whole field of information and scholarship, and clearly it is important that it should have the right managerial structure. I am sure that this is a matter on which the views of the Trustees will be taken into account, especially now that relations seems to be somewhat ameliorated.


My Lords, as a member of the Advisory Committee for the National Reference Library for Science and Invention, may I say that I think that this is a very satisfactory Statement indeed, and one that will be welcomed by the Committee, by the professional bodies, by industry and by the learned societies. It represents an important step forward in creating national science and technology library facilities in the country. I hope that the full potential of the N.R.L.S.I. can now be realised. I should like to ask the noble Lord whether the Government will ensure that adequate staff and funds will be available for developing this library to its full potential.


My Lords, I know of the interest that the noble Lord, Lord Ironside, as a member of the Parliamentary Scientific Committee, has in this matter. I hope that I am going to meet him to-morrow with a delegation of that body because of their interest in the application of automatic data processing to the field of information. He may be interested to know that a major study is going on at the moment into the application of A.D.P. to the national libraries' operations and services. This study has already been launched.

On the staffing side, we come back to the managerial structure. I know that the British Museum and others some-times feel that the Government are squeezing them a little unduly in attempting to keep down the size of the non-industrial Civil Service—which actually falls to me under a different responsibility. I should be rash to undertake any unlimited promises with regard to a size of staff; but clearly the library's importance is such that it must be properly staffed and must have its proper place in the community.

My Lords, I think there was one other question. I am not sure whether it was the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe who asked it, but I fear that it has escaped me.


My Lords, I asked whether there was any likelihood of the provision of increased space for those who want to use the library.


My Lords, clearly it is not for me to comment on the recent difficulties (which, no doubt, concern the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles) over the British Museum Library Reading Room, this very historic and import-ant place. Obviously, one of the objects is that the user facilities should match the needs. Here again, one will need to think of this in terms of a complex of libraries. So far as the science libraries are concerned, there are proposals on the regional side also of great importance.


My Lords, I should like to congratulate the Government on making this decision, which I am sure will have the support of a great many librarians all over the world. I should like to ask my noble friend one question. It is whether some effort will be made to bring the newspaper library at Colindale into central London— although I realise that this had no place in the Trustees' original plan.


My Lords, one of the troubles, as the British Museum knows only too well, is the degree of scattering that already exists. Part of the N.R.L.S.I. is actually in Bayswater. I do not think I can hold out any promise over Colindale. No doubt this is a matter on which the national libraries authority will have views. I do not doubt that the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, will be able, a little later, to answer my noble friend Lord Strabolgi with forceful knowledge.