HL Deb 02 March 1971 vol 315 cc1276-86

3.30 p.m.

THE PAYMASTER GENERAL (VISCOUNT ECCLES) rose to move, That this House do take note of the White Paper The British Library (Cmnd. 4572). The noble Viscount said: My Lords, quite a number of your Lordships have been involved in the ancient and, at times, heart-rending history of the central proposal contained in the White Paper. I hope that we shall not dwell upon the past. It is a story best forgotten, and now that the decision has been taken to rehouse the British Museum Library on the Great Russell Street site, and to combine this development with setting up a National Library Service, we can turn with confidence to the future. No single project has ever meant so much to me, and I am indeed fortunate to see this child, so long in coming, with us now in the light of day.

The desire to speak briefly on a very large subject prevents me from saying much about the Dainton Report, for which we were all grateful. The Committee's main recommendations have been accepted and form the core of the policy proposed in the White Paper. Many of their minor points will be taken up and made good use of as the planning of the British Library proceeds. Should any noble Lord desire to ask why we have not adopted some particular recommendation of the National Libraries Committee I will, if I am given permission to reply, do my best to explain our reasoning.

The delay in rehousing the British Museum Library is serious for all who use the library departments in Bloomsbury, or the fragmented sections of the National Reference Library of Science and Invention. Working conditions in both are becoming progressively worse. More than one Government should extend contrite sympathy to the harassed staff and readers in those libraries. But at last they can be sure that new buildings will rise from the ground and put an end to their frustrations. In the interval, I am sure that the Trustees of the British Museum will do anything they can to alleviate the worst of the overcrowding.

Turning now to the brighter side, the delay has brought a number of important compensations. We can see better than we could twenty or even ten years ago how the national library service and its central library of reference and research should be planned. One change is of particular significance. Your Lordships may remember that not many years ago we were being told that science and technology differed so radically from the humanities that separate libraries were an obvious national requirement. The representatives of industry, tired of waiting for a decision on the Great Russell Street site, urged that a Science Reference Library should be built on the South Bank. Since then our thinking has changed. It is generally accepted now that it would be wrong in this symbolic fashion to divide knowledge into two unnatural halves.

On the contrary, the need has never been greater to direct all our educational and cultural endeavours towards seeing life as a whole. This has always been the unanimous view of the British Museum Trustees, whose members include distinguished scientists. I should like to pay a special tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Annan, who, more than anybody else, sustained the case of the Museum in front of the Dainton Committee. It is a great relief to all of us that this view has prevailed. The British Museum Library and the National Reference Library of Science and Invention will now be rehoused side by side in two buildings on the same site, but served by an enormous sump in which the book stacks for both will be located. Incidentally, the King's Library will be preserved in its splendid gallery and a tunnel will connect it with the British Museum Library across the road—or, as it may become, the open space—with the sump below.

The urgency of the needs of the patent community and of industry at large are very much in our minds and they will be recognised by building the Science Reference Library first and, it is hoped, opening its doors by 1978. Similarly, the national collections of books for lending between libraries, now roughly divided between the National Central Library, which is concerned with the humanities, and the National Lending Library for Science and Technology which is concerned with the sciences, will be united at Boston Spa. Your Lordships may think this reconciliation between the two branches of knowledge in respect of both reference and lending a victory for civilisation well worth waiting for.

The delay in making up our minds where to rehouse the British Museum Library has also enabled us to gauge more realistically the effect on the number and needs of readers of the spread of higher education, and the willingness of people nowadays to travel long distances for business or pleasure. For example, the newer universities cannot be expected to build up world-famous libraries such as the Bodleian and the University Library at Cambridge. The expense of books forces them to look to a national library both for reference and lending. Again the international obligations of the British Museum Library, which were always a concern of the Trustees, should now be obvious to all. My Lords, the world shrinks and knowledge accumulates. The British people, who already possess in the British Museum Library far more than their share of the manuscripts and the printed material of all ages and all countries, have an obligation not only to make these treasures available to anyone who wants to study them, but so to organise their foremost library that it is seen to be international in scope and function: seen, that is to be something more than the national library of England.

Perhaps I should say here that in the fullness of time I expect the British Library to offer to take under its wing the national archives of recorded sound, pictures and films, which historians and others will wish to consult alongside printed material. It is of increasing importance that we should preserve in one place one master copy of pictures and film from which prints can be taken and used for a variety of purposes. I wish I could be sure that the archive of the B.B.C. is as complete as it should be in the interests of future generations.

The sheer volume of new material is becoming embarrassingly indigestible. The problem for even the richest country is how to select, pay for, preserve and make accessible a flood of material so great that it must strain the resources of the largest library one can conceivably imagine. The board of the British Library will deal with this problem successfully only by continually reviewing the coverage at which they should aim and by developing the closest relations with both the specialist libraries in this country and the great national libraries of other countries. The Dainton Report had some interesting things to say on this point, and in paragraph 5 of the White Paper this vital question is referred to the Board of the British Library for consideration. In yet another respect we are better able to face these problems than we would have been ten years ago. The methods of storage, cataloguing, retrieval and reproduction have improved very rapidly—almost out of all knowledge in the few years I was at the British Museum.

I wish I had time to speculate upon the prospects for the use of computers in libraries. These are being very carefully evaluated. We are fortunate that we have in the British National Bibliography exceptional expertise in this field, and this experience will be even more valuable when it is integrated into the British Library system. I must, however, warn your Lordships that the cost of some of the techniques that are now being tried out is so great that we shall have to be quite sure that the return will be both worth the money and satisfactory to the research worker before we embark on their use.

My Lords, because more and more books and journals are being published and because their price rises from year to year, it is essential that the library service as a whole should be run as efficiently and economically as possible. In passing, I might mention the Copyright Act 1956. When that Act is amended in order to add the public lending of books to the actions restricted by copyright, justice will be done to the authors but the price of books to the libraries will rise, and this is just one more reason why it is absolutely essential that we should organise inter-library lending in the best possible manner. Further, now that the Government's proposals for local government reform are known, this is a good moment to take a look at the structure and working of the whole library service, and in doing so I have no doubt that we shall be able to emphasise the importance to our society of the profession of librarian and to point to wider opportunities for librarians to rise to posts of responsibility.

My Lords, I think the chief criticism of the White Paper which I have heard is that it does not go into sufficient detail about the constitution and organisation of the British Library. That was deliberate. We are dealing with a new and very complex problem. We are trying, by agreement, to integrate five institutions which have developed their own separate characters and functions under different legal arrangements. They are, if I may say so, very different animals, and we are not proposing to co-ordinate their activities in some kind of loose federation but to amalgamate them into one dynamic whole. This is not going to be easy; but to do this by agreement would surely have been impossible if the White Paper had gone into too many details. Instead, we shall discuss every stage with the parties concerned, taking the best advice from professional librarians.

To return for a moment to paragraphs 8 and 9 of the White Paper, which contain a short description of the constitution of the British Library, here is a vital subject on which we differ very profoundly from the Dainton Report, whose sketch of the constitution might have been very apt for a large departmental store but not, I think, for a great academic institution. We have taken something from each of three types of institution whose work has some similarity with that of the British Library. There is, first, the Victoria and Albert Museum, which is controlled by the Department of Education and Science through a director assisted by an advisory body of trustees. Control by a Government Department has produced some excellent results, mainly because the directors have been well chosen and the Minister concerned, feeling his own reputation to be engaged, has usually given them enough money and then left them alone; or, if inclined to interfere, has time and again succumbed to the director's charms. Perhaps this system has worked well only because of two conditions, both, I think, disappearing: one, that the institution was compact and not too big; and, two, that for long it was the only one of its kind run by the Department, the apple of their eye.

In contrast, the British Museum is quite different. By Act of Parliament it is controlled and managed by the Trustees, through a director responsible not to a Minister but only to them. The lesson here is that where you have an institution of such immense wealth and range you can secure Trustees who possess experience of the highest order and are happy to work hard—Saturdays included—for no money precisely because there is a job of national importance to be done. Of course, there are disadvantages. We cannot expect Trustees of this kind to blow their own trumpet as skilfully as a publicity-minded director responsible to a politically-minded Minister. On the other hand, we want the British Library to be even more independent of Government than the British Museum is at present. Thirdly, therefore, we looked at the universities, which run their affairs in ways no mortal man could explain to your Lordships, but their freedom of manoeuvre and their system of finance have great advantages over both the Victoria and Albert and the British Museum.

In seeking to learn from these existing institutions I had to keep in mind that the British Library will not be only a fount of scholarship, a large post-graduate university, but a business concern handling millions of transactions a year and, one hopes, also a highly diplomatic coordinator of the whole library system of the United Kingdom. It will have to be sensitive to changes in techniques and in the nature and demands of its users; more so, I would think, than the British Museum Library and the older universities have had to be in the past. At the same time the user of the British Library most in need of protection will always be the scholar, and in filling out the constitution and choosing the members of the board I can assure your Lordships that the scholar's interests will be well and truly taken care of. For example, the British Library will be the custodian of the greatest collection of manuscripts, maps and music to be found together in any one place, and I can promise those now in charge of this unique store of learning, who are somewhat nervous now, that their treasures are not going to be treated like a shelf of paper-backs.

My Lords, it follows from all this that we must take the greatest trouble to find a chairman for the Board of the British Library who will both love scholarship—and I mean the scholarship of science just as much as the scholarship of the arts—and be a first-class administrator. We have left it open whether he shall be a whole-time or part-time, and therefore whether there shall be a chief executive in addition to the chairman. Whatever is the decision, we shall try to form the Board of full-time and part-time members around the chairman. We also wish to consider how to bring the directors of the constituent parts of the British Library into the policy-making functions of the Board. This is not a simple matter, and it will require a lot of thought.

Coming to the building operations required to turn the White Paper proposals into solid reality, I must first mention Boston Spa where the National Lending Library for Science and Technology is now enlarging its premises. It is a great tribute to the sense of responsibility of the National Central Library that it has agreed to go and join the National Lending Library for Science and Technology at Boston Spa. The National Lending Library has enjoyed a fine run of favour with the Department of Education and Science. When I was in my room in the Museum, thinking about these things, I often wondered whether the National Central Library was equally well treated. All that is in the past. They will now be supported together.

The transfer of the National Central Library from London to Yorkshire should please the people in Yorkshire who are at present losing no opportunity to tell me how deprived their county is in comparison with the delights of Clapham and South London. My right honourable friend the Minister for Housing and Construction has appointed Mr. Colin St. John Wilson as architect for the design of the buildings on the Great Russell Street site. I am very glad to tell the House that Sir Leslie Martin, who was responsible with Mr. Wilson for the original plan, has fully concurred in our choice. I have worked with Mr. Wilson for some years now and I have the greatest confidence in his ability to give us a design worthy of this great project and to provide for the very intricate requirements within the buildings.

The delay in coming to a decision to build has allowed us greatly to improve the schedule of requirements to the Great Russell Street site. We can now retain about the same number of flats and shops as was envisaged in the 1964 plan, preserving the listed buildings in Bloomsbury Square and accommodating both the British Museum Library and the National Research Library for Science and Invention on the same site. This last is, as I mentioned before, a huge advantage well worth the seven years' interval.

I must mention one particular problem which is described in paragraph 14 of the White Paper. In the ten years or more before the British Museum Library finally moves into its new home, there will be a large number of matters that concern both the Trustees of the British Museum, who are responsibile for what goes on in their building, and the organising committee, to be followed by the Board, who will be responsible for planning the future of the British Library. We all have our hearts set on creating the best possible library of reference and research. So far as it lies in my power, I shall see that neither before nor after the Act which transfers the Library to the new Board will there be any difficulty in working together with the Trustees of the British Museum. In particular, I should like to emphasise that the interests of the staffs who will be combined in the British Library will be very carefully looked after.

My Lords, in conclusion, I should like to say a word about the advantages to be gained by keeping the British Museum Library and the other museum departments on what is virtually one site. Take, for example, the Department of Prints and Drawings. Should it go with the books relating to the artists and to the conditions of society in which the artists worked? Or, being a collection of works of art in their own right, should prints and drawings stay with the Egyptian papyri, the Greek and Roman inscriptions and the medieval objects illustrating the age when printing began? The question would have been a very difficult one to answer if the British Museum Library had been removed to a considerable distance. But, as it will be next door, prints and drawings are best left where they are. Again, I would ask, what would the departments of antiquities have done without the main library to draw upon—since they have not had to build up comprehensive libraries of their own? They could not now do so, for the books are either completely unobtainable or vastly expensive. Is it not important to historians to be able to study coins and medals as well as manuscripts and books? All these acute anxieties are now removed. We shall have in Bloomsbury the richest complex of books and objects of art and of historical interest to be found in the world. We are indeed fortunate to be the only country which can combine in range and quality of man's highest one place twin demonstrations of this achievements. The White Paper shows how we can best take advantage of our unique fortune, and I commend it to the House.


My Lords, before the noble Viscount sits down, would he indicate whether he has had time to consider not only the architect (of whom he has informed us) but also whether the building will be done by Government Department contractors or a combination?


My Lords, I sincerely hope not. I hope that when the architect has produced the design we shall go out to competitive tender.


My Lords, I would ask the noble Viscount to keep in mind that the then Ministry of Public Building and Works did a splendid job in Burlington Gardens.


My Lords, please understand that a job of reconstruction costing £100,000 in Burlington Gardens is really rather different from a new building costing £21 million.


My Lords, I would say that I fully understand that; but I do not like to hear the fine work done by a Government Department unnecessarily denigrated. I asked whether they would be partly involved in the building.


My Lords, before the noble Viscount sits down, would he say a few words about the organising committee which will have the most important functions of all during the transition period? If he will permit me to say so, I had the feeling that some of the criticism and complaints made—unworthily, in my judgment—of his magnificent achievements has arisen because of certain perplexities in regard to that period. I wonder whether he could say if provision will be made for representation on the organising committee of the Royal Society and the British Academy.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Robbins. The period between now and the passing of the legislation which will establish the Board is an awkward one. We cannot lose this period—it might be of 18 months; but I cannot be precise—and therefore we must get on with the planning. We thought that the best thing to do would be to set up an organising committee, of which I shall probably take the Chair, and on which will be represented the five constituent bodies who are to be drawn together into the British Library; plus—and I hope that they will accept—several of our most distinguished librarians. I would certainly consider representatives of the British Academy and, indeed, of one or two other societies.

I think that if we reach the number of, say, 20 persons on the organising committee, it will mean that the main committee will be able to meet only once every three months. We should then have to have underneath the organising committee an executive of officials. I have not yet made up my mind whether that will work but I can assure the noble Lord that I am very conscious that as we proceed toward the final stage of the design of the building, certain decisions will have to be taken about the shape and functions of the Library which would be better left to the Board when it is set up. We shall do our best on the organising committee not to pre-empt decisions which really are better left to the new institution when it comes into being. I do not think that this is going to be a very easy period; but with the good will of all those who wish to see the Library open its doors as soon as possible, I think that we shall make progress. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House do take note of the White Paper The British Library (Cmnd. 4572).—(Viscount Eccles.)