HL Deb 25 November 1982 vol 436 cc973-5

3.7 p.m.

Lord Thomas of Swynnerton

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to ensure that the Round Reading Room of the British Library remains a place of reading and study.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, no decision on this matter is required in the immediate future. The reading room in the British Museum building will continue to be used for its present purpose until at least the end of this century.

Lord Thomas of Swynnerton

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that reply. Recalling that we are later this afternoon to discuss the National Heritage Bill and recognising that the Reading Room of the British Museum is without question a part of our national heritage; recalling, too, that within the next 12 months or so the Government will have to consider what part that Reading Room will play in future British Library plans, will my noble friend ask his right honourable friend the Minister for the Arts whether he could not examine whether the plans already approved and embarked upon for a new British Library could not be so adapted as to serve the existing reading rooms which are much prized by those who read there as not only places of use but places of great beauty?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, it is likely to be several years before a financial decision need be made for the further stages which would eventually allow the Reading Room to be used for other purposes. Decisions on its future use will be made in time to come by the British Museum trustees, who have assured my right honourable friend the Minister for the Arts that they will have due regard to the traditions and associations of the Reading Room. I will, of course, draw my noble friend's further remarks to the attention of my right honourable friend.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, would not the noble Earl agree that, while this is a matter for the trustees, it would be very difficult to separate the books from the readers when the great new library is completed north of St. Pancras? Would they also consider suggesting to the trustees that perhaps the Reading Room—and I am very sympathetic to the noble Lord's Question—could perhaps be used for special exhibitions to celebrate authors' centenaries and so on, as is done so successfully by the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for emphasising the fact that the Reading Room and the books must be in the same place. As regards his second point, I shall ensure that it is drawn to the attention of the trustees of the British Museum.

Viscount Eccles

My Lords, following the question of the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, I should like to point out that I have something to do with planning this move. It is impossible to separate the books into two different collections—one to be left for people to read in the British Museum and the other to be taken to Euston Road. What happens to the Reading Room is a matter for the British Museum trustees. They are very lucky to have that space back.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for underlining what I was saying.

Lord Dacre of Glanton

My Lords, considering that, so far as I can understand, there is no particular problem which is not soluble within the present system, can my noble friend say what is the ultimate, central, overriding purpose of an operation which really transforms the British Museum Reading Room from an historic centre of scholarship into a kind of community centre, thus breaking with tradition and effectively interrupting rather than forwarding the purposes which have made the British Library so useful and famous in the past?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, the great need is to rehouse the British Library, which at the moment is spread over 16 buildings. I was under the impression that the need for a new building to house, in appropriate conditions, the priceless collections of the British Library was not in doubt and, indeed, had been accepted. However, the future of the Round Reading Room must be considered in the light of that fact.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is it not the case that, in this connection, the proposals have commended themselves to successive Ministers and Governments on both sides of the House, and that, if one wished to examine in detail the reasons which one gives for this, one would need to deal with the matter in debate rather than through question and answer?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, who, indeed, has great experience in these matters.

Lord Teviot

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that priority must be given to readers to be able to go and get the books which they require in the shortest possible time? Although I also agree that the Round Room is an historic place, is my noble friend also aware of the point mentioned by my noble friend Lord Eccles, that the Library must be practical rather than too traditional?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend and am grateful to him for underlining my point.

Lord Thomas of Swynnerton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the present arrangements are extremeley practical as well as beautiful?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend.

Lord Moyne

My Lords, while it is, of course essential that the new Library should have a reading room, there is always a lack of space in reading rooms. Could not scholars have collections of books on which they are working taken to the Reading Room of the British Museum and find general reference books there, so that they have the necessary accommodation for their researches? Cannot the two things be combined?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, as I said in my original reply, a decision on the future of the Reading Room will not be made for a considerable time. When the final phases of the British Library are completed, which will probably be at the end of this century, then will be the time to see whether or not the reading rooms are adequate.

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