NATIONAL LIBRARIES COMMITTEE (REPORT)
The Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Edward Short)
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the action which the Government have decided to take on the Report of the National Libraries Committee.
The Government have decided to accept in principle the main recommendation of the National Libraries 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 [column 248]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 Bloomsbury 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.
Is Edward Shortthe Minister aware that we welcome his decision to accept the main recommendations of Dainton to set up a national libraries authority? May I ask him two questions?
First, will the consultations to which he has referred include consultations with the trustees of the British Museum and a wide range of library opinion about the other recommendations of Dainton?
Secondly, would it be correct to conclude from the rather diffuse second part of his statement that the Bloomsbury site is now fairly certain to be chosen [column 249]for the new buildings, subject only to confirmation that it is technically possible?
The answer to the first of the hon. Lady's questions is, Yes, Sir. The answer to her second question is that we are now carrying out a feasibility study on the site. I am hopeful that both libraries, with a considerable amount of additional housing, can be provided on it.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that tens of thousands of university staff and research workers who use the British Museum Library annually will be delighted that he has now agreed to reconsider his earlier decision and allow this building to be erected on what may be a slightly smaller—though that is not so important—portion of the Bloomsbury site adjacent to the British Museum?
Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd
Does the right hon. Gentleman's reference to taking advantage of the latest technical developments mean that consideration will be given to the computerisation of the indices in separate libraries which may be linked, on the lines of the system being developed in the United States at present? Would he even consider possible computer links between the libraries of this country and those of the United States and other countries in due course?
Without committing myself to the last part of that question, this is the kind of technical development to which I was referring and which will make it possible to erect both libraries on a smaller site.
Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that his acceptance of this report will not lead to a greater concentration of library resources in the Metropolis than there is at present?
Yes, but it is essential that this very important national complex of libraries should be assembled on one site in Central London.
While welcoming this belated statement, 10 months after the publication of the report, that the Government are still considering and dis[column 250]cussing this matter, can the Minister give any date for the publication of the White Paper? Will he bear in mind that, while there is a shortage of shelving space for books, there is also a desperate shortage of space for the bottoms of the world's scholars?
I know nothing about the bottoms of the world's scholars, but, dealing with the first part of the question, it is a very complex decision and it has necessarily taken a very long time and a great many consultations.
Sir Eric Fletcher
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the trustees of the British Museum welcome the Government's decision to set up a national library authority, presumably on the Bloomsbury site. But, in so far as the British Museum Library will presumably form the nucleus of a large part of the new establishment, will he assure us that the trustees of the British Museum will be consulted between now and the White Paper and the subsequent legislation about the scope and responsibility of the new authority and the physical planning of the new buildings?
I would pay tribute to the help that I have had from the trustees of the British Museum. I have had very close consultations with them. Certainly, I give the assurance that, between this statement and the White Paper and between the White Paper and the legislation, there will be the closest consultation with the museum authorities.
In preparing the White Paper, will the Minister give full weight to the anxieties of those in the library service who feel that the Dainton proposals rather favour the science subjects at the expense of the arts and the humanities?
Yes, Sir, certainly.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that one of the great problems confronting would-be readers is the inadequacy of staff and that it is a great problem for such readers to get out books with reasonable celerity? Is my right hon. Friend aware that some of the indices of the British Museum Library are wildly out of date and that one section published as lately as four years ago includes documents which were burned in the blitz?[column 251]
I agree that this matter is very urgent. That is why I have made my statement today. We hope to publish a White Paper this summer.
Mr. J. H. Osborn
Is the Minister aware that his decision will be specially welcomed by the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee which, two years ago, issued a report on the collection, dissemination and storage of scientific and technological information? This matter is urgent. Can he say what proposals he has for accelerating information services in respect of science, technology and industry under the auspices of the body which he is about to set up?
As soon as the legislation has been passed, which I hope will be in 1971, the national libraries authority—though I hope that we will not call it that, but will find a better name—will be set up and will get down to this kind of job.
Several Hon. Members
Order. We have a lot of work ahead.