The Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 - An Investment in England’s Libraries

Making good on the statutory requirements of the Public Libraries and Museum Act 1964 isn’t simply a legal obligation, but a moral obligation as well.

The Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 is one of the most important pieces of legislation in the history of libraries in the UK. The Act makes the provision of public libraries a statutory service, requiring local governments to provide local library services. Local councils have a statutory duty to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” library service for all people living, working, or studying in the area.

A product of the optimism of the 1960’s and Prime Minister Wilson and his Labour Government’s mandate for change, the Act also built upon the recommendations for libraries in England and Wales published under the Conservative governments of the 1950’s and early 1960’s— a testament to the amount of support libraries have enjoyed across the political spectrum. Professor, scholar, and international library advocate Nick Moore argues that the modern British library can be traced back to 1965, when the Act first went into force.

Public libraries first started to appear in England after the passage of the Public Libraries Act 1850. The Act was one of several reforms driven by the massive social and economic changes being wrought by the Industrial Revolution and envisioned libraries as a tool for literacy and moral self-improvement for the burgeoning working-class population of the UK.  Although the Act was a landmark piece of legislation for its time, it came with many restrictions on funding which made the creation of new libraries dependent on the donations of philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie. The subsequent Public Libraries Act 1919 loosened some of the previous funding restrictions and transferred the responsibility for libraries from the boroughs to county councils, enabling the provision of library services on a truly national scale.

The 1964 Act mandated that public libraries lend books and other printed materials free of charge and encourage both children and adults to make full use of library services (the Act also required libraries in Wales to take a responsibility for promoting the Welsh language and culture). To this end, libraries are obligated to collect print and other materials in a “sufficient range, quality, and number” to meet both the general and specific requirements of their community, or have agreements in place with other libraries to obtain them; librarians are also enjoined to make their collections and services accessible to the public and provide advice about how to use them. 

The Public Libraries Act 1964 placed national responsibility for libraries under the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). The Secretary of State is charged with superintending and promoting the public library service and has the statutory authority to intervene and call a local inquiry when a library authority is suspected of failing to provide adequate library services. Without this national oversight from the DCMS it would be difficult if not impossible to hold local councils to account, and library services across England would be much poorer as a result.

The result of the Act’s passage were dramatic to say the least: councils increased library spending by over 50 per cent, library staff grew by 40 per cent, and there was almost a 60 per cent increase in the amount of libraries which were open more than 10 hours per week— Nick Moore refers to this period as the “golden age of public libraries in Britain”. Not only did library collections swell during this period— with public libraries embracing new media formats, such as sound recordings— but so did the ranks of librarians, who were bolstered by a newfound commitment to training and professional development. There was also a greater diversification of library services, as well as the proliferation of library programmes on topics ranging from informational lectures to classes in arts and crafts to workshops where people could learn invaluable job skills.

Whereas the Public Libraries Act 1850 limited library funding to no more than 1⁄2d per £1, England’s 151 library authorities currently spend an estimated £800m per year on public libraries. Although may seem an impressive sum, it in fact represents less than one per cent of annual net expenditures by local governments. What is truly remarkable however is the rate of return on this investment: every £1 spent on libraries generates between £5 and £7 in economic benefits to the local economy. Although most of this funding has historically come from councils, ten years of austerity (which have resulted in a £213m reduction in funding since 2010) have forced libraries to explore new sources of revenue, such as Council Tax, Business Rates and the New Homes Bonus. 

Public libraries are also exploring alternative methods of funding including philanthropy and fundraising, community share issues, social impact bonds, private and public partnerships, and increased collaboration with other government agencies. For example, in 2015 Arts Council England and DCMS committed £2.6m to a national WiFi in Libraries programme in order to make “free, good quality” WiFi available in all public libraries. Libraries in London and elsewhere have partnered with the Ministry of Justice to create “commuter hubs” in libraries where MoJ staff can work remotely away from the home. 

Making good on the statutory requirements of the Public Libraries and Museum Act 1964 isn’t simply a legal obligation, but a moral obligation as well. More people visit libraries in England every year than attend the English Premier League, the cinema, and the top 10 tourist destinations combined, and more than three-quarters of the population of the UK say that libraries are important for their community. Public libraries have a long history in England and are interwoven into the fabric of our society. Conceived as centres for literacy and moral improvement, libraries today are vibrant community hubs which offer a plethora of materials, services, and opportunities to people of all ages and socio-economic backgrounds. The Public Libraries and Museum Act 1964 isn’t just the law of the land— it’s a very good idea as well.


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  • Mike Bedford
    commented 2020-03-11 09:28:42 +0000
    Fact check alert! The PLMA 1964 was nothing to do Harold Wilson’s Labour government. The Act was developed and enacted by the Conservative Government (1951-64).