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Information Scotland

The Journal of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland

ISSN 1743-5471

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August 2008 Volume 6(4)

Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals in Scotland


The late Brian Osborne looks at how the association has worked with the legislators, in the last article he wrote on the history of CILIPS and the SLA.

Advocacy and legislation

The great issue for the Scottish Library Association in the first half century of its existence was rate limitation. Public Library authorities operating under the Public Libraries (Scotland) Act of 1854 were only allowed to spend the product of a rate of one (old) penny in the pound on their library services – a serious limitation and one which the inflationary pressures of the First World War had severely exacerbated. In March 1919, at a Special General Meeting of the Association, Septimus Pitt, the City Librarian of Glasgow, spoke to the problems caused by this rates limitation and in May the Secretary of State for Scotland received a delegation from the SLA and some 20 library authorities. He was urged to bring about some relief from this burden – but he was unwilling to promote separate Scottish legislation.

The Public Libraries Act 1919 made the amount of rate levied for libraries a matter for the discretion of local authorities. However, the Act did not apply to Scotland, although further campaigning and protests, involving the SLA and the Scottish local authorities, managed to produce a Public Libraries (Scotland) Act in 1920. This retained the principle of restriction – at the insistence of the Convention of Royal Burghs – but raised the level to the product of a 3d rate. What had previously been for the Government an important principle – that legislation should be the same on both sides of the Border – had been conveniently set aside.

While the slightly easier financial situation was welcomed by the profession, concerns continued to be expressed about the state of the country’s public libraries. In 1927 the AGM passed a motion calling on the Secretary of State for Scotland to establish an inquiry to produce reliable statistical information about the resources and general condition of Scottish libraries – an invitation which the Secretary of State found no difficulty in declining.

The next year the SLA AGM established a special committee on library legislation and a Special General Meeting in December 1928 considered the question of the abolition of dual rating. Dual rating was a consequence of the development of County Libraries following the Education (Scotland) Act of 1918. Burghs which provided their own library services found themselves having to pay a proportion of the costs of the county library service – a service from which they did not benefit. Arguments over dual rating and the degree to which burghs were compensated for their financial contribution to county services dragged on for more than 25 years.

Local Government was not the only field in which the Association attempted to influence decision makers. The plans of the Trustees of the National Library of Scotland to build a home for the National Library without taking proper professional advice from the Library Association or the Royal Institute of British Architects were roundly condemned. SLA President George Shirley in his 1932 Presidential address blamed the domination of the Faculty of Advocates in the decision-making process. In the same address he also attacked the Trustees of the National Library for appointing a Keeper of Printed Books who had only five years professional experience. Interestingly enough there are two versions of Shirley’s Presidential address printed – the second one omits the attack on the Keeper’s appointment but retains the criticism on the George IV Bridge site.

The 1930s saw the SLA discussing the need for library legislation and submitting drafts to successive Secretaries of State, none of whom felt moved to act. During the Second World War campaigning continued – the Labour MP, Tom Johnston, Secretary of State for Scotland in the wartime coalition government, and a notably interventionist politician, agreed to meet an SLA delegation to discuss library legislation. However, even Johnston, in the face of resistance to legislation from one of the local authority organisations, and feeling that wartime was not the moment for controversial legislation, suggested that the SLA should confine its proposals to those elements which might have universal support. Council was disappointed but felt that if abolition of dual rating, the end of rate limitation and freedom to co-operate across local authority boundaries could be achieved, something would have been gained.

After the war a number of authorities did obtain approval, by means of obtaining local acts, for the abolition of rate limitation, but this was a difficult and cumbersome process and in general, as the Association repeatedly pointed out, the development of the library service was being hampered by this antique provision.

An Advisory Council on Education in Scotland had been set up in 1947 and had been given the additional remit of considering public library legislation. The existence of this Council, of course, provided a splendid excuse for Secretaries of State to decline discussion of such matters while the Advisory Council was deliberating – which it did for more than four years. In 1954 a Scottish Library Association delegation met with Scottish Office officials to discuss, yet again, library legislation. This time some success was achieved and the Public Libraries (Scotland) Act of 1955 met some, though not all, of the SLA’s desires.

This Act was introduced to the House of Commons as a Private Members Bill, sponsored by the Edinburgh MP Sir William Y. Darling, with cross-party support. However as it was going through Parliament a General Election was announced and there was every prospect that the Bill would not be able to complete its passage in time. Two effective letters by Sir Alexander Gray, chairman of the Executive Committee of the Scottish Central Library for Students, and W. P. Paton, President of the SLA, to the Scotsman, called for the support of Scottish MPs for the Bill. A speedy passage of the Bill through its remaining stages resulted in it getting the Royal Assent on the day that Parliament was dissolved. A 35-year struggle to remove rate limitation was over, and the slightly shorter struggle over dual rating was also ended.

With some propriety the SLA decided to hold a dinner to celebrate the passing of the Act and the Lord Advocate William R. Milligan replied to the toast to Her Majesty’s Ministers. Indeed a warmer relationship with Government can be seen developing – a Jubilee Dinner to celebrate 50 years of the SLA was addressed by Secretary of State John Maclay and a succession of other Ministers have since attended conferences and spoken at dinners and the Association, in both its guises, has been careful to build up links with politicians and other parts of civil society.

The 1955 Act went some way to meeting the needs of the time, but it was not long before concerns about the need for Scottish library legislation re-surfaced. The COSLA Standards route took many years to come about and in the 1960s and 1970s much time and effort was devoted to impressing on Governments of both parties the need for legislation – a need which found little response in either camp. After the passing of the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act in England and Wales with its seemingly attractive and empowering phrase about authorities having a duty to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” service, Scottish librarians were convinced of the need for equivalent legislation here.

However, government had a convenient excuse for inaction. It was, in 1964, felt inappropriate to consider library legislation while the question of local government reorganisation was being considered. By 1966 a Royal Commission on Local Government Reorganisation had been established. The SLA’s written evidence outlined nine issues which it felt retarded the service’s development. These included dual rating, the lack of standards and the inadequate resource base of many smaller authorities. It outlined some of the answers to these issues which included a general presumption in favour of a minimum authority population figure of 100,000, a statutory requirement to provide an efficient service based on official standards, the creation of an advisory body to assist the Secretary of State in his oversight of the public library service, and measures to assure the financial stability of the Scottish Central Library and the development of services in hospitals, homes, prisons and to the old and disabled.

The reorganisation of local government which came into effect in 1975 did indeed remove some of the problems but still left major issues on quality of service to be addressed.

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Information Scotland Vol. 6(4) August 2008

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Last updated: 29-Aug-2008