Chapter 8: United Kingdom – Public Libraries and their National Policies


United Kingdom


Public libraries in the United Kingdom have seen a variety of regulatory schema since they were first legislated in 1919. Since the post-war era and the advent of the welfare state, the United Kingdom has used several different models for structuring its public libraries. These run the range from small, highly independent, individual library authorities with no national assistance to consolidated library systems governed by tight regulations with governmental audits. Libraries in the United Kingdom face a public relations battle, with some questioning their usefulness in the twenty-first century. In 2010, public library standards in the United Kingdom were abolished.

Key words

public library funding shortfalls

public library standards


Historical background

The history of public libraries in the United Kingdom is long and tumultuous. Public libraries in the United Kingdom have seen a wide range of regulatory environments, from the early days of unregulated community libraries to a complex system of regulation and compliance checks to the practical abandonment of standards. It has been almost 100 years since the United Kingdom passed its first piece of public library legislation, but the debate on how best to administer the public library system continues.

Not unlike public libraries in the United States, public libraries in the United Kingdom began to emerge in the mid-nineteenth century in local communities that cared enough about library service to take the initiative to create it. The United Kingdom’s first piece of library legislation passed into law in 1850, enabling (but not requiring) municipalities with populations greater than 10,000 to create public libraries. The original wording of the legislation, which was altered five years later, restricted library districts from using municipal funds for anything other than ‘accommodations’, apparently presuming that the library would be staffed by volunteers and filled with donations. It also offered no funding at the national level (Moore, 2004). This legislation was largely an attempt to legitimize a system of informal public libraries that had cropped up during the Victorian Age (Culture, Media, and Sport Committee, 2005). Due to the lack of funding and size restrictions it is perhaps unsurprising that only 74 municipalities in 30 years took advantage of the powers offered to them by the Public Libraries Act of 1850. However, the public library movement eventually began to pick up steam and between 1880 and 1900 nearly 300 municipalities created public libraries (Moore, 2004).

During this time Andrew Carnegie was playing a major role in the emergence of United Kingdom libraries, as he was in the United States. By the time he died in 1919, Carnegie had donated funds to 380 library projects throughout England, and some 660 throughout the United Kingdom. Some of these donations were in the form of book stock, but the vast majority was for building construction (Moore, 2004; Carnegie Heritage Center, 2011).

In the post-war period, there was perhaps no more influential a figure than Lionel McColvin. Tasked by the Library Association in 1941 to come up with a plan for the United Kingdom’s public library system when the war eventually ended, the report he submitted to them the following year has gained a reputation of ‘mythical proportion’ and was a major milestone in the history of the country’s libraries. McColvin was selected for this monumental task because of his stature as one of the nation’s pre-eminent library figures, and he spent the better part of a year criss-crossing the United Kingdom to visit 350 service points in 130 public library systems (Black, 2004).

When he finished his trek, he submitted his monumental report to the Library Association. It was bleak. Having grown up with no real oversight or external governance (in a manner similar to that of the public library system of the United States), he found public library service in the United Kingdom to be ‘badly organized’, with glaring inadequacies in its collections, services, facilities, and staff. McColvin cited six main factors that he believed directly contributed to the poor state of public libraries in the United Kingdom: poorly trained staff; lack of demand for library service; disinterested local authorities; poor funding; an excess of small, inefficient library authorities; and a lack of coordination between these authorities. His two main recommendations for this set of problems were the creation of an administrative body at the national level that would hand out grants from the central government, and the consolidation of the 604 library authorities across the United Kingdom into 93. In essence, McColvin was suggesting the ‘quasi-nationalization’ of public libraries, which was in keeping with the rise of the welfare state in the United Kingdom but which ran almost exactly counter to the Kenyon Report, the previous national report on public libraries undertaken in the 1920s. However, when the Library Association published the McColvin Report in 1943, it adopted ‘virtually all’ of McColvin’s recommendations, and ignited a contentious debate (Black, 2004).

McColvin’s recommendations were eventually rejected. Libraries were not interested in being under the ‘remote control’ of a larger library system and the national government had no interest in forcing them. Eventually though, public libraries were forced to consolidate when local government itself was reorganized in the 1960s and 1970s. As small boroughs were merged into larger ones, library districts were forced to followed suit.

In 1964, a new Public Libraries Act was passed and the modern United Kingdom library came into being, and a sort of Golden Age began. In the decade that followed the passage of the Act, library councils in England increased their spending by over 50 percent, library staff grew by 40 percent, collections grew, and the number of public libraries open 10 or more hours per week increased by nearly 60 percent. The provision of library services beyond basic collections expanded, especially children’s, reference, and extension services (Davies, 2008).

Current framework

In the 1970s, public libraries in the United Kingdom began a long, steady decline. Widespread economic crisis in the late 1970s rolled back many of the budgetary gains realized in the previous decade, and public libraries were forced to adjust accordingly. Collections suffered first, followed by staff levels as vacancies went unfilled. The number of hours libraries were open to the public declined sharply. This precarious situation was worsened because of what has been called the ‘malign neglect’ of the Conservative Party that took power in the 1980s and 1990s. Even as the economy improved, library funding did not. Between 1984 and 1994, public library expenditures per capita fell more than 9 percent (Hendry, 2000). The result was fewer staff with advanced degrees, rapidly aging collections, and a sharp decline in use. By the end of the 1990s the rate of additions to library collections had fallen to 184 per 1,000 population, which does not come close to meeting minimum standards laid out in the early 1960s (Davies, 2008).

In 2007 a report was issued by PricewaterhouseCoopers on behalf of the Department for Communities and Local Government that recommended some major changes for public libraries in the United Kingdom. In sum, they recommended encouraging the contracting of library services by private entities in the library ‘market’ as a way to drive up competition, and therefore efficiency. This was despite the fact that similar efforts had failed in the previous decade (Department for Communities and Local Government, 2007). It was also despite the fact that a 2001 study has shown that each book circulation in public libraries in the United Kingdom costs £1.44, while providing a benefit worth £1.73 to the individual borrower. When extrapolated to include materials of all types, public libraries in the United Kingdom provided a benefit worth 13 percent more than their cost. In other words, libraries in the United Kingdom produce £98 million in value per annum. The authors of this study note that this figure includes only tangible benefits to individuals who use the library, and does not attempt to include intangible benefits, such as increased literacy levels, the availability of community space, or other such societal benefits (Hawkins et al., 2001).

Financially, the public library situation in the United Kingdom is desperate. Even though the real value of public libraries in the United Kingdom is clear, over 800 public libraries faced closure in 2011 (approximately 18 percent of the country’s total). In the municipality of Doncaster, 14 of 26 libraries faced closure. In Somerset, 20 out of 34 could have been shut. If the government is successful in their efforts to shut down these libraries they plan to sell off the buildings to generate revenue, and consolidate library services into a smaller number of ‘bigger, better, and more modern’ facilities (McLaren, 2011).

Legislation and legal structure

With the election of a Labour Government in 1997, public libraries (and public services in general) began to recover from the downturn of previous decades. In the early 2000s three major milestones were achieved: in 2000 the People’s Network was launched to improve public access Internet availability in public libraries, 2001 saw the adoption of the first set of Public Library Standards, and in 2003 the Department for Culture, Media and Sport issued its Framework for the Future: Libraries, Learning, and Information in the Next Decade.

Immediately following the advent of the People’s Network, the number of total visits to UK libraries, which had been in an extended decline, began to recover. Given the fact that collection size and circulation levels both continued to fall, it’s likely that the resurgence in library visits was due in large part to the availability of Internet access in public libraries. However, library visits peaked in statistical year 2005–06 at 342,168,484 and have since fallen to 324,991,354 in statistical year 2008–09. This number is not quite as low as the library visit nadir of the last 15 years, which occurred in 2001–02 when 318,154,528 people made library visits, but it is certainly discouraging (Libraries, Archives, Museums and Publishing Online Statistics Tables).

Framework for the Future called for the advancement of three main objectives: books, reading and lifelong learning; e-government and community regeneration; and social inclusion. All of these objectives were to be measured by the Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) framework. To achieve these ambitious objectives, the public library system in the United Kingdom was to have done away with long, hierarchical staffing structures and introduce a flatter model that would be more easily able to adapt to the challenges currently facing public libraries. In 2005, two years after Framework for the Future, a report was issued called The Libraries Impact Project which advocated the adoption of impact measures to ensure libraries were meeting needs in four basic areas: health, education, children, and the elderly. Both of these plans were designed to augment the initiatives of the government in providing measurable progress from public libraries in the United Kingdom (Pateman, 2005).

The Public Library Standards were quantitative measurements that focus on access to library buildings, acquisitions, availability of public access Internet terminals, book requests met, number of visits, and satisfaction ratings. Alongside these standards were those of the Best Value Performance Indicators, to which all units of local government in the United Kingdom are subject (Boughey and Cooper, 2010). The usefulness of both of these sets of standards has been called into question though, as they measure mostly quantities and few qualities, and they can also be quite cumbersome (McMenemy, 2007). For example, as noted above, public libraries in the United Kingdom are required to count their visitors. However, many libraries are multiservice areas. The standards require that library staff count only those visitors who come to the library specifically for a library-related purpose, examples of which are given. In a large, multi-service library building, tracking the specific use of the building by every single visitor requires significant logistical effort. And lest libraries consider counting only a sample of their visitors and extrapolating the data for the full year, the standards specifically stated that a full-year count is to be used whenever possible (Public Library Service Standards, 2008).

In recent years the standards and procedures for the evaluation of public library service in the United Kingdom have undergone a series of rapid and somewhat bewildering changes. The original Public Library Standards that came into effect in 2001 were replaced in 2004 by the Public Library Service Standards, which were further revised in 2007 to include, among other things, the Public Library Impact Measures. In 2002 Public Library Position Statements were introduced to replace the Annual Library Plans, which had only existed since 1998 (Davies, 2008). In 2008 Comprehensive Area Assessments (CAA) replaced the previous method of assessment, the CPA, which had been in use since 2002 (Conway, 2008). In May 2010 the use of Comprehensive Area Assessments ceased and no replacement was announced (Davies, 2010). In other words, the end result of this legislative shuffling is that public library standards in the United Kingdom have been effectively abolished (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, 2011).

An interesting policy tool currently in use in the United Kingdom is the Public Lending Right (PLR). The PLR pays authors for the loan of their work at public libraries. Currently, over 23,000 writers, illustrators, photographers, translators, and editors receive payments each year via PLR. Individuals register their work with the PLR, who then track its circulation statistics in a selected group of sample libraries. This data is then extrapolated to estimate total circulation of the work across all of the United Kingdom, and authors (or others involved in the creative process listed above) receive compensation based on this figure up to a maximum of £6,000 and down to a minimum of £1 (anything above the maximum or below the minimum is returned to the PLR for redistribution). The total amount available for compensation is set by parliament each year.


Public libraries in the United Kingdom are, like those of much of the rest of the world, at a crossroads. In recent years they have faced accusations of either becoming obsolete in the era of Google and e-books, or of willfully shifting their core mission and ‘dumbing down’ their services and collections. In 2005, much to the chagrin of the nation’s librarians, a former executive for a major chain bookstore went in front of Parliament and stated his belief that the managerial quality of public libraries in the United Kingdom was ‘very, very poor’. The previous year this same manager said that the collection development of United Kingdom libraries had declined so precipitously that to call public libraries by their old nickname – the ‘University on the Street Corner’ – was a ‘gross oversimplification’. The United Kingdom research institute Demos warned in 2003 that libraries ‘may decline so far that they cannot be resuscitated’ (Black, 2011).

From the outsider’s point of view, public libraries in the United Kingdom seem to be in a state of chaos. The stability and structure that could have been gained via a set of national standards or guidelines has been removed, and public libraries have been left to fend for themselves against shrinking budgets and calls for competition from the private sector. While the data for the last ten years is mostly positive, recent statistics point to a downturn in most major areas (the exception being staff levels, which are holding steady, but could quite possibly be a function of libraries simply having no one left to cut). The history of public libraries in the United Kingdom provides an interesting study of the possible effects that library legislation and standards can have on the success or failure of a public library system. It is not often that a country goes from only the loosest legislative basis for public library service to a very strict atmosphere of regulation and inspection, then right back to no national standards whatsoever – all in a single generation. Public libraries in the United Kingdom thrived under certain policies and withered under others, suffering their steepest periods of decline during periods when the national government offered either limited support or outright inattention. This uncommon trajectory makes for an interesting and informative study of the possibilities and pitfalls of national library policies.


Black, A. National planning for public library service: the work and ideas of Lionel McColvin. Library Trends. 2004; 52(4):902–923.

Black, A. “We don’t do public libraries like we used to” Attitudes to public library buildings in the UK at the start of the 21st century. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science. 2011; 40(1):30–45.

Boughey, A., Cooper, M. Public libraries: political vision versus public demand? Aslib proceedings. 2010; 62(2):175–201.

Carnegie Heritage Center. History page. Available at, 2011.

Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals. Library standards and guidelines. Available at, 2011.

Conway, P., Professional Standards of Service. Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals. 2008 Available at.

Culture, Media, and Sport Committee. Public Libraries: Third Report of Session 2004-05. Available at, 2005.

Davies, G., ‘Gareth Davies’ letter to Local Strategic Partnerships. 2010. Available at.

Davies, S. ‘Taking stock: the future of our public library service’, Cardiff School of Social Sciences. Available at, 2008.

Department for Communities and Local Government. ‘Developing the local government services market: New ways of working and new models of provision within the public library service – a working paper’, PricewaterhouseCoopers. Available at, 2007.

Hawkins, M., Morris, A., Sumsion, J. The economic value of public libraries. APLIS. 2001; 14(3):90–95.

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Libraries, Archives, Museums and Publishing Online Statistics Tables. Available at

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Pateman, J. “Reads” or “needs”? The U.K. debate on the future of public libraries. Feliciter. 2005; 51(6):268–270.

Public Library Service Standards. Department for Culture, Media, and Sport. Available at, 2008.

Useful websites

Department of Culture, Media and Sport (libraries page):

Public Lending Right (What is PLR?):

Loans Inquiry Web Information Service (public librarians may apply for a login):