[Guest post by Hywel James, Gwynedd, and he kindly wrote it it in Welsh too]
The chief librarians in Wales celebrated recently. What did they have to celebrate, you may ask, in the middle of planning drastic cuts in spending and closing some libraries? Well, on a break from a busy agenda with items discussing the development and improvement of services, we took the opportunity to share cake and remember fifty years since the passing of the Public Libraries Act 1964. This Act established the modern statutory library service, which it is the duty of each local authority to provide, and that gives everyone in Wales the opportunity to enjoy and benefit from its use.
As a child of the sixties I remember especially a new public library building which came in the wake of this important Act: the new concrete and glass Holyhead library. I was there at the opening, with the Secretary of State of Wales at the time, Cledwyn Hughes, opening the library in his hometown and mine. Here my life was opened to the treasures of literature of a high standard – the pleasure of following the story of Tolkien’s Hobbit and excitement of reading T. Llew Jones novels – and getting valuable help with my homework whilst at school and college – my debt to that library is great.
As it was in the period of a Labour government that this first golden age of public libraries took place, it was necessary to remind myself that the 1964 Act was the product of a Conservative government. After years of debate mainly during the years of Harold Macmillan’s leadership, the Act was passed. It is no coincidence I suspect that Macmillan himself was an enthusiastic reader – his favourite author was Jane Austen by the way – and of course he was the heir to a company of Scottish descent that became one of the world’s major publishers. It is strange to think in the present climate that we owe a debt to the Tory party for the Act to establish the ‘comprehensive and efficient’ library services!
While visiting the new libraries at Prestatyn and Caerphilly recently I was struck by the same excitement I felt as a child in Holyhead, to see new multi-purpose libraries attracting a host of new users. The lean period is ahead of us but we have survived bleak decades. Our strength as a public service is that review after review, case study after case study and our everyday experience shows the great value of libraries to people’s lives. This solid evidence will ensure future Welsh public libraries continue to serve, with free access for all, for the next fifty years.
[Ed: You may also be interested in reading four other responses to the significant date on the Voices for the Library website, by Prof Charles Oppenheim, David McMenemy, Bob Usherwood, and Dr Steve Davies.)