Public Library Standards in England


It may comes as a surprise to some that public libraries in England currently have no set standards to meet.  It is up to each authority (and there are 151 of them at time of writing in June 2014) to decide what service should be provided. The DCMS has a superintendent role but has not intervened throughout the notably large reductions in service and budget that started with the Coalition Government.  It is well known that the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act demands a “comprehensive an efficient” library but it is less well-known that it then goes on to say ““for all persons desiring to make use thereof”“.  In fact, let’s look at the whole section (7.1):

“It shall be the duty of every library authority to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons desiring to make use thereof, and for that purpose to employ such officers, to provide and maintain such buildings and equipment, and such books and other materials, and to do such other things, as may be requisite” 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act

The drafter of the Act, Francis Bennion, while not going quite this far has gone on record that the Act was meant to be more substantial and prescriptive than is now generally acknowledged. However, what this actually means in practice is open to debate and is generally seen as vague: there is no case law and few guidelines.  It has not always been thus.  From 2001 to 2008, there were set standards for public libraries that clearly designated what each library service needed to be providing.  This page looks at those standards.

The standards

Public library standards were originally introduced in January 2001 (“Comprehensive, Efficient and Modern Public Libraries – Standards and Assessment”) as an attempt to provide a thorough set of 26 performance measures via which a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ library service could be judged. The Standards were also intended to give library users a clear idea of what to expect. They were revised in April 2004 and March 2006 (2nd Revised) and December 2007 (3rd) with the last (3rd Revised) coming in June 2008.

It is perhaps worth noting at this point about Annual Public Library Plans. They are referred to by Chris Smith in the 2001 Introduction. They had a huge impact and while again, they were, to a degree, bureaucratic and, to a degree, flawed they urged and enabled library managers to take a more structured and deliberate approach to management. The service may be for ‘inspiration’ but it wasn’t enough for the service to depend on inspiration to ensure good management and quality provision. Local authorities were required to approve their ALP. As a result they were formally presented to Council for approval and much debate ensued before their approval. It gave a huge profile to libraries among all councillors as well as in the local media.

Standards were then replaced by voluntary library benchmarks. The shift from standards to ‘Benchmarking’ was driven by DCLG in line with their policy to ‘reduce the burdens on local authorities’. The idea was that it would all be much simpler and less demanding of hard-pressed local authorities who were resisting national direction.  Please follow these links to standards for 2001 and 2004:

The DCMS described this as:

“DCMS looked at the performance of library authorities through the assessment of their position statements, which outline their engagement with Framework for the Future, the national public libraries strategy, and standing against the public library standards.  The standards represent a basket of input and output targets across key library activity areas.  The standards as a whole help to define what is meant by a “comprehensive and efficient” service within the terms of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964.” Archived DCMS webpage, retrieved March 2005

In April 2004 DCMS conducted a consultation exercise on proposed new public library service standards which were essentially a revised and streamlined version of the current standards with some modifications. Consideration was also given to how the measurement of the impact of libraries might also be incorporated into the new standards  These are the revisions, consultation and the resulting 2006 standards:


Public Library Service Standards Results 2006/7 – Tables showing the performance of each Library Authority in England against the 10 Public Library Service Standards in 2006/07 are contained in the documents below.  These results were published by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) in Public Library Statistics 2007-08 Estimates and 2006-07 Actuals. © 2007 The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, 3 Robert Street, London, WC2N 6RL. Public Library Service Standards Results 2006/07 PDF (40kb)
Public Library Service Standards Results 2006/07 XLS (65kb) DCMS, retrieved October 2008

The final set in 2008 was described thus:

“Until March 2008, libraries in England were asked to meet ten criteria in order to meet their obligations to local people. These include targets for: Closeness of libraries to their customers, Opening hours, Access to the internet and other online catalogue services, Number of books and other items purchased new each year.  Full details of the standards can be found on the DCMS website at Information about each Library Authority’s performance against each of the Public Library Service Standards was published as part of the 2004/05 CIPFA (The Chartered Institute Public Finance and Accountancy) Public Library Statistics. Details are available in the following document: The Public Library Service Standards complemented the  Public Library Impact Measures  launched in March 2005, and the two sets of measures together provided a coherent approach to performance management for public libraries.” MLA, retrieved October 2008

From 1st April 2008 these standards and impact measures were replaced by a National Indicator for public libraries, one in a set of 198 indicators creating a new performance framework for local government. The National Indicator is NI09: Use of Public LibrariesCrucially, these were entirely voluntary.  These in their turn, were abolished in October 2010 by the Coalition Government [amended with thanks to librariesmatter comment below].

Public library impact measures

“The first set of Public Library Impact Measures was launched at a seminar in London on March 9th 2005. Andrew McIntosh, Minister for the Media and Heritage, commended them to the audience of over two hundred who heard presentations from David Lightfoot, Lancashire, David Curtis, Audit Commission, Catherine Blanshard and Jan Clark, Leeds and Andrew Stevens, MLA.

Presentations from the seminar

format: ppt Presentations by Andrew Stevens, MLA and Jan Clark, Leeds (Powerpoint 4.5MB)

Public Library Service Impact Measures

The measures for 2005/6 were put together after extensive consultation and piloting with a wide range of Library Authorities. They complemented the revised Public Library Service Standards launched in October 2004, and the two sets of measures together provided a coherent approach to performance management for public libraries. They were selected to show the contribution of libraries to five of the seven shared priorities agreed by central and local government.

The proposals formed a starting point in the process of identifying ‘robust ‘ measures to provide evidence of the effect public libraries have on communities. Guidance was also provided on community profiling which forms the basis on which to identify community needs for library services.

format: doc Introduction to proposals for 2005/2006 (Word 36KB)

Frequently Asked Questions

format: doc Frequently asked questions (Word 86KB) about the public library impact measures. Last updated 25/08/2005.

Public library impact measures for 2005/2006

format: doc Promoting the economic vitality of localities (Word 38KB)

format: doc Promoting healthier communities and narrowing health inequalities (Word 42KB)

format: doc Improving the quality of life for children, young people, families at risk and older people (Word 49KB)

format: doc Raising standards across our schools (Word 45KB)

format: doc Safer and stronger communities (Word 34KB)

Community profiles

format: doc Introduction (Word 26KB)

format: doc Section 1: Simplified model, proforma for information (Word 203KB)

format: doc Section 2: Guidance on collection of information for community profiles (Word 44KB)

MLA, retrieved October 2008

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