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66th IFLA Council and General

Jerusalem, Israel, 13-18 August


Code Number: 164-69-(WS)-E
Division Number: VI
Professional Group: Management of Library Associations: Workshop
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 69
Simultaneous Interpretation:   No  

Harmony and progress - 125 years of The Library Association

Bob McKee
The Library Association
London, United Kingdom


This IFLA Conference is an appropriate place to reflect on the history of The Library Association. In the nineteenth century, in 1877, the LA in the UK was formed as a result of the first ever international conference of librarians. In the twentieth century, in 1927, the LA in the UK celebrated its first 50 years of existence with another international conference, in Scotland, out of which came this International Federation of Library Associations. And in the twenty-first century - in 2002 the year in which the IFLA Conference will return again to Scotland - The Library Association will cease to exist in its present form. It will merge with another professional body, the Institute of Information Scientists, to form a new association for the library and information community in the UK.

Some things change - and some things never change. Libraries and information work have changed many times in their history - continually evolving to meet the changing needs of society; continually adapting to make use of new techniques and new technologies.

But the purpose of libraries, the mission of libraries, does not change - it is, as it is has always been, to give people access to knowledge.

As with libraries, so also with library associations. The purpose, the mission, does not change - it is, as it has always been, to support the highest possible standards of service and of practice. But as society changes, as technology changes, as political and educational and cultural and economic contexts change - so then library associations (like libraries) must themselves change.

Every institution must reinvent itself - through evolution or transformation - in order to remain relevant and valuable in society. Library associations, like all institutions, must obey the law of evolution: to survive means to adapt.

So what is the story of the survival of The Library Association in the 125 years of life from its formation in 1877 to the transformation that will take place in 2002? Let me start the story with an annual symbolic event. Every year the members of the Association elect a Council to manage the affairs of the Association and a President as the figurehead of the Association. Every year in January the elected members of the Council meet and before the formal meeting begins they drink a toast to the health of the new President and to the harmony and progress of The Library Association. Harmony and progress is the aim - and that is why I have made that phrase "Harmony and progress" the title of this presentation.

In many ways the story of The Library Association is a story of "harmony and progress" - a story of successful achievement and growth: reflecting the solid establishment and development of library and information services in the UK.

When the Association came into being its concerns were threefold: bibliographic activity; the training of library staff; and legislation, particularly that governing the development of public libraries.

These have remained principal concerns - and the story is one of success.

In bibliography the Association has played its part in the establishment of internationally accepted systems of cataloguing and internationally recognised tools for indexing and abstracting.

In terms of legislation and service development the Association has always been active and influential with government in the UK. In the early part of the twentieth century, working with the Carnegie UK Trust, the Association was directly involved in the spread of public library services across the nation - and the Association has continued to have an important advisory role with government.

This year in parts of the UK we celebrate 150 years of Public Library service - the first public library legislation having been passed by Parliament in 1850. This year the Association has worked with government to produce a set of standards for public library provision - the first attempt in our country to define clearly the infrastructure to be expected of a modern public library service. This year the Association has given evidence to a parliamentary committee of enquiry into public library services - and that evidence has been influential in shaping the government's policy for the future of public library services.

This year we have seen the start of the Peoples' Network intended to link every public library in the UK to the Internet and to a national educational network by the year 2002 - an initiative, backed by government investment, which had its origins, in part, in work in which The Library Association was a partner.

That original aspiration back in the nineteenth century to influence government to the betterment of libraries is still a very strong and successful strand of the Association's activity in these early years of the twenty-first century.

Our founders were concerned with the training of library staff - and education and development has been at the heart of the Association throughout its history.

Classes and examinations to promote and shape education and training in library work were begun by the Association in the nineteenth century and, having been granted a Royal Charter in 1898, the Association began, in 1910, its Register of Chartered Librarians - admission to the Register being based then as now on the three criteria of appropriate qualifications, relevant experience, and a period in membership of the Association. The Register remains the benchmark of professional competence for library and information staff in the UK.

Courses were run in partnership with academic institutions from as early as 1902 and in 1918 the first school of librarianship was established in the UK within London University. These early developments enabled our Association and our higher education institutions to respond to the expansion in library and information work in the UK in the second half of the twentieth century so that by the 1980s (when I was teaching in a school of librarianship) there were 17 such schools in different universities in different parts of the UK. By that time the universities themselves had become responsible for examining and awarding their own degrees and diplomas in library and information studies. The Library Association had become an accrediting body - accrediting those courses which lead to qualifications which are deemed acceptable as part of the requirements for becoming a Chartered librarian. The Association is no longer the examining body for courses in librarianship - but it does examine rigorously the submissions made by members who wish to be admitted to the Register of Chartered Librarians.

Through accreditation of courses and registration of members, the Association ensures the quality of professional library and information practitioners. The success of this approach - and the expansion of the profession in the UK in the second half of the twentieth century - is shown in the membership figures of the Association. In 1947 the Association had 1,600 Chartered members; in 1967 the Association had over 8,000 Chartered members; in the 1970s (when I became a member) this figure had risen to around 13,000 Chartered members; and the latest figures show about 16,000 Chartered members out of a total membership of around 25,000 - around 65% of our members are Chartered members: admitted to the Register of Chartered Librarians.

So the toast to "harmony and progress" seems justified - with this story of steady growth in membership, in influence, in credibility and reputation as a profession and as a professional association. Through this story of growth we come to our present position of 25,000 members: of 12 geographical Branches covering each region of England and also the nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: of 24 special interest Groups covering the whole spectrum of specialisms within our very broad profession: of strong executive support given by around 80 very diverse and very talented staff working mostly in a corporate headquarters building in London which we own and into which we are currently investing over £1m to extend the building and enhance its facilities: of healthy finances with assets of over £10m and an annual turnover of around £7m: of a tremendous array of professional and commercial products and services and activities, all designed to promote the highest standards of libraries and of librarianship

So The Library Association in the UK is a success story. But is has not always been quite so successful, nor has it always been harmonious. There has been discord and disagreement. In its early days the Association seemed concerned more with the great cultural institutions of London than with the spread of municipal and county public libraries, much to the discontent of the public librarians of the day. In the middle period of the twentieth century the Association seemed primarily concerned with public libraries, much to the discontent of librarians working in industry and commerce - which is why in 1926 the Association of Special Libraries and Information Bureaux was formed; and in 1958 the Institute of Information Scientists was established.

Sometimes groups have formed outside The Library Association - like the Institute of Information Scientists, or the Standing Conference of National and University Librarians or the African Caribbean Library Association: all groups of librarians in the UK which are separate from The Library Association, all of which work closely in liaison with the Association.

The history of our profession in the UK is like a kaleidoscope - continually forming and reforming new patterns in our professional community.

Sometimes groups formed outside then reform inside the Association. In the 1920s the Byelaws of the Association were revised to permit unification with the previously separate Association of Assistant Librarians and the previously separate Scottish Library Association. In the 1980s the Royal Charter of the Association was amended by a supplemental Charter of 1986 in order to recognise explicitly the expansion of our profession to include work with information as well as work in libraries and thus pave the way for unification with the Institute of Information Scientists.

It is perhaps indicative of the struggles with bureaucracy and inertia and vested interests which often lie behind that appearance of "harmony and progress" that it will take from the mid 1980s until 2002 to reach the moment of unity between the Association and the Institute.

A recent review of the history of our profession in the UK concluded "rarely has British professional librarianship been at ease with itself". Behind the harmony and progress there has always been discord and disagreement.

  • Between London and anywhere outside London which sees the Association as centred too much on London
  • Between public librarians and other library and information professionals who see the Association as centred too much on public libraries
  • Between library and information professionals and frontline library assistants who see the Association as centred too much on the profession rather than the whole of the library and information workforce
  • Between librarians and information scientists who see the Association as centred too much on traditional librarianship and not enough on modern information management
  • Between those who love the book and those who have embraced technology
  • Between those who define a profession in terms of knowledge and qualification and those who seek to appoint staff on the basis of experience and competency
  • Between the men who traditionally have dominated the positions of power and influence and the women who make up the majority of the workforce and membership.
  • Between the traditional structures of British society and its institutions and the cultural diversity of modern British life which is not yet adequately reflected in the work and the workforce of many of those institutions
  • And sometimes between the membership of the Association and the management of the Association.
In 1945 and again in 1982 the membership at large expressed through General Meetings its lack of confidence in the Council and the management of the Association. I can speak from experience of 1982 when the Association's members commissioned an independent management audit which found that the Association's financial systems were inadequate, the Association's organisational structures were dysfunctional, the Association's commercial activities were uncompetitive, and the Association's public relations activities were ineffective. At that time there was a clear breakdown of trust between the organisation and many of its members.

It is much to the credit of my predecessors (including the IFLA Secretary General, Ross Shimmon) that the crisis-ridden organisation of 1982 has become the strong and healthy organisation which I inherited last year. This is to the credit of the staff of the Association - and it is also to the credit of leading members who have worked hard for the Association because of their belief in its value and their commitment to its survival.

So then - what themes emerge from this story of The Library Association over what will be 125 years of history?

First, we may aim for harmony and progress - but there will always be struggle and disagreement and discord. In this context the first requirement for any association has to be clarity of vision and strength of purpose. The success of The Library Association in first establishing itself was very much because of strong leadership: with the prominent librarians of the day being prepared to commit their time and energy to their association. Linked to leadership and strength of purpose is a preparedness to make difficult choices and to risk controversy by reshaping the association to meet or to anticipate changing circumstances. That is why the history of The Library Association is a history of continuous kaleidoscopic change - in its constitution, its structures, its activities.

In modern times the Association has experienced a number of fundamental changes. In the 1960s institutional members surrendered their voting rights and their seats on Council and provisions were made to make Council representatives of individual members from all parts of the profession. Ever since the focus of the Association has been on individual membership rather than institutional membership. In the 1970s the Association transferred responsibility for its library to the British Library and the collection of resources has now been transferred physically away from The Library Association's headquarters into the new British Library building. We are now considering a new form of library and information service for the profession using technology and a distributed network of resources working in partnership between The Library Association, the national libraries, and a number of universities. In the 1980s the Association sold its various indexing and abstracting services to commercial interests because the investment needed to safeguard the future of these important bibliographic tools could only come from commercial interests with the development of electronic publishing in a global market place.

In the 1990s the Association built up a portfolio of income-generating products and services in order to broaden the Association's financial base, reduce dependence on income from membership subscriptions, and support a wider range of activities by the Association on behalf of its members.

Now in the early years of the twenty-first century we are transforming ourselves once again - a new Charter and Byelaws to enable unification with the Institute; a new approach to professional qualifications to recognise the changing landscape of education and training in the UK and also to introduce a system of periodic revalidation to ensure the currency of professional competence of Chartered members; a new Corporate Plan and a revised organisational structure to give greater clarity and direction to the work of the Association.

A library association - any library association - is a complex entity: in our case in the UK a mix of registered charity, professional body, membership association, commercial enterprise, policy think-tank, development agency, Chartered institution, UK organisation, and global brand-name. The complexity and diversity is illustrated by the fact that only around 30% of our 80 staff have a background in library and information work: the other 70% come from a wide range of different administrative, technical and professional areas of expertise.

In this context of complexity and diversity we need clarity of focus and direction. For us in the UK that is provided by focussing on our members. We deliver our mission - to raise standards of service and practice - through our members. We are governed - in our Council and our Committees - by our members. We provide products and services for our members as our primary customer base. The unifying factor - that which gives common purpose to our varied endeavours - is our members.

So the message which I want to share with you reiterates something I said at the start of this presentation. Some things change - and some things never change.

Libraries and information services exist to give people access to knowledge. That is the contribution which our profession makes to society. This does not change.

Library associations exist to promote and support the highest standards of practice and the best quality in delivering service. That is the contribution which organisations like The Library Association make to our professional community and thus to society. And this does not change.

Our value in society is constant and the values for which we stand - values of freedom, integrity, mutuality, accuracy, honesty in our dealings - these also are constant.

But to deliver our mission, our purpose, our value, our values in a world of change - we must ourselves seek constantly to evolve, to re-invent ourselves. To survive does mean to adapt. Just as we seek to support continuous improvement in the standards of our profession - so we must also strive for continuous improvement in our own activities.

That is why the history of The Library Association seems to be a never-ending process of forming and reforming: reforming the Council; reforming the Committee structure; reforming the way we organise the staff and the business; reforming what we do and how we do it.

That is why The Library Association will merge with the Institute of Information Scientists in 2002. That is why we are currently restructuring the organisation and rebuilding our headquarters building. That is why we are investing in technology to develop an electronic association as well as a physical association. That is why we are introducing a new process of policy development designed to strengthen our influence with government and other interested parties. That is why we are reshaping our framework of qualifications and continuing professional development; and why we are introducing a process of periodic revalidation in order to consolidate the position of the Charter as the benchmark of current professional competence. That is why we are reviewing our structure of geographic Branches in the light of devolution by government to the home nations and the English regions. That is why we are working to reflect more fully within the Association the cultural diversity of our society. That is why we are speaking up strongly with employers about the value and status and salaries of librarians and information workers. That is why we are working in partnership with other bodies to encourage innovation within the library and information sector and to promote the positive contribution made by library and information services to the cultural, educational, economic, social and democratic well-being of society. And that is why we are working with the international community through organisations like IFLA.

Because what we do is worthwhile. Libraries can make a positive difference in society. And we can make a positive difference for libraries and librarians.

Successful survival for The Library Association from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first century has been about constancy of mission, clarity of vision, the courage to make difficult decisions, the willingness to change, the resilience to keep going, the recognition that to survive means to adapt, and the strength of purpose which comes from knowing that what we do is worthwhile because, ultimately, the profession we support and the people we serve make a positive difference to the quality of people's lives.

Thank you


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