Obituary: Lord Dainton

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The Independent Online
In October 1967 the new Labour government created a furore by abandoning the long-planned library extension of the British Museum, without consulting the trustees, writes Nicolas Barker [further to the obituary of Lord Dainton by Tam Dalyell, 8 December].

It rubbed salt in the wound by announcing that an independent committee would be appointed to examine all national libraries. Fred Dainton was to be the chairman of this committee, and the work that it did, after this unpromising start, changed the library system of the country to a remarkable degree.

Briefed to review the British Museum library, the National Central Library (the clearing house for inter-library loans), the Patent Office Library and other scientific libraries and consider whether they "should be brought into a unified framework", the Dainton Committee's recommendations went further. The report of the "National Libraries Committee" came out in record time in June 1969.

It endorsed the extension of the British Museum library, the most heavily used in the world, and recommended that the lending libraries should be moved to join the National Lending Library of Science and Technology in Yorkshire; the saving in expensive London space would offset the cost of building the British Museum extension.

It also recommended the creation of a "National Library Authority" to supervise the new conglomerate, with responsibility for future national planning, the application of automation to library services, including the Copyright Deposit system, and linking up with international information retrieval systems. The report was thorough and well thought out; the ideas and their expression bore strong signs of the chairman's beliefs and opinions.

Its fruits came in 1972 with the passing of the British Library Act, under the aegis of Lord Eccles, Paymaster- General with responsibility for the arts. The British Library, separated from the British Museum and linked to the other libraries on paper rather than in fact, was different from the Dainton Report's "National Library Authority", but not markedly so. Its influence on the entire library system of the country has been deep and far-reaching, and that is largely due to Dainton's 1969 blueprint. The most striking evidence of this is the building of the new British Library building, opened to readers just 10 days before his death.

Dainton succeeded Eccles as Chairman of the British Library Board in 1978, and his seven years there were fruitful in many ways, not least in the final decision to build, though now on the St Pancras site. In this, I had a small part.

One day in 1983 he sent for me and said, "I have to go and see Mrs Thatcher to persuade her that we need a new building. I don't know if I shall succeed, but I know one thing, we must keep the issue very simple. It must be conservation: I shall go and say, `Mrs Thatcher, we need a new building because all our books will fall to pieces if they stay where they are.' I want you to look out half a dozen books that I can take with me and show her how bad things are."

I thought this was rather a tall order. If I produced nothing but stretcher- cases, might she not say, "Well, if they can't look after their books better than this, they don't deserve to have them - give them all to Oxford and Cambridge and close the place down"? So I carefully chose that books that showed how hard we had tried to look after them. But to illustrate the terrible impermanence of acidic modern paper I thought I might cheat a little, so I added a book from home, a Penguin of Michael Innes's From London Far, printed in 1965 on paper so brittle now that it fell to pieces as you turned over the pages.

All the exhibits were packed in special boxes with labels explaining the problem, and the Chairman set off for Downing Street. Some hours later I went to collect the books. "How did it go?" I asked. "Fine," he said. "We've got the new building - those books came in most useful, particularly that paperback." "Oh, good," I said, "she got the point about the paper?"

"Well, I don't know," he replied. "She said, `You mean this could happen to Michael Innes?' `Yes, Mrs Thatcher,' I said, `or any other modern author.' `But he's the most wonderful writer, of course you must have your building.' "

Tam Dalyell's obituary makes the point that Dr Lee's Professorship of Chemistry at Oxford did not offer the range or quality of influence that Dainton was by then able to exert, writes Michael Rogers. There was another side to him during that period.

A science editor at Oxford University Press, I was then involved with the development of a series of undergraduate chemistry textbooks. We wanted Dainton's advice on the volume we were planning on chemical kinetics and I made an appointment to see him at the Physical Chemical Laboratory early one Saturday morning. When I arrived he was with a student, patiently going over a point of chemistry. Presently the student understood what had been puzzling him and left. Dainton could not conceal his delight that the student had taken up the invitation to come and see him if anything in his course needed further explanation.

Evidently he took his teaching duties seriously, and greatly enjoyed them.

May I give another example of Fred Dainton's deft ways of dealing with militant students while Vice-Chancellor of Nottingham? writes Professor Nicholas Kurti. He once returned the manuscript of an aggressive pamphlet underscored in red giving the students the go-ahead provided they put into good grammatical English. I believe that the pamphlet was never published.