Letters: Public libraries

Public libraries, a valued service to the citizen
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The Independent Online

As one who actually uses public libraries, may I explain to Mary Dejevsky (Opinion, 4 March) and others who are so dismissive of them, what public libraries are really like?

I live in rural Norfolk; my nearest library is three miles away and is open on four days. From home, I can access online the entire Norfolk library catalogue. Through my online account I can request and renew items, choosing which branch to pick them up from; I can return them to any branch, including the mobile library. My husband has requested obscure, specialist books which our local branch has supplied by arranging – for a very modest fee – loans from other county collections.

We could ill afford to buy all the books that we borrow; I imagine the expense of buying all the books that children borrow would be prohibitive for many parents.

None of the libraries I use is "wood-panelled". I see a diverse community of users in them, borrowing books, CDs, DVDs; using the computers; reading reference books and newspapers. When I am in a public library, I feel I am a member of a wider community and society – a citizen, in fact – sharing a public space and service which I value highly.

Dinah Slatter

Hickling, Norfolk

I agree with Mary Dejevsky that the campaign to save libraries, especially children's libraries, is highly romanticised. I also think a nationwide survey on libraries is an excellent idea. However, both Dejevsky and the campaigners fail to acknowledge the importance that public libraries have to teenagers in providing textbooks, revision guides and quiet study space.

When I was growing up, the library was the only way to access expensive revision guides. I owe passing my A-levels and going on to university to public libraries. Back then, with constant teachers' strikes and lack of resources to give every student the attention they needed, libraries were there to pick up the slack.

In response to Dejevsky's comment that "public libraries belong to a time when books were far more expensive than they are today", £15 is a lot of money to a 17-year-old from a poor background, especially since these books can go out of date within a year (law text books in particular), making them unusable second hand. This is expensive, so libraries tend to cut back when faced with cuts and rely on popular fiction to draw in the crowds.

Computers and DVD/CD rentals should not be ignored either; they are also a learning resource, not just entertainment. My old library has audio language courses, DVD guitar lessons and films about local history. It's far from turning libraries into Blockbuster, as purists assume.

Laura Liddell

Northolt, Middlesex

Mary Dejevsky's opinion that our view of libraries is "sepia tinted" shows a middle-class complacency which she thankfully does not share with Alan Bennett. His unassuming presence on a Saturday last month at our local library proved how in touch he still is with real people.

The library is next to the local school where I teach; 115 pupils change a book there every month, supported by volunteer and paid library staff.

Our families do not always want to buy the books that Mary Dejevsky says are so cheap nowadays. Our children need and want access to a wide variety of texts, supported by wonderful staff. The library's closure would truly delay our children's "capacity to read and learn".

Alan Bennett's view is modern, clear and in full, high-definition colour.

Katherine Shepherd

High Bentham, North Yorkshire

Mary Dejevsky has injected some overdue realism into the emotive reaction to possible local government cuts to public library services.

For decades libraries have courted new fads that have very little to do with encouraging people to read books. Civic and university authorities have constructed new edifices of architectural monstrosity and limited practical utility while librarians have long since become Strategic Directors of Learning Resource Management. Local councils have to decide spending priorities, and emotive appeals will not help.

There does remain a vital role for book-based libraries, but they need not all be at the cost of the public purse.

For many decades across the English-speaking world reading libraries were endowed by public-spirited individuals and groups such as the Workers' Education Association. In such facilities local communities were encouraged to explore the written word and to meet for lectures and courses of self-education, often on a small subscription basis, but not reliant upon state funding.

Perhaps here is an opportunity to recapture that spirit of genuine community resource, free from local bureaucracy and inevitable political ideology.

Martin Hislop

Kingston upon Thames, Surrey

Go ahead and bash the banks

I cannot allow John de Silva's defence of the banks (letter 3 March) to go unchallenged.

In the 1990s I was the IT director of an investment bank that was a subsidiary of a UK high-street bank. I was well paid, although not on the same scale as today's investment bankers. Even then, I could not justify the business model of the company.

In good years, virtually all the profits were distributed in bonuses, with a tiny dividend paid to the parent company, and in bad years bonuses were paid out of reserves. Meetings were arranged with accountants for all directors to showcase all the latest schemes for avoidance of income tax.

The bonus distribution was heavily influenced by who threatened to leave, taking their clients with them. I never saw anyone's bluff called.

On several occasions at trade conferences I stood up and told the delegates that they were paying themselves more than they were worth and that their business model would eventually collapse. Each time, this was met with uncomprehending silence.

Very little of the business of investment bankers is of benefit to the economy of the country. Huge volumes of business are transacted on the basis of bid rumours. Mergers and acquisitions are created that have little benefit to anything other than the ego of chief executives.

We need to dispel the myth that the financial services industry is an asset to this country. We need banks that can look after money and lend it to growing businesses. We used to have lots of building societies to help people to buy houses. Almost everything else is an expensive game with a lot of losers.

Peter English

Rhewl, Denbighshire

A nation votes to stay at home

Buried on page 20, you report: "Wales to control major policies after overwhelming referendum" (5 March). A more realistic view is that 22 per cent of the electorate voted "Yes" and 13 per cent "No", while 65 per cent abstained. It is hardly surprising that the turnout was so low: I've yet to meet anyone in my village who received any information whatsoever. The media have been virtually silent; coverage (including in The Independent) has been minimal and tardy. As an exercise in democracy, this has been a travesty.

All the politicians were in cahoots for a "Yes" vote. Expect them without delay to aggrandise their job description, from AM (Assembly Member) to MWP (Member of the Welsh Parliament) and vote themselves a salary increase.

David Smith

Clyro, Powys

No doubt the Welsh electorate are happy that they have now joined those of Scotland and Northern Ireland in having power over major policies, including health, education and transport.

Those of us living in England will, however, be less pleased to realise that we now have 117 Westminster MPs from outside of our country who are empowered to vote on purely English issues affecting us, such as the privatisation of the NHS or the raising of university tuition fees, and that they can do so knowing that their own constituents will be unaffected.

Perhaps we could recommend this form of government, along with an unelected second chamber, to those in the Arab world fighting for democracy.

Colin Burke

Manchester

Soup runs don't help

I am writing in reply to Johann Hari's comment piece "David Cameron's assault on the homeless is Dickensian" (4 March).

Soup runs are not a civilised way to help people in the 21st century. Many charities who provide services day and night to rough sleepers agree that soup runs get in the way of their work to help get people off the streets. Street handouts do little to help people make the step away from rough sleeping. Instead they frequently prevent people from facing up to the reality of the current circumstances they are in.

It is completely outdated and unnecessary to provide food for people on the streets. Within the bylaw area is the largest day centre for rough sleepers in England, providing not just food but a whole range of services including advice on housing, employment and access to a doctor, dentist, podiatrist and mental health services. Soup runs are a barrier to access to these services as they sustain a life on the street.

We spend around £9m on services to help rough sleepers every year, and this level of funding will continue despite the tough economic climate. Food is not enough – there has to be help for people to get off the streets, and soup runs just don't do that.

Cllr Daniel Astaire

Cabinet member for society, families and adult services

Westminster Council

Poor readers get the message

Natalie Haynes should be applauded for her grammatical critique of the merits of revising "medicine labels"' (patient information leaflets) to improve patient understanding ("Warning: the wording on this medicine will drive you to drink," 5 March). However, this is yet another example of the literary elite, having no notion of the general population's capabilities of comprehending written English, imposing their ideological standards on the masses.

Research has consistently shown that patients who read and understand what their medicines do and how exactly they should be taken have better knowledge of their condition, and a reduction in pain and depression (Bishop et al 1996). The average reading age of the UK population is cited at between nine and 11 years (Griffin et al, 1996). Writers of patient information leaflets are advised not to exceed a "readability age" of 12 years (Albert et al, 1992).

Mortality and morbidity rates are significantly greater in populations who leave school early and have received a less than adequate education, compared with those who are well educated. Taken together, these data indicate that not only will the less well educated become sicker, they will also be less likely to use their medicines as prescribed.

Natalie Haynes should consider the welfare of those less well educated than herself, before glibly dismissing the efforts of an eminent professor, who is trying to improve patients' health, based on his research and a wealth of experience.

Dr Kate Owen

Dunham Massey, Cheshire

Lib Dems pay price of power

You are right to say that "the Liberal Democrats are taking more than their fair share of the blame" (leading article, 5 March). This is largely the result of our asinine "first-past-the-post" voting system, which means that at general elections minority parties are obliged to campaign, quite unrealistically, on the basis of what they will do when in power.

Liberal Democrats have become so used to their party having no power to speak of that they have been able to luxuriate in the preservation of their ideals, unsullied by any prospect that they might actually have to find realistic ways of putting them into effect.

It sometimes used to be said that the long-term unemployed eventually lost the will to say "yes" to a job. Certainly it seems that some Liberal Democrat supporters, faced with the prospect of their elected members having even limited influence, have lost the will to take "yes" for an answer: better to remain in the wilderness than compromise the purity of their principles. Maybe too many of them have been losers for too long.

To repair their unjustly tarnished image, the parliamentary Liberal Democrats, who are now operating in the real world of politics, will need to get a grip on their own supporters, who are clearly still living in cloud-cuckoo-land.

Nick Chadwick

Oxford

Stop arming Arab tyrants

Never has there been a more relevant time for us to debate the ending of the arms trade.

Cameron has denounced the use of violence against the Libyan people, and yet our equipment is being used to kill them. In the same week as the Egyptian uprising, he took an arms delegation to Kuwait. Now we see the Saudi regime bringing out the troops to quash their uprising, a country we have made billions from over the years.

Are we to condemn these dictators and their brutal society, or are we to continue to support it and arm it to the teeth so that the dreams of millions can be crushed?

Andrew Robertson

London E2

More than a week has passed since David Cameron was caught running guns in Abu Dhabi while demonstrators were being shot at in Libya and Egypt, and he still has not been suspended from duty.

Why is it that death-dealing politicians are immune to this sanction? It is applied instantaneously when teachers write racy novels to encourage schoolboys to read, or when fashion designers get drunk and say something rash and unforgivable.

Giles Watson

Uffington, Oxfordshire

Peaceful holiday

We could do with an autumn bank holiday, but why would anyone want to use it to celebrate the Battle of Trafalgar, a 206-year-old victory over a current ally? Canon, blood and wigs! If we're going for an October holiday, let's grab United Nations Day, 24 October. A chance to stop and think on the achievements and failures of an important current global institution. It also happens to be my birthday.

Simon Molloy

London E8

Battle lines

A Women's International Brigade to fight the Taliban? Count me in – but John Riseley's letter (5 March) leads me to believe that the front line of the war on misogyny, inequality and plain ignorance lies a lot closer to home than Afghanistan.

Jane Price

St Austell, Cornwall

Verbal feast

I was intrigued to read of the "killer shrimp" (3 March) and its vociferous appetite. One might say it's as hungry as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.

Annie Lamb

Ruthven, Aberdeen

Perspectives on sparrows

Nesting in New York traffic lights

Like Michael McCarthy (Nature Studies, 4 March), I have noticed the abundance of house sparrows in the US, specifically New York City. They nest often in the tubular cross-members of traffic light supports and lamp posts. As a keen birder, I was pleased to hear their chirpings above the rumbling traffic in midtown Manhattan.

The reasons for the decline in this country are likely to be manifold. The USA switched to unleaded fuel before we did; they have stricter laws on pesticides; there are fewer cats in New York city! However all is not well; my New York birding friends tell me that the numbers of migrant warblers diminishes year on year.

Andy Lane

Cotgrave, Nottinghamshire

Chicks starve for lack of insects

Denis Summers-Smith has greatly added to our understanding of the common "cockney sparra". He was quite right about a lack of insects taking a toll on the population of fledgling house sparrows.

The RSPB has researched this problem over several years in Leicester and London. We have demonstrated a clear link between insect availability and chicks starving in the nests. We have also found evidence that sparrows do less well in areas of high air pollution from traffic, but we do not yet understand exactly how the pollution may be affecting the birds. It is likely that a range of factors are affecting urban house sparrows, and further research, alongside our own, would be welcome.

Although The Independent's offer of £5,000 to whoever solves the mystery is nice, the reward of a world richer in wildlife would be a far larger prize that all of us can share in.

Dr Mark Avery

Director of Conservation

Royal Society for the protection of Birds

Sandy, Bedfordshire

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