Letters: The Big Society and libraries

How to run a library for the Big Society

Saturday 19 February 2011 01:00

The reason that John Walsh and his dinner party guests think they can run libraries in the Big Society (Notebook, 17 February ) is that they have identified only one function of libraries.

Their primary function is to provide information and to help users find material they need. Classification systems may be "easy peasy," but that's only part of selecting, storing and finding information, in print and – increasingly important – non-print materials.

Shelving from B&Q isn't strong enough for books and is difficult to move once installed. By all means buy three copies of "every book published this year", but who will borrow them? What happens to the ones no one borrows (there will be many)? Which of these books does your community want and need? Who provides the best price and service for delivering them? What software do you need, and how do you go about providing fair and safe public computer access?

Once your dinner guests have spent over-budget, learned from their mistakes, and gone on courses about information management, they may be able to cope. Isn't it easier just to hire trained, experienced, professional librarians? Certainly cheaper.

Michele R Taborn

Barnstaple, Devon

Andreas Whittam Smith is right to say that there is already a well-established market providing important banking and investment services, and CAF's Charity Bank is a very successful example of this ("Cameron's charity bank is all part of rebranding the Tories", 17 February).

However, the aim of the Big Society Bank is not to distort the market through competing with existing services, but to act as a wholesaler, and NCVO has long called for a social investment wholesale bank to provide much-needed capital for the sector. Our hope is that it will leverage in large amounts of private capital alongside the funds from unclaimed assets to capitalise the retail institutions that already exist and the new ones that might develop.

The success of the Bank will depend on the extent to which additional private capital can be secured, and the £200m pledged by the UK banks last week is a good start, though it is our firm view that this capital must be made available as an equity investment in the bank.

Social investment is likely to form an increasingly significant source of funding for the UK's voluntary and social enterprises in the coming decade. We do not underestimate the scale of the challenge facing our sector and nor do we think that the Big Society Bank alone is the solution to all our problems. The bank is, however, part of the solution.

There is no doubt that the next six months will be very tough for voluntary and community organisations, which is why we have called on the Government to double the Transition Fund and work with local authorities to make long-term strategic decisions to ensure that voluntary organisations are well placed to benefit from the longer-term opportunities that the Big Society Bank will bring.

Sir Stuart Etherington

Chief Executive, National Council for Voluntary Organisations,

London N1

I am the correspondent of a small grant-giving trust giving around £50,000 a year to causes in Birmingham and the West Midlands. I do the work on a voluntary basis, spending on average about 20 hours a week on it – just the sort of thing David Cameron is presumably trying to promote.

In the past few months the number of applications I receive has almost doubled, and the appeals are coming from charities that we have never heard of before. They are coming mainly from charities that have had their funding cut by the local authority.

It poses a problem for my trust: do we cut down on giving to those charities that have relied on us for years or do we refuse applications from new perfectly deserving causes that are now in some cases facing closure because of the cuts?

The Big Society is not going to work, because the cuts are putting at risk the very organisations Mr Cameron is trying to encourage.

Bob King

Rushton, Northamptonshire

Having spent nine years as a volunteer mentor in a trust dedicated to helping young people start in business, I share the scepticism of Steve Richards (15 February) and Matthew Norman (16 February).

The trust has struggled to find enough mentors in Merseyside and then in Shropshire. Although the trust had royal backing, not enough came forward as volunteers.

In addition to my work as a mentor, I gave presentations to groups such as Rotary, asking for volunteers. I found that the ideal people – retired, middle-aged, with business experience – were more interested in helping their next of kin to buy a house, cultivating their gardens or lowering their golf handicaps.

Get real, Mr Cameron.

William Robert Haines


It seems inevitable that the winners out of empowering locals will be those communities with a good proportion of fit, retired professionals, comfortably off, who will make good use of any funds offered to enrich their community with facilities such as a library-cum-café. Poorer communities will as ever be the losers.

Don't we elect governments to narrow opportunity gaps, rather than enable them to widen?

Tom Canham

Little Dewchurch, Herefordshire

Bishops as law-makers

Never mind that Johann Hari's article "Get bishops out of our law-making" (Opinion, 18 February) gets its history wrong – bishops were in the House of Lords in strength centuries before Henry VIII – nor that his account of bishops' passions is tendentious – they supported homosexual and divorce law reform in the 1960s, were implacable opponents of South African apartheid for decades and spoke up for the deprived inner cities in the 1980s.

The fundamental question that he obscures is whether a reformed Lords should be wholly elected and therefore in the hands of the political parties and able to challenge the House of Commons for legitimacy. Clearly a case can be made for that, but there is an alternative and strong case for a different sort of chamber that will more clearly preserve the supremacy of the Commons.

A second chamber that continued to have some appointed members from across civil society would rightly include some people from the churches and other faith communities. The fact that, on some issues, their views will be at odds with those of convinced atheists does not mean that they should not be heard.

The only danger of the British system coming to resemble anything like the Iranian, as Hari claims, will be if the theocratic crushing of alternative voices there is in due course paralleled by the intolerant, secular suppression of inconvenient religious voices here.

Tim Stevens

Bishop of Leicester and Convenor of the Lords Spiritual,


Charming gaffe at the Baftas

I share your columnist Susie Rushton's exasperation with award ceremonies like the Baftas, with their self-importance and endless speeches (15 February). Which is why I disagree with her rather cruel view of Rosamund Pike's presenting gaffe, saying she "imploded like a broken doll".

Ms Pike was suddenly required to improvise a concise yet insightful summing up of screenwriting before millions, of which she actually made a decent job. Her only mistake was then, one imagines out of a desire to get it all over with, to jump straight to nearly declaring the winner.

By doing so, she provided almost the only wholly charming moment of the evening.

Timothy Williams

Richmond, Surrey

Not funny

Who was the comedian at Barclays who thought it would be funny to send out the final projection on my endowment, indicating that next year I will receive less than the total sum paid in over the past 13 years, in the same week as announcing that their wonderful investment arm had made a £4.8bn profit in just one year?

J M Seagrave

Wellingborough, Northmaptonshire

Bully boys

Am I correct in wondering if a Parliament consisting of 80 per cent women and 20 per cent men, rather than the other way round, might not have a culture that leads to the mocking of the speech of a fellow MP who has cerebral palsy?

Miranda Whitehead

Chair, Women Liberal Democrats, Fordingbridge,


Can of worms

I hope some of the money the Downing Street staff collect towards the welfare of Larry the cat is used to buy worm treatment. If he is only living on the rats he catches, he'll need this regularly. And it would never do for parasites to be living at No 10, would it?

F M Woodward


West Yorkshire

Perspectives on the Arab revolutions

British arms trade exposed

Good to see UK arms sales coming under scrutiny at last ("Britain under fire for selling arms to Bahrain", 18 February).

The official policy (under all governments) can be summarised roughly as "We'll sell arms to anyone who we think won't use them." In practice any foreign government that promises not to use them is almost always believed, no matter how bad their record of repression may be.

Worse still, a whole government department, the UKTI Defence and Security Organisation, exists to promote the sale of arms. Why? No other industry gets this sort of backing, or anything like it. It is scandalous that in an increasingly unstable world the UK government should be creating further instability by arming anyone, let alone dodgy governments like Bahrain's.

Bill Linton

London N13

Gaddafi stays above the fray

Your article headed "Gaddafi sweats as wave of Arab unrest reaches Libya" (17 February) portrayed unrest in Benghazi as being sparked by similar social, economic, and demographic forces as in Egypt and Tunisia. I believe this analysis to be wrong.

Although recent developments in the region have certainly provided the impetus for the current mobilisation in Libya, the fault lines and grievances are dissimilar. The Libyans who are protesting are tapping into the deep regional and tribal divides in Libya.

Citizens in Cyrenaica (the Eastern half of Libya) feel that they receive less state patronage. Moreover, those Cyrenaicans who are protesting are mobilising on the same Islamic platform that they used in 2006 and in the 1990s. They may be using Facebook, but they are not the same class of educated but underemployed young people who took to the streets in Egypt.

In short, Libya is not on the brink of collapse and Gaddafi is not sweating any more than he usually does from wearing his trade-mark flowing robes. He knows how to play different social groups off against each other, how to crush Islamic dissent, and how to remain above the fray. Gaddafi will continue to do so over the coming days by smartly promising new handouts to the masses and blaming problems in the country on the reactionary Prime Minister, Baghdadi al-Mahmudi.

Jason Pack

St Antony's College, Oxford

Different kinds of bloodbath

Mark Redhead (letter, 18 February), ponders that an unarmed demonstration in Iraq under Saddam would have led to a bloodbath, implying justification for US/UK-led intervention.

It has to be wondered what he calls the upper death estimates since 2003, of over one and a half million, with five million orphans, one million widows and over four million displaced, internally and externally.

Felicity Arbuthnot

London E9

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