The Big Problem With The Big Society

David Cameron’s Big Society is based around the idea that volunteers will take up the slack from public services that have been cut. This brings out my bristles. It makes the assumption that there are enough people out there with the time and spare income to be able to give their time for free. It also devalues the work that the public sector employees are doing.

As an example, let’s look at libraries. They offer all kinds of services above and beyond simple book-lending, and are involved in deeply complex digital archive and stewardship incentives. Sourcing and distribution of books, DVD, music and web-based services are all part of the remit. Take a look at this breakdown of a librarian’s day from the Voices Of The Library site:


  • Two separate TV companies want background info for programmes they are making for this autumn.
  • I need info on the founder of a local college for the deaf.
  • Please find me a local newspaper report of the death of a motorcyclist in 1951 (narrowed it down with GRO indexes on Ancestry).
  • Please search local trade directories for me for a pub on the county borders, 1870s to 1880s.
  • A lady from the USA comes in to research her family, who lived at a local manor house. She is delighted with the amount of resources we have on them.
  • Another lady needs help copying an exact small rural area on the 1880 map.
  • A man comes in to research the navigability of the local river.
  • Another man needs intensive staff help to search the FindmyPast site.
  • A lady needs guidance in using newspapers on microfilm.
  • When did a local village magazine start, and how can I write to them?
  • Please can you help us trace the whereabouts of a book containing original watercolours by a Victorian lady artist, which we think we saw in a local museum in 1995?
  • We need photographs and history of a jeweller’s shop in the county town.
  • A colleague from another council dept asks if we can suggest a local book suitable for official presentations? (We recommend a very good one published by ourselves, which will mean income for our photo website).
  • Local man would like us to run off more copies of his little book which we produced for him; his nephew has mentioned it on Facebook & it’s selling like hot cakes.

And that’s not the end of it!

Yet the government and local councils aiming the cuts seem to think that these tasks can be accomplished by the same kind of community-minded individuals that man the tills at Oxfam for a couple of mornings a week. As if the job was shelf-stacking and ticket-taking. Iman Qureshi treats this argument with the disdain it deserves over on the Open Rights Group blog. The Little Chalfont Community Library in Buckinghamshire is being held up as a prime example of what can be done when people rally together to save their local bookhouse. But, as this post on Words With Jam makes clear, it takes a certain kind of community to be able to take on the complex job:

Both Little Chalfont and Bucks’ other community library in Chalfont St Giles are in highly prosperous areas at the edge of the London commuter belt. The surrounding communities are both willing and comparatively able to raise the cash for a service it wishes to maintain. What’s more, there is a large pool of people (retired, at home with children etc) who have the professional, managerial and business experience to carry out all the functions necessary to run a library. The same thing simply could not work on, say, a sink estate where many of the residents are second generation unemployed, or a scattered farming community where a majority are working 18 hours a day just to survive.

The ConDem push to get volunteers to do the work of trained professionals is failing. The wheels are starting come off the idea of The Big Society. Liverpool County Council, one of the four showcase zones for community-driven regeneration has pulled out of the initiative – largely because of spending cuts that will directly effect thousands of volunteer organisations.

Worse/hilariously (delete where applicable), Lord Wei, the man in charge of the whole initiative, is cutting the hours he’s spending on the job. He simply can’t spare the time to work for free. This sums the whole idea up nicely. The coalition can’t even get it’s message straight, praising “alarm-clock Britain” while expecting those same hard-working yeoman to spend all their spare time running services that are subject to pointless and injurious cuts. It’s all a bit of a joke really, and not a particularly funny one.

Anyway. That’s enough cut-and-paste opinioneering for one day. I’m off to the library. Anyone else coming?





Barbarians At The Gate

The Wheel Of Time, here we GO.

I grew up in libraries. This may seem a strange statement from the rakish man-about-town that you all know and tolerate, but it’s true. I was a bookish child. The mobile library that called once a fortnight to the small Cambridgeshire village where I spent my formative years was both fuel and engine to my imagination. Later, a long low building in Woodford was almost a second home –  a refuge, a place of discovery and contemplation, a place where I was free to simply be a reader and writer. I have held a library card as soon as I was able. I hold one now. It  gets heavy use.

I don’t really think I need to tell you what I think of the ConDem’s plans to eviscerate our library service. A better writer than I has beaten me to it anyway. Philip Pullman gave a speech last month that tells the sorry tale truthfully, with passion and anger. The whole thing is here, and I agree with every word.

Mr Pullman’s right to be furious. My home county, Berkshire, seems to have found a way not to cull their libraries. His home and my neighbour, Oxfordshire, isn’t so lucky. The number of libraries in an area that houses one of the great seats of learning on the planet is set to be halved. In Essex, one of the libraries for the chop is Woodford, my old refuge, my second home, the place where I discovered Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Andre Norton, Stephen King, Joseph Heller, John Irving, John Wyndham, Ramsey Campbell, Clive Barker.

The thought that kids are going to grow up in this country without the opportunity to learn, discover and grow that I had sickens and scares me in equal measure. Libraries are community spaces, somewhere safe for mums to bring their kids for story time, their internet connections vital lifelines for the 27% of British citizens that still don’t have a hookup to the web at home. Free access to news, information and education is a central tent pole of civilisation. Hacking away at it is the act of a barbarian.

Tomorrow is Save Our Libraries Day. Actions will be going on up and down the country. It’s a chance to show your local bookhouse some love. Go and join if you don’t have a card. Get something to read out if you do. Get lots out. Snag some DVDs or some music. Maybe a graphic novel or two. Use up that allowance. That’s what it’s there for.

I want to be clear on my feelings. Libraries are a light in the soul of a community, and snuffing that light is not just small-minded, short-term penny pinching. It wounds us all in ways that are hard to explain, but easy to feel.

(The excellent WW1 remix poster I’ve used as illustration is part of a set by Phil Bradley, that he put together to help publicise the issue. They’re all great, and you can check them out on Flickr here).