The Reading Agency: 20 Years of Transforming Lives Through Reading

Sat round a kitchen table in 2000, three fearless reading development activists hatched a plan.


Driven by a passion for the value of reading and public libraries, Miranda McKearney, Anne Sarrag and Debbie Hicks knew that they needed to stand up and advocate for the proven power of reading to the nation. Their social justice agenda was formed: to promote libraries as the national cultural infrastructure and access point for reading outside of the classroom and to educate the nation on the life changing benefits of reading for pleasure through hard facts and trusted research.

How it began

Debbie Hicks (current Creative Director) became the first Literature Development Worker in the UK based at Nottingham Central Library in 1988. Working on the frontline of reader development, she saw the power of libraries both in their outreach into communities and in the infrastructure they provided for reading. Other art forms had theatres, cinemas or galleries – literature had libraries. Debbie moved to Arts Council England in the East Midlands in 1989 and, for the following 10 years, advocated for the importance of libraries and the power of reading, setting up the first public library regional strategy group for the Arts Council.

Meanwhile, Miranda McKearney had launched Well Worth Reading – an initiative focusing on how libraries could market their stock more effectively. Initially for adults, she shifted the focus to young people, even creating a magazine that they could contribute reviews and content to, drawing on libraries’ expertise while working collaboratively with young people and schools. The organisation gradually became more developmental, challenging how libraries were thinking, working with young people, and thinking about how that partnership could be more equal. She also worked on the PR for the Carnegie Medal at this time, changing the profile of the awards, and working closely with lots of people from libraries and publishing, including Anne Sarrag.

Anne started out working on the Book Bus in 1984, a children’s bookshop on a converted double decker in Southeast London, supporting schools with resources, training, and author visits. During the summer, Book Bus visited playcenters with student teachers and authors to break down barriers around books and reading and help children to create their own stories and books. These were displayed in local libraries, often engaging the families with libraries for the first time. Evaluation showed that teachers could often spot which children had taken part because they returned to school in September having maintained or increased reading skill and confidence Anne met Miranda whilst both were working on National Libraries Week 1997 at CILIP(The Library and Information Association). Anne was leading the children’s competition, The Big Idea, whilst Miranda led the campaigns strategy and communications.

This was the catalyst for Anne and Miranda to propose a new charity, LaunchPad, to work in partnership with ASCEL to promote the value of libraries for children through advocacy, marketing and research”. Formed in 1999, LaunchPad set about designing a model for a national Summer Reading Challenge to enable all libraries to run the same offer with collectible incentives and a focus on reading for fun during the summer break, when literacy skills and confidence can drop. Up until then about 60% of library services had run a summer activity, but these varied in quality and the sector agreed to pilot a national model, using professionally designed and printed materials whilst achieving economies of scale, national PR and evaluation and engagement opportunities for government ministers and local councils.

The first national Challenge was called The Reading Safari. Approximately 450,000 children took part in the first year and evaluation helped libraries evidence their impact and return on investment, unanimously agreeing to continue with a national model.

With a background in children’s audience work, Anne led the Challenge, whilst Miranda developed family audience initiatives delivered by library services through workplaces and supermarkets in partnerships with ASDA, Ford Motor Company and London Transport. In quick succession, other programmes followed, including Chatterbooks children’s reading groups for schools and libraries with sponsorship from Orange mobile UK. Over 20 years later, The Challenge is The Reading Agency’s flagship programme reaching 700,000 children each summer.

1998 – the buzz begins

After moving from ACE to De Montford University as senior lecturer in arts management and then into a freelance career, Debbie saw the opportunity to further the reading for pleasure and library agenda. She was developing a strong research interest in the value and impact of reading for health having published several research papers on the subject.

Both Debbie and Miranda could see the potential for a national library network to build new strategic partnerships that would extend reach and engagement with reading – but they also realised that a national network with 152 autonomous local authority structures would need central support to build the partnerships needed to accomplish this.

Together, they embarked on research with Jonathan Davidson (now at West Midlands Writers Network). Their research paper, The Next Issue; Reading Partnerships for Libraries, mapped potential partnership opportunities with health, with education, the book world and the media. They presented their findings to a national library conference and led the call for a national agency to support reading focused partnership working with libraries. The Reading Partnership Development Agency was born to support new ways of working with libraries through partnerships, projects, advocacy, research, and policy development.

It was a moment of revelation. There was huge excitement about the idea of libraries as the national cultural infrastructure for reading. Tony Durcan, now Vice Chair of The Reading Agency’s board, coined the phrase ‘the British Reading Service’ comparing their role to that of the BBC’s for broadcasting. Libraries had passionate staff, understood community outreach, had safe spaces, and provided free democratic access to books. The perfect offer to attract national partners and deliver joined up impact.

This is where Debbie, Miranda and Anne came in, helping to bring together best practice across the three organisations around reading policy development, impact and evidence. They had seen first-hand the potential for shared delivery relating to the summer reading activities and local authority books on prescription models, and wanted to deliver quality assured national programmes designed to deliver economies of scale but also to look and feel local, as they delivered into the heart of communities. They became a co-ordinating force, helping to amplify national advocacy and build new partnerships for libraries as democratic access points for reading.

The aims were to connect, coordinate, develop and deliver – creating the bridge between libraries, publishers, workplaces, the media and the health sector – on a scale that had never before been possible.

Creation of the charity

The task was enormous, but there were strong foundations on which to build. By 1999, LaunchPad, Well Worth Reading and The Reading Partnership were already having an impact on amplifying and connecting reading development in the library sector. Their work demonstrated to publishers the positive impact working with libraries was having on their authors and profile and to other partners the synergies between their aims and objectives and the reading agenda delivered through public libraries. A business partnerships conference in 2000 highlighted work to date with commercial sponsors and libraries working together, which raised the profile further. Debbie and Miranda subsequently approached Arts Council England through The Reading Partnership, to make the strategic case for bringing together the three development agencies together:

  • Well Worth Reading: an existing charity led by Miranda – a marketing and promotions programme delivering off the shelf national reading promotions to public libraries.
  • LaunchPad: the charity founded by Miranda and Anne in 1999 in partnership with ASCEL to promote the value of libraries for children through advocacy marketing and research.
  • The Reading Partnership: led by Debbie and Miranda delivering library advocacy, research and stakeholder development.

And then in 2002, 20 years ago the three organisations merged to become a single company and registered charity called The Reading Agency.

Miranda McKearney, who had been instrumental in the three organisations was appointed as The Reading Agency’s first Director, supported by Debbie Hicks on strategy, research and development, with Anne Sarrag working on children’s reading programmes. A stakeholder event at the British Library to launch The Reading Agency to the book trade and library sector was led by the late Dame Tessa Jowell, then Labour cabinet Minister for the Department of Culture Media and Sport, an active and authentic supporter of libraries.

The Reading Agency was championing and driving a message about the instrumental impact of reading across all ages. The Demos evidence review stated the key areas where reading could make a difference, which in turn led to a much sharper focus on health and wellbeing, social connectivity and skills and learning. The health work was a new focus for the reading sector founded on the work Debbie had been shaping on the health offer in libraries. It is these challenges that The Reading Agency continues to tackle across the UK and 20 years later the charity is reaching and impacting close to 2 million people of all ages every year. The Reading Agency is driven by the passionate people that work for it. We have not forgotten our activist roots and we are determined to keep working towards our shared vision of a world where everyone is reading their way to a better life, and no one is left behind.

20 years of The Reading Agency

For the last 20 years, The Reading Agency has been working across the UK to transform lives for the better through the power of reading.

We’ve made a short film featuring some of the wonderful people who we work with to tell you just how we use the power of reading to change people’s lives for the better and encourage more people to read more.

Huge thanks to Mountain Way Pictures and all our interviewees.

27 titles by Joe Wicks, Luan Goldie and the Quick Reads authors including Bernardine Evaristo to be gifted as part of World Book Night 2023

The Reading Agency has today announced the list of 27 titles that will feature as part of World Book Night 2023, the annual celebration which brings people from all over the country together to read more.

World Book Night takes place on 23 April. In 2023, The Reading Agency will be gifting over 68,000 books to organisations across the country to give to people who don’t regularly read for pleasure or with limited access to books. The closing date for applications is 27 January and last year’s 428 recipients included 102 arts organisations and charities, 54 hospitals or health organisations and 40 prisons and young offender institutions across the UK.

Next year’s booklist includes fiction and non-fiction titles which appeal to adults and young people of all reading abilities. Titles include: critically acclaimed actor David Harewood’s memoir Maybe I Don’t Belong Here; Isabel Hardman’s exploration of nature, exercise and mental health, The Natural Health Service and Ravena Guron’s upcoming murder mystery for young adults, This Book Kills. There is also a selection of audiobooks available for the public to download for free from March 2023, including The Woman in the White Kimono by Ana Johns and One Body: A Retrospective by Catherine Simpson.

This year’s titles have been contributed from publishers including HarperCollins, Pan Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Sweet Cherry Publishing.

This year, The Reading Agency’s 2023 Quick Reads titles will be part of the World Book Night celebrations and giveaway. These specially reprinted, most popular titles of the Quick Reads series will help to tackle the UK’s adult literacy crisis by encouraging less confident readers get reading great stories by celebrated authors. Alongside the World Book Night gifting, these titles will also be available to purchase through major retailers for £1 each.

Quick Reads titles include: classic murder mystery The Double Clue: And Other Hercule Poirot Stories by Agatha Christie, Bernardine Evaristo’s epistolary novella Hello Mum and Roddy Doyle’s Dead Man Talking.

Selected by a panel including librarians and booksellers, the diverse list of authors and titles for this year’s World Book Night has something for avid readers and those new to reading for pleasure alike.

World Book Night 2023 Titles

  • Aftershocks by Anne Fine (Old Barn Books)
  • Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano (Penguin)
  • Feel Good Food by Joe Wicks (HQ, HarperCollins)
  • Game Over: Rise of the Raid Mob by M.J. Sullivan (Clock Tower Publishing, Sweet Cherry Publishing)
  • Lift Your Vibe by Richie Norton (Penguin)
  • Making It by Jay Blades (Bluebird, Pan Macmillan)
  • Maybe I Don’t Belong Here by David Harewood (Bluebird, Pan Macmillan)
  • Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie (HQ, HarperCollins)
  • One Body: A Retrospective written and narrated by Catherine Simpson (Saraband)
  • Passing by Nella Larsen (Penguin Classics)
  • Pulling Through by Catherine Jessop (Jessica Kingsley Publishers)
  • Superheroes: Inspiring Stories of Secret Strength by Sophia Thakur and Denzell Dankwah (#MerkyBooks, Cornerstone)
  • The Natural Health Service: What the Great Outdoors Can Do For Your Mind written and narrated by Isabel Hardman (Bolinda Audio)
  • The Patient: A DS Cross Thriller by Tim Sullivan (Aries, Head of Zeus)
  • The Songs You’ve Never Heard by Becky Jerams and Ellie Wyatt (Clock Tower Publishing, Sweet Cherry Publishing)
  • The Trust by M.H. Eccleston (Aries, Head of Zeus)
  • The Woman in the White Kimono by Ana Johns, narrated by Laurence Bouvard (Bolinda Audio)
  • This Book Kills by Ravena Guron (Usborne)
  • This Monk Wears Heels: Be Who You Are by Kodo Nishimura (Watkins Publishing)
  • This Way Out by Tufayel Ahmed (Lake Union Publishing, Amazon Publishing)
  • You Think You Know Me by Ayaan Mohamud (Usborne)

Quick Reads 2023 Titles

  • Dead Man Talking by Roddy Doyle (Vintage)
  • Hello Mum by Bernardine Evaristo (Penguin)
  • One False Move by Dreda Say Mitchell (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Paris for One by Jojo Moyes (Penguin)
  • The Double Clue: And Other Hercule Poirot Stories by Agatha Christie (HarperCollins)
  • Wish You Were Dead by Peter James (Pan Macmillan)

Karen Napier, CEO, The Reading Agency said: “We’re delighted to be sharing our booklist for World Book Night 2023 booklist. We are hugely grateful to all the wonderful publishers who put their titles forward this year and to the authors who are participating this year. With some of our most-loved Quick Reads being reprinted especially, this year, we think there is something for everyone on the list – whether they’re seasoned readers or new to picking up a book.”

David Harewood said: “I’m so astonishingly proud of being selected for this very special event and even more delighted that more people will have the opportunity to read about a subject too long kept in the dark. I hope this book continues to inspire all those who have experienced psychosis or mental health issues over the years and gives hope that recovery is possible.”

M.H. Eccleston said: “In an age when we’re swamped by social media, reading books had never been more important. Books can change lives, set people on better paths or just entertain. All human wisdom and wit can be found between the pages of a book. That’s why I’m humbled that The Trust has made it onto the booklist for this year’s World Book Night. The Reading Agency continues to spread the word. Thanks to them, tens of thousands of readers will discover new books they might not have picked themselves. Reading is for everyone – and that’s worth celebrating all year round.”

Follow the latest developments on social media:

@WorldBookNight @ReadingAgency

#WorldBookNight #ReadingHour

For all media enquiries, please contact:

Alexander Turton: [email protected]

Big Give – Target Update!

The Reading Agency is delighted that we have reached our target for the Big Give – Read On campaign! We want to say a huge thank you to everyone who supported us in helping to gift Quick Reads to those experiencing homelessness this winter.

So why are we gifting Quick Reads?

The mental health support needs of those living with no fixed address are significant. 45% of people experiencing homelessness have been diagnosed with a mental health issue. This rises to 8 out of 10 people who are sleeping rough, and the prevalence of psychosis is up to 15 times as high, with older people experiencing homelessness being more likely to suffer from depression or dementia.

Reading is a source of support and comfort in the most challenging of times. Reading has the power to bring us closer to others, connect with the people around us, keep us learning and help us to feel better. Quick Reads are short accessible reads that aim to bring the pleasures and benefits of reading to everyone, including the one in three adults in the UK who do not regularly read for pleasure, and the one in six adults in the UK who find reading difficult. The scheme changes lives and plays a vital role in addressing the national crisis around adult literacy in the UK.

Now the Big Give has finished, what’s next?

We are now working with our library partners to team up with local organisations and homelessness charities to gift 25,000 books in February 2023. Each gifted book will include information about local library services as warm, safe community spaces where people can engage with reading material, access digital services and training and access reading groups, events and information about other support services.

While the Big Give donation doubling window is closed, we’re continuing to raise funds for Read On throughout the winter and additional donations are still very welcome as we look at way in which we can further our support of these communities.

Please do continue to spread the word and thank you for helping us to give the gift of reading this winter.

The Reading Agency

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