Reading Friends uncovers the power of inclusive reading at Portsmouth Libraries

Portsmouth Libraries have been hosting Reading Friends sessions in their branches since 2021. In the last year, they helped 1,492 people to connect with each other over 1,588 times in a variety of one to one and group Reading Friends sessions.

In 2023, Portsmouth Libraries were successful in their application to The Reading Agency to receive funding as part of an Ulverscroft Foundation funded project, allowing them to develop their current Reading Friends offer to people living with a vision impairment.

Services available for people who are blind and partially sighted

Portsmouth Libraries offer resources to people experiencing sight loss and deterioration including large print books, talking books and e-audio books, as well as a newsletter which is available in large print, email, audio and braille. They also offer a wide range of vision impairment services, including a telephone advice line, braille services (including a transcription service, Braille tuition, a Kurzweil text to Braille translator and a Braille printer), computer training alongside reading groups – including talks, demonstrations, signposting and discussion groups on books hosted on MP3s.

We spoke to Julie Duffy, Visual Impairment Officer and Claire Liddell, Service Development Manager, at Portsmouth Libraries to understand the difference attending one of these Reading Friends sessions can make. Their feedback has been summarised below.  

As part of her role, Julie Duffy offers braille translations to library members and visitors, manages the newsletter for people who are blind and partially sighted, supports with computer training and leads Reading Friends groups. The groups offer participants the chance to read and discuss books provided in CD or MP3 format.

Julie is also registered as blind, which she explains plays a large part in not only being able to empathise with people who are blind and partially sighted, but also in forming relationships built on trust with the people she works with. As part of Reading Friends, the group sessions offer a regular time and space for members to form connections with Julie and each other.

“People often say to me: ‘when I get depressed about my sight, I think about you. And then I think, you know, I can do it.’ And that’s very humbling.”

“I understand that loss of independence. For example, for people who drive, it’s a real issue. Then there’s reading books, that’s the other issue. I had one chap, who was seriously depressed, and I got him involved in the computer service. He had had poor sight all his life and he pretended that he hadn’t, which is a very common thing for people to do. When I taught him Braille and we read through a book, he said to me that’s the first time I’ve ever read a book in my life. He was 40 years old.”

Providing individualised social and emotional support

Julie explained that what people find most helpful can be social or emotional support, information on how to manage specific aspects of daily life, resources or signposting. The Reading Friends groups offer a space for staff and volunteers to get to know and learn about individual members, for members to form connections based on shared experiences and to feel supported with any barriers they might experience on a day-to-day basis.

“Sometimes people don’t know how to manage things, but when there’s other people there, they don’t feel so alone and they can chat about how other people manage things.”

Sight loss or degeneration can have a huge impact, and Portsmouth Libraries ensure that they are able to provide the appropriate level of support by embedding training in their service, supporting volunteers, providing emotional support and signposting to specialist services where relevant.

“We offer visual impairment training, so that staff are aware of how they’ve got to help people to get around.”

Both Julie Duffy and Clare Liddell pointed to the need for public libraries offering services to people who are blind and partially sighted to understand the needs of their audiences, the distress that some people may experience and how to support them.

“Any library authority needs to be ready for these kinds of communications when working with people with visual impairment.”

Consulting with people with lived experience

Portsmouth Libraries consult with audiences who experience sight loss and degeneration to understand more about the people they work with.

“We ask the groups what they want. We have Social Services, the sensory team and the hospital referring us to people. Then we ask the individuals for their opinion and what they find helpful. It’s about dialogue.”

Julie Duffy is also responsible for building several relationships with other local organisations and Portsmouth City Council, who come to Portsmouth Libraries and speak with the members of her groups to better be able to service their needs. Julie explained that once she had initiated conversations, local organisations were usually very responsive and would notify her and the groups of any planned works or changes that might impact their day-to-day living.

“It’s quite well known within the city council that if they’re doing new schemes and things such as road closures or whatever they come and talk to us about it.”

Developing and extending activities

During 2023 to 2024, Portsmouth Libraries are using the Ulverscroft Foundation funding to develop their offer. They plan to source further stock for people who are blind and partially sighted, including new spoken word and large print titles, create and promote uptake of a new Reading Friends group located in the north of Portsmouth and develop a programme of events for the groups, including author visits.

“Hopefully, we will be able to get people out of their homes because, since Covid, people have been scared to come out and it’s giving them a reason to do so.”

Read more about the impact of Reading Friends across the UK here
(image shows Julie with her service dog, Spencer)

Reading Friends: creating connections in 2022/23

From 2022 to 2023, Reading Friends worked with 39 UK authorities and their delivery partners to make a positive difference to individual lives and whole communities – creating meaningful connections, reducing loneliness and improving wellbeing.

How many people took part?

  • Over 4,800 people took part in groups and one-to-ones
  • Over 35,600 social connections took place

Analysing the need

We found that a high proportion of Reading Friends participants felt lonely prior to taking part. In the three months prior to becoming involved in Reading Friends:

  • 66% of participants and 49% of befrienders felt lonely always/often, occasionally or some of the time
  • 20% of participants and 5% of befrienders had not socialised with a friend or group of friends in-person
  • 19% of participants and 5% of befrienders tended to disagree or disagreed that if they wanted to socialise, they had people that they could call on

The difference Reading Friends made

By taking part in the programme:

  • 83% participants and 84% befrienders felt more connected to other people
  • 77% participants and 86% befrienders added purpose to their week
  • 71% participants and 70% befrienders increased their confidence to try new things
  • 69% participants and 68% befrienders increased their satisfaction with their life
  • 68% participants and 29% befrienders felt less lonely

Read the full findings in our full evaluation report.

If you’d like to find out more about Reading Friends, contact
[email protected]

Reading Friends 2021-22: Reach and Impact

Reading Friends uses reading as a platform to generate conversation, share stories, life experiences and perspectives, in a fun and welcoming environment. This approach ensures that Reading Friends participants and befrienders can not only meet new people, but also create long-lasting connections and, in many cases, friendships.

In 2021 to 2022, Reading Friends made a positive difference to people’s lives using the power of reading – supporting people with their wellbeing, creating meaningful connections, reducing loneliness and engaging more people in reading together for pleasure.

Working together with public libraries, the programme had a strong impact on communities. As a result of taking part in Reading Friends 87% of participants felt more connected to other people and agreed the programme:

  • Added purpose to their week 78%
  • Increased their life satisfaction 75%
  • Helped them feel less lonely 71%
  • Increased their confidence to try new things 70%

In 2021-22, 3,728 people were supported across 72 library authorities to connect 44,054 times.

These connections were made possible through a concerted focus on accessibility, ensuring that as many people as possible were provided with the opportunity to take part in Reading Friends. Public libraries and their partners ran inclusive and mixed-ability sessions for people in their local community, reaching all age groups, as well as audiences who may experience barriers to their reading, accessing resources and social support.

A large proportion of library authorities hosted Reading Friends sessions with older adults (79%), adults (60%), people with mental health conditions (42%), people with disabilities and other support needs (35%), people living with dementia (33%), clinically vulnerable or shielding groups (31%) and many others.

Amid ongoing social distancing restrictions, public libraries and their partners continued to ensure that different platforms for delivery were available to their audiences. Participants, befrienders and project staff connected in different ways, including:

  • 73% in-person at the library
  • 62% over the phone
  • 31% on online video calls
  • 19% in person at another community organisation
  • 17% in person at home
  • 6% online or through social media

Read our full reach and impact report and find out more about the programme here.

Read, Talk, Share Evaluation: Reach and Impact

In December 2020, the U.K. government announced a £7.5 million funding package to help tackle loneliness over the winter period. The funding package was designed to help provide immediate relief to those most at risk, targeted at sectors known for their power and ability to bring people and communities together. Of the £5 million awarded to Arts Council England for arts and library services, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) awarded The Reading Agency £3.5m to work with public libraries across England to engage with and address the loneliness challenge.

Tackling life’s big challenges through the proven power of reading

The Reading Agency is a national charity that tackles life’s big challenges – including loneliness and poor mental health and wellbeing – through the proven power of reading. In 2020-21, The Reading Agency reached over 1.9 million people across the UK, including more than 950,000 children and over 900,000 adults and young people. It works closely with partners to develop and deliver programmes for people of all ages and backgrounds.

Through this commitment to its mission and vision, The Reading Agency is well placed to respond to public health concerns about the impact of loneliness on the mental and physical health of people across the UK.3

The DCMS funding represented an unprecedented level of investment in library services to tackle loneliness and support mental health. This DCMS support expanded and enhanced two of The Reading Agency’s successful programmes: Reading Well Books on Prescription and Reading Friends. The funds were used to mount the Read, Talk, Share campaign, which provided Reading Well mental health book collections for children, young people and adults to all public libraries in England, as well as significantly expanding the delivery of Reading Friends – a social reading model using reading to bring people together and tackle loneliness – through libraries across England.

Key findings

Of the Reading Friends participants, we found that:

  • 72% of participants agreed that Reading Friends helped them feel less lonely
  • 83% of participants agreed that Reading Friends helped them to feel more
  • connected to other people
  • 74% of participants agreed that Reading Friends added purpose to their week

Befrienders also experienced similar benefits – alongside professional outcomes such as new skills and increased confidence, gained in part to seeing the impact of their work and having a sense of purpose through doing something meaningful:

  • 77% of befrienders agreed that Reading Friends helped them to feel more
  • connected to other people
  • 65% of befrienders agreed that Reading Friends added purpose to their week
  • 54% of befrienders agreed that Reading Friends had increased their confidence to try new things

Our Reading Well rollout saw 311,783 books distributed to 2,975 public and community managed libraries across 150 authorities. From January – May 2021, these books were loaned 70,248 times, consisting of:

  • 31,598 digital loans
  • 38,290 physical loans

24 book titles were donated to libraries by Hachette for free digital simultaneous access from March through June 2021.

Download a full overview of the Read, Talk, Share Evaluation here. If you would like to read the full evaluation report, please contact us at [email protected].

References

1. What Works Centre for Wellbeing (2020), How has Covid-19 and associated lockdown measures affected loneliness in the UK?; British Red Cross (2020), Lonely and Left Behind: Tackling Loneliness at a Time of Crisis; Mental Health Foundation (2020), Wave 8: Late November 2020
2. Mental Health Foundation (2020), Loneliness during Coronavirus; Mind (2020)
3. Campaign to End Loneliness (2020), Risk to Health
4. Data to support the findings was collected primarily through participation and engagement monitoring; user and partner surveys; and qualitative interviews with stakeholders, participants and volunteers. Additional details on methodology can be found in the full Read, Talk, Share evaluation report.

The Reading Agency

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