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)