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]

The Reading Agency receives funding to tackle social isolation for those losing their sight

The Reading Agency has received a one-year funding grant from the Ulverscroft Foundation to develop and expand work with visually impaired people. The grant will support Reading Friends, the charity’s reading and befriending initiative which encourages reading as a means of starting conversation and connecting people socially around shared stories, interests and passions.

The funding will enable The Reading Agency to work with library authorities to build on their work with visually impaired people through Reading Friends. The Reading Agency will be running co-production workshops, creating resources and training support, and sharing our impact and learning with partners, library authorities and the wider library sector.

Findings in 2022 from people with sight loss taking part in Reading Friends, in public libraries demonstrated real impact supporting wellbeing, creating meaningful connections and helping to reduce loneliness, thereby making a real difference to people’s lives through the power of reading. By taking part in the programme, 83% of people with visual impairment surveyed said they felt less lonely, 90% felt more connected to others and 79% had increased life satisfaction.

One participant said: “I really enjoy the Reading Friends group where I can meet people (now friends) with similar struggles. It was such a shock losing my sight and I have found so much help and support within the group.”

One of the volunteer befrienders said of the Reading Friends programme more widely: “I am often humbled when I realise how much the reading groups impact on people’s lives. They share life experiences, reminisce and connect with each other over a cuppa and a story. It’s very powerful.”

Through this funding, The Reading Agency will collaborate with Share the Vision and its members to share learnings and good practice, bringing the power of reading to more visually impaired people across the UK.

Karen Napier, CEO, The Reading Agency said: “We are immensely grateful to the Ulverscroft Foundation for their support of our Reading Friends work. Reading has such a powerful impact on communities, helping to spark conversations and build connections and friendships. This funding will allow us to ensure the needs of people experiencing sight loss are a core focus as we continue to expand and develop the programme.”

Robert Gent, Chair of the Ulverscroft Foundation, said: “We are excited to see The Reading Agency expanding its Reading Friends initiative, and delighted to be able to help. We hope many more blind and visually-impaired people will be inspired to join in, make new friends and enjoy life more – all through the power of books and reading.”

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].


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.

Reading Friends shortlisted in Charity Film Awards

Tackling loneliness through reading

Reading Friends connects people by starting conversations through reading. Thanks to funding from the National Lottery Community Fund, Reading Friends is able to reach those who are vulnerable, isolated and at risk of loneliness. It gives people the opportunity to meet others, share their stories, make new friends and have fun – using reading to spark connections.

Yarn, Natter, Blether

We believe in the power of reading, and the transformative impact that books and storytelling can have. Yarn, Natter, Blether was developed to showcase the amazing stories that every one of us has, and to highlight how Reading Friends can unlock these stories by developing meaningful human connections.

“Life has a way of surprising you. The longer you live the more you discover about yourself. Who would have known that a girl born during the war, in a bombed-out East Anglian town, would become a northern lass, with a love of Scandi crime and a BA in LUST?” Ann’s story as written by Vaseem Khan

Help us win the people’s vote

We’re delighted to have been announced as part of this year’s shortlist for the Charity Film Awards. 400 charities entered the awards, and more than 65,000 members of the public voted. Now we need your votes for the chance to become the people’s champion, and share the impact that the power of reading can have on tackling loneliness.

Reading takes you into another world from Reading Friends on Vimeo.

Vote for us

Head to the Charity Film Awards website and vote for Yarn, Natter, Blether to be your winner.

Reading Friends: how our new programme is coming to life

Reading Friends, funded by the Big Lottery Fund, is being co-produced with older people, including people with dementia, carers and disabled people. Katie Pekacar blogs on what’s involved in developing a new programme.

In June 2016 The Big Lottery Fund awarded The Reading Agency £2.1 million over four years to develop Reading Friends, a new programme designed to reduce loneliness and start conversations with vulnerable and isolated older people through reading.

At the time it seemed almost impossible to imagine that we would be hosting an event in the Library of Birmingham less than one year on, with representatives from six projects ready to launch their reading activities in communities across England, Scotland and Wales. But that is exactly what we did last week – and it has been a busy year to get to that point!

Building relationships

The project has been entirely co-produced with older people, including people with dementia, carers and disabled people. At several points we’ve changed our ideas completely as a result of this process – for example, the design of the leaflet, how we describe the programme and even the format of the programme itself, moving from a reading challenge, to a more inclusive befriending model.

We have also developed important partnerships with Literature Wales and Scottish Book Trust, who will help us develop Reading Friends so that it meets the need in those nations. Our partners also include a number of national charities and the network of public libraries across England, Wales and Scotland, to ensure we’re building on existing work and infrastructure.

Test project get together

So last week we all met up and heard from each of our six test projects about their exciting proposals to adapt and deliver Reading Friends to meet the needs in their area over the next 12 months. Although we can’t do justice to all their plans, here are some short examples:

• In Sheffield, Dementia Action Alliance is working with Sheffield Libraries to start conversations through reading with diverse audiences across the city, including a local Pakistani men’s reading group who are interested in Pakistani heritage and a dementia reading group meeting in an antiques shop

• In Conwy in Wales, Conwy Library Service will be working with isolated older farmers, many of whom have Welsh as their first language

• In Newcastle, Age UK Newcastle and Newcastle Libraries will be working together to bring Reading Friends to an existing befriending service

• Three different organisations across West Sussex – Age UK Horsham, Dementia Support in Chichester and the Abbeyfield Society in Horsted Keynes – will be trialling a networked approach to Reading Friends with West Sussex Libraries, providing the infrastructure support and access to a wide range of digital and assistive technologies

• In Stirling the library service will be looking at how oral storytelling can be used to engage isolated older people, especially those with Gaelic as a first language

• Oldham Library service will be using an asset based model to engage deprived and socially isolated communities in Oldham with designing and delivering Reading Friends so that it meets their needs

The Reading Friends team left the meeting feeling excited by all the brilliant ideas, energy and enthusiasm shown by the test projects. We look forward to continuing the journey of discovering what Reading Friends is and can be, together with all our partners and the communities they engage over the next year.

Get involved

If you want to find out more about Reading Friends email [email protected]

A list of our partner organisations:

Age UK
Alzheimer’s Society
British Psychological Society
Carers Trust
Carers UK
Carnegie Trust UK
Contact the Elderly
DCP Faculty of the Psychology of Older People
Dementia UK
Independent Age
Life Changes Trust
Literature Wales
SCL Wales
Scottish Book Trust
Scottish Library and Information Centre
Share The Vision
Libraries Connected
The Campaign to End Loneliness

The Reading Agency

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