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.

The Reading Agency

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