Reading Friends Supporting Local Authority Critical Services

The Reading Agency’s mission is to tackle big life challenges, such as loneliness and isolation, through the proven power of reading. The Reading Agency’s Reading Friends programme connects people by starting conversations through reading. It builds social connections for those who are vulnerable, isolated and at risk of loneliness, giving them the opportunity to share their stories, make new friends, and have fun.

In this current period of lockdown and social distancing, the connecting power of Reading Friends is needed more than ever. Before social distancing guidelines came into effect, meetings had always taken place face-to-face, so Reading Friends has been adapting the way it delivers activity – taking reading befriending online and over the phone.

The Reading Agency spoke with Staffordshire Libraries and Arts Service to hear about the unique way they are still supporting people through local authority emergency helpline services for vulnerable people.

How have Staffordshire Libraries adapted their services due to Covid-19?

As library buildings are currently closed, Staffordshire library staff have been redeployed to support local authority critical services through the organisation and delivery of food to those who are shielding and are extremely vulnerable.

“We’re making sure food parcels get to the people who need them in our area. Whilst organising the parcels, people are asked questions including whether they feel lonely or isolated and this is where Reading Friends comes in.”

Terry Heath, Stock, Services and Activities Officer, Staffordshire Libraries

The Government has also introduced a ‘Chit and Chat’ initiative. Local Government Officers are telephoning people who are shielding and feel lonely and isolated, making calls on a regular basis to help them feel less isolated and more connected to society. Staffordshire Libraries immediately recognised that this was an opportunity for Reading Friends.

How do people take part in Reading Friends?

Reading Friends is offered over the phone to people who have said they feel lonely or isolated. People receive an initial call from Terry who tells them about Reading Friends and finds out a little about them, their interests and hobbies. Terry then matches them to a member of library staff with similar interests and hobbies. In just two weeks, almost 20 people have been matched and begun their Reading Friends journey.

Some referrals also come from the County Council Befriending Service. Over 500 letters have gone out to vulnerable and self-isolating people telling them about ‘Chit and Chat’ and Reading Friends and inviting them to contact the library service if they would like to participate. Most referrals have come through the ‘Chit and Chat’ route.

How does Reading Friends work over the phone?

Library staff are first trained through the Reading Friends online training modules. They then have an induction with Terry in the library to talk about how reading befriending works and to go through any safeguarding policy updates. It’s also a chance for staff to ask any questions and feel supported. They are then ready to start their calls.

Library staff organise a time to chat with people, using Reading Friends resources as inspiration for their telephone sessions. Two or three library staff at a time come into the library to use phones and computers, as well as library resources such as books, magazines and poetry. Social distancing measures take place whilst staff are inside (the library isn’t open to the public at the moment) and everything is cleaned when they leave. Reading Friends sessions generally take place once a week for about 45 minutes, but session length and frequency do vary as the programme is participant-led and participant-focused.

The difference Staffordshire Libraries and Reading Friends are making

Through Reading Friends, Staffordshire Libraries are helping people to feel less isolated and more connected to their community, whether they are living in isolation or are feeling lonely during lockdown. Public libraries have always been community spaces helping to tackle these challenges and, using the power of Reading Friends to connect people, they can continue to support people during this challenging time and whilst library buildings are closed.

“I think that Reading Friends is helping us all in the Library Service to feel as though we are making a positive contribution to people’s lives during this difficult time.”

Sue Ball MBE, Stock, Services and Activities Manager, Staffordshire Libraries

One member of staff said how pleased she had been to receive the call to help with the Reading Friends project and support people in her community:

“It’s really perked me up to feel that I can get involved in a project that can make such a difference to people at this moment in time.”

Reading Friends is already helping people feel more connected and less lonely with participants commenting that it was “helpful to have someone to talk to at this moment in time” and the calls had cheered them up. Others at the end of their calls were already saying how much they were looking forward to next week’s chat, indicating the importance of the type of regular contact Reading Friends provides through its sessions.

Two participants further shared the change that Reading Friends had made to them in just a short time:

“I love having the opportunity to chat to someone again.”

“I don’t feel alone any longer. It’s so good to chat to someone and good to have a laugh. You helped me to focus on the positive things in my life in these difficult times.”

What advice would you give to another library service starting something similar?

Sue and Terry shared with us some of their top tips for setting up a successful Reading Friends telephone befriending project:

“Consider existing local authority pathways for support to vulnerable and self-isolating people and how Reading Friends could add value to this work.”

Sue Ball MBE, Stock, Services and Activities Manager, Staffordshire Libraries

Chatting about common interests makes for more rewarding conversations.

“Once you have a team of staff trained to deliver Reading Friends, identify their interests and hobbies so that they can be matched with someone with similar interests and hobbies.”

Terry Heath, Stock, Services and Activities Officer, Staffordshire Libraries

Terry also stressed the importance of staff feeling confident in what they’re doing and the usefulness of the Reading Friends training modules in helping staff to prepare for their new roles as reading befrienders.

In addition, Terry noted that it is key to have chats with staff about the discussions they might have with participants, talk through a few scenarios and share tips. This also helps to ensure the safeguarding of those involved in the project. Staffordshire Libraries have kept these lines of communication open by starting a WhatsApp Reading Friends staff group. Staff members use the platform to share what has worked well and to support any colleagues who may feel less confident.

Get involved

If you’d like to find out more about Reading Friends in Staffordshire, please speak to one of the Reading Friends team at readingfriends@readingagency.org.uk or to Terry at terry.heath@staffordshire.gov.uk

Find out more!

Join our mailing list to find out more about Reading Friends.

Sign up