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Reading Friends

Billy book-head and beyond

Written by Richard O'Neill
13 September 2019

Richard O’Neill is a multi-award winning author and playwright and story skills trainer who sat down with us to share his experiences of Reading Friends in Oldham. 

I’ve been an avid reader since I was four years old when I somehow taught myself to read. From then on I was usually found with my head stuck in a book. At the dining table, walking around my home, even in the school playground. My dad remarked that I resembled a boy who had his head replaced with a book, this prompted him to give me the nickname of ‘Billy Book Head.’

Books have been with me for most of my life

All that time with my head stuck in a book wasn’t wasted. I benefited in so many different ways from what I learnt, including being able to go on to write my own books, and tell stories in a range of other formats. This has enabled me to meet and work with some of the most amazing people right across the world. Books have been with me for most of my life, helping me through times both good and bad. When you read books you always have something to talk about, you always have a story to share.

Books are essentially paper and ink, but are so much more than the sum of their parts. They contain amazing stories and fabulous information. Stories about people like us and those are different, places we want to visit, the people we aspire to be. Books entertain, instruct, educate, soothe, empower and so much more. They are not just about literature they are about comedy, poetry, songs, history, and magic. Books can be about anything and anyone. Due to the investment in technology by libraries an even greater range books are available and accessible in different formats including e-books and audio books.

Reading books is often thought of as a solitary pastime

As a workshop leader I get asked to work on a number of very interesting projects, including Reading Friends. My role involves delivering storytelling skills sessions, and sharing ideas and techniques for bringing books to life and using them to help connect more people in our diverse communities. One of our aims was to reach out to people who may be experiencing loneliness. 

Reading Friends in Oldham

Karuna has been leading the project in Oldham since its start, and I had the pleasure of leading storytelling sessions with the staff and volunteers there.

‘The project is exciting and Oldham Library have been working on the project since 2017. In September 20018 we were given the opportunity to roll out the project to all 10 Greater Manchester Libraries. We knew Richard would be right person to help us with his knowledge and experience in storytelling.  We tasked him to deliver a training programme which we could roll out to staff and volunteers. The training gives them skills and knowledge to read aloud with those who feel social isolated and don’t tend to visit the Libraries. It also helps them select stories specifically geared to helping people engage and take part in sessions.’


Innovations in Reading

During the training and knowledge sharing seminars for library professionals, I met the dynamic team from Bolton Library. The team were buzzing with ideas on how they could further develop their community work in Bolton through Reading Friends. My first event in Bolton was delivering a storytelling skills training session for library staff and volunteers. We also involved people from local agencies who also tackle loneliness and improve community cohesion through sharing the benefits of the story and the library.

The latest Reading Friends event was an innovative book speed dating event where a number of book loving volunteers explained why they loved a particular book so much and set about encouraging more people to read it. The fully booked event was fun and inclusive bringing in people from a diverse range of areas and  communities. There was even some reading performances by actors from Bolton Little Theatre. To see younger and older people having fun and discussing books old and new was truly wonderful.

I asked Vivian Brown and the team at Bolton library and Museum Service for their thoughts on the initiative. She said ‘the whole team have relished the opportunities this project has given them the opportunity to try a range of different ways of encouraging reading and conversations’.

Reading Friends in Bolton

“In our initial storytelling training with Richard we focused on sharing stories, making connections and having fun. We’ve made sure that this has stayed at the heart of the project. It’s also about keeping up the energy and enthusiasm which ensures that fun is central to our programme of events. The feedback from our Reading Friends shows their appreciation of this. We’ve enjoyed talking to Reading Friends at both events and the regular meetings, and consider it a privilege to hear the stories of the participants.”

Vivian Brown

All very nice to hear particularly the mention of the word ‘fun’. Reading should be something we all have the fun and freedom to fully enjoy.
For me ‘Reading Friends’ has allowed me to share my storytelling skills, my love of books and to be a part of some of the most innovative approaches to tackling loneliness and improving community cohesion I’ve seen, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

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Find out more about Reading Friends in your local area, and register your interest in volunteering or setting up your own group.

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