Janet Westcott, Equal Access Librarian in Poole writes about her experiences in starting Get Into Reading up on the south coast and offers her advice.
I’m part of the Poole Libraries‘ Development Team (a grand name for four and a bit librarians!). We are responsible for developing the service in line with the Borough of Poole’s priorities, and Get into Reading (GIR) particularly helps us with reducing social isolation, promoting well-being, and extending library services to older people.
I had previously met with Poole’s Gateway team who provide services for people with mild and moderate mental illness. They had picked up from local GPs that there were a significant number of older people in Broadstone who were presenting at the surgeries with symptoms including anxiety and depression, linked to social isolation. As the library in Broadstone is right next to the two GP surgeries, (and our biggest branch) this seemed the ideal location to pilot our first GIR group. And so ‘Make Friends with a Book’ was born.
I contacted the practice managers of both surgeries, who were very supportive. I cribbed mercilessly from the Get into Reading website for the information I gave them, and they passed it on to the GPs and displayed posters in the surgeries. I wrote to local residential homes and sheltered housing complexes with information for the wardens and posters for the common rooms. I contacted various people in Social Services who come into contact with older people – the Primary Intervention Care Service were particularly useful as they meet people as they come out of hospital. Dorset Blind also put some publicity in their newsletter, and of course we advertised in the library.
‘Make Friends with a Book’ is promoted as a chance to sit back and relax, listen to stories and poems and chat about what we read together. Good conversation, good company and free tea and biscuits! (I think the free tea and biscuits are crucial, and shortbread is the current favourite.) I read aloud, and we chat about what we’ve read. Everyone has a copy and most people have something to say, though there is no pressure to do so.
Staff at Broadstone library have been very enthusiastic and one of them has taken on the reading from time to time. Apart from that, I and another team member do the reading. We started with a short story and a poem each week, and then moved on to a novel – Michael Frayn’s Spies – which we are just finishing. Despite initial reservations from the group, who really enjoyed the short stories and were worried about remembering a narrative from one week to the next, everyone has been completely entranced by this book and all fears have been allayed. We’re planning to join the mass read of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World next.
We have been going for six months now, and have a core group of about eight people, with another four-six who come and go. I’m not sure whether we have really hit our target audience, though people have come for a variety of reasons. Two have said that they want to get back into reading after a period of being unable to read for various reasons. One wanted to make friends, and one was persuaded to continue coming although after the first week she thought that the others were too intellectual for her – she has been almost every week since. At least one was referred by the local branch of the Richmond Fellowship – a service for people with long term and continuing mental health problems. As the weeks have passed, friendships are being made, people are chatting before and after the meeting.
Following the success of this group, we have started another one at another library which is run by the staff there – they are a particularly enthusiastic group who are keen to get more people into their library. I’ve been approached by the carers’ service to start a group for carers, and our flyer has been published in social services’ staff newsletter. The Richmond Fellowship has just started its own group in another library, and we hope that they will open up to members of the public once they are established, creating more networks among the community.
The concept seems to be striking a chord with lots of people, and I think the potential is enormous, given the resources to expand. I’m currently investigating the possibility of using volunteer facilitators so that we can get groups going in all the libraries in Poole and offer the service to residential and nursing homes.
If you are wondering whether you have the resources to start a Get into Reading group, I’d recommend just going for it – start small and see where the journey takes you. Make sure that you have at least two people who are willing to read aloud, in case of holidays or illness – you don’t want to have to miss a week once you get started. Provide free drinks and biscuits. Use the Get into Reading website to get inspiration for your publicity, and contact as many people and groups as you can think of. Most of all, enjoy sharing stories – it’s a great joy to discuss what we’ve been reading, and probably why lots of us became librarians in the first place.