Tag Archives: social cohesion

What is a library?

VftL are delighted to present a guest post by C. Horne.

What is a library?  Do you see a municipal red brick building, slightly tatty, maybe a bit unloved, possibly could do with a bit of attention?  When you walk in is the inside rimmed round with shelves all of which are crammed full of battered plastic covered books?  A few computers on some slightly dingy desks in the reference area, looking slightly out of place.  Behind the counter, a member of staff is dealing with a query about an overdue book.

All this is superficial – you aren’t seeing the real library.  Look deeper.

Over in the children’s library are some pushchairs crammed against the wall, their occupants balancing on their parents’ laps – slightly precariously in some cases – ready for the library’s ‘Bounce and Rhyme’ session.  The library assistant is perched in front of them, leading a group sing along to ‘Wind the Bobbin up’.  She has probably done this every week for months, but loves watching the look on the babies faces.  Recently they have been incorporating baby sign language with the bounce and rhyme which has proved to be very successful.

In the reference section a middle aged gentleman is seated at a computer.  He has headphones on and the fingers on his left hand trace over an embossed piece of paper.  The keyboard that his right hand is typing on has brightly coloured plastic keys and he hunts and pecks for the right letters.  It takes a little while, and he often pauses in between periods of typing.  Getting closer a faint voice is audible from the headphones.  It isn’t an audiobook that he is listening to with such concentration, but a screenreader which is enabling him to use the computer.  Under the desk his guide dog shifts position slightly.

A poster on the wall of the library advertises the Young Adult Reading Group which meets on the first Monday of the month.  This month’s book is a title about the different influences on a group of fourteen year old’s lives and how they deal with them – school, family, gangs, friends, drugs, bullies, church..  The author of the book has been invited to come to the library and discuss her book and the poster now bears a large red banner headline – FULL!  The library is planning to start a second YA group.  When the group meets, there will be an assortment of teenagers of all shapes and sizes eager to discuss their interpretation of the hero – or maybe the antihero – of the book, and his influence on the other characters, with the author, to see what she had in mind when she created him.

Another poster with a large image of a book, advertises a reading group with a different theme.  This reading group reads texts with a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender theme and meets every fourth Friday of the month.  It is a very popular group and they have a list of titles on their reading list that they plan to read over the next year.  The library is introducing two more books groups from next month due to popular demand – a biography group (which has already had special requests not to read any that are ghost written or by people under thirty – which may limit the market) and a science fiction group.

Of course the library also has the standard book group – which is – as they oddly tend to be – female dominated, reading books that vary from Barbara Kingsolver to Lionel Shriver, Herman Melville to Haruki Murakami.  They sit in a circle, discussing their latest read, what they thought of it, who their favourite characters were, whether the ending was good, bad or indifferent, too abrupt or too drawn out.  Everyone has their own opinion and they aren’t afraid to voice them.  Every year the members of this library’s book group will read a title from the Orange Prize List.  They will discuss their title with other library book groups who have done the same and vote on who should win the Orange Prize.  Sadly their votes have no power over the Orange Prize judges but occasionally – very occasionally – they are right.

The faint murmur coming from the other end of the library shows that it is storytime.  The bounce and rhyme session has ended but the children have settled in to hear the story.  More children join them as it is the school holidays and there is nothing better to do.  It is dry in the library and raining outside, despite the fact that it is meant to be summer.

On the walls of the children’s library are clowns, trapeze artists, elephants, lions –  all types of characters advertising the Circus Stars summer reading challenge.  Children only need to read six or more books and get rewards and incentives if they do so.  Drawings by children and comments about the challenge cover the walls.

In the corner of the children’s library is an area designated ‘Homework’.  This is where the Homework Group meets one evening a week.  As it is the summer holidays, the area is deserted, the PC is unused and the books are neatly displayed on the shelves.  It won’t look like this nearer the end of the holiday when the children start panicking and want assistance to get that essay done for tomorrow…

A lone PC has a banner headline stating that it is only for the use of people looking for community information or the library catalogue.  An elderly woman wanders over to it and sits down, looking rather unsure.  The library assistant nearby walks over and asks if she needs help.  Five minutes later the woman leaves with a page of evening classes for internet use for beginners – helping silver surfers to get online.  A student sits down almost immediately and starts looking for a reference book for their coursework.

Back by the door of the library are more posters advertising community events, dances, homework groups, author visits, book groups…

This is your library

All human life is here.

Anti-multiculturalism gone mad or a rational policy shift?

1. What’s it all about?

Council removes foreign language papers from libaries (sic) to encourage English speaking

This article – with its ironic misspelling of ‘libraries’ – in the Daily Telegraph Education Section of 11th May was posted on Facebook by a German colleague: “Sir Robin Wales, elected Labour Mayor of the east London borough, said removing the papers would ‘encourage people to speak and learn English’”. What strange inverted logic justified such a decision?

There was no evidence that readers of community language ‘papers did not speak English, were not in fact multilingual, or that there is any resistance in Newham to learning English.

In one lone quote “Priyonath Singh, 76, of Newham, said: (in English) “It’s appalling. It’s a drastic measure. If you remove the newspapers, my mental age will be reduced completely.’” Reader comments under the DT article talked of foreigners, benefits, ex-pat Brits in Spain and so on; lots of ‘them and ‘us’. The Telegraph’s motivation was evident in a banner in the middle of the story,

Related Articles • Polish migrants top crime table 11 Apr 2011 • British courts regain power to deport terrorist suspects 27 Apr 2011

implying a “related”-ness between mother tongue speakers learning English and migrant criminals and terrorism; and in this an educational supplement!

There was nothing to acknowledge the information role of the public library or its legal responsibilities for a “comprehensive service” for “all who live, work or study” or “for all who may be desirous to make use thereof”.

Strange in an Olympic borough with a Labour Mayor, not far from Diane Abbott’s Hackney North and Stoke Newington constituency,  and with redoubtable library leaders.

2. So what did Sir Robin do? How did he reach this decision?

I wrote to Sir Robin Wales. A helpful officer replied, referring to a Customer Services section, without mention of a library service or a librarian.

Of over 70 periodicals cut, only a minority are community language staples like the Daily Jang “Find Pakistan news in Urdu No.1 Urdu newspaper and largest Urdu daily” and Asian Voice, in English, UK and international politics and community affairs reflecting the interests of the UK Asian community.

Cut are African Caribbean lifestyle magazines like Ebony and Pride. There is an Irish focus – Irish Times, Irish Independent. Subject journals have gone like Investors Chronicle, Scientific American, British Medical Journal and Private Eye plus local interest ‘papers like the Hackney Gazette and the East London Advertiser. Users are now referred, “We have an online subscription to NewsUK”

The Council will also

  • introduce Learn English collections … online teach-yourself English language courses
  • investigate a ‘Language Lab,’ with ICT for self-learning and tutor-led English learning sessions in one or more Customer Service Centres
  • provide online ‘Life in Great Britain’ course and related stock to allow customers to practice for their citizenship test at the library or from home.

3. An Equalities Impact Assessment


This outlines Newham’s demography (paraphrased)

  • 70% of the population is from non-white ethnic groups
  • largest non-white group is Black African, 15.8%
  • Asian ethic groups – Indian (11.8%), Pakistani (10.8%) and Bangladeshi (10.7%) – one-third of the borough’s population.
  • ‘White’ population will not reflect the recent increase in Eastern European migration
  • Schools Census data indicates 73.9% of pupils (primary) and 65.6% (secondary) have a language other than English as their first language
  • top ten languages requested for interpretation and translation were (in order) Bengali (20.6%), Urdu (11.1%), Somali (6.5%), Tamil (5.9%), Polish (5.5%), Punjabi (5.0%), Portuguese (4.5%), Gujarat (4.5%), Lithuanian (3.1%) and Romanian (3.0%)
  • Analysis (2009/10) of library membership indicates that compared to Newham’s population some ethnic groups are over represented.

4. A shift in policy


In the 1970s/1980’s UK librarians struggled to introduce community language material into public libraries largely, for the first time. Libraries held European language material (leisure, travel, academic interests) but provision of Indic and South Asian language material met with resistance with “them and us” debates and the view that “they’ll integrate and learn English”. Migration seemed like a finite movement rather than the continuation of a global phenomenon. Read about public library evolution since that time in two recent publications, Public Libraries and Social Justice or Libraries and Social change .

Latterly, public librarians have yearned for an acknowledged position in the mainstream of social and economic policy. Even as a culture provider they have sought to connect reading, literature, music and the wider arts with literacy, learning, skills, employability confidence, quality of life, health and wellbeing, family and community cohesion, and economic growth.

5. In Newham …

The briefest glance at Newham’s website tells you the libraries provide most of what other authorities provide.

Yet this decision tells another story – a belief that public library services

  • can be part of the mainstream of public services
  • can deliver on learning and skills
  • do have a socio-economic role to play
  • do make an instrumental contribution

There is a significant backdrop of generational change. Older members of ethnic communities hanker for the daily news from their home country or village. Some meet at the library – in Newham, Birmingham, Manchester – to read and share news from places where they grew up. Now the wider community and its governors need something more purposive the library can deliver on – learning, skills, work.


Multiculturalism in Newham may be here, going or gone. Even so delivering to local black and minority ethnic communities a replica of their written and spoken culture need no longer be a public library priority; here the library draws people to a mainstream economic purpose in a library that’s a policy vehicle and political resource.

John Dolan OBE 30 June 2011


[1] Public Libraries and Social Justice, Pateman, John and Vincent, John. Ashgate 2010

[1] Libraries and Society: Role, responsibility and future in an age of change, Baker, David and Evans, Wendy, editors. Chandos Publishing 2011

Edit: 02/09/2011

Since the publication of this piece, a petition voicing concerns about the London Borough of Newham Council’s actions has been set up. The full text appears below.

We the undersigned wish to voice our concern about and objection to the decision taken by the London Borough of Newham to remove community-language newspapers from the borough’s libraries. 

This new policy has been introduced under the guise of reducing barriers to learning English that mother-tongue newspapers and books are supposedly responsible for creating and maintaining.

We call upon Newham council to:

1. Reinstate community-language newspapers in Newham’s libraries. 
2. Prioritise funding and further resources to provision of English as a Second Language (ESOL). 
3. To commit to the continued provision of community-language books and audio books in Newham’s libraries.
4. To recognise and celebrate the unique diversity of the London Borough of Newham including recognition of the languages and cultures of its individual communities.

An electronic version of the petition can be signed here.

‘The learning engines of our society’: guest blog from Rónán O’Beirne

Today’s guest blog comes from Rónán O’Beirne, Director of Libraries, Learning and Research at Bradford College. His book From Lending to Learning- the development and extension of public libraries (November 2010) makes the case for public libraries to extend their remit beyond  lending books to embrace informal learning, information literacy and digital citizenship.

My local library, Keighley in West Yorkshire, was, in 1904, the first Carnegie library to be built in England; imagine the excitement! A local champion of adult education, Swire Smith, received the offer from Carnegie and immediately put pen to paper to urge his Mayor to accept the offer. This is what he wrote, on 8th August 1899:

Dear Mayor,
I cannot express to you the delight which I feel in handing you the enclosed letter from my friend Mr Andrew Carnegie, which he has authorised me to submit to you.
No nobler gift has ever been offered to Keighley; for a Free Library is the one great thing needed, and so long desired, to complete the educational equipment of our growing town. And when we consider that this magnificent offer has come unsolicited, and that we have no claims on Mr Carnegie’s generosity, I am sure that you and the Town Council, as representing the people of Keighley, will accept it with unbounded enthusiasm, and with gratitude only equalled by the kindness of heart that has prompted Mr Carnegie to confer such a blessing upon our town.
Believe me, Dear Mr Mayor,
yours sincerely
Swire Smith1

When a country’s public libraries are threatened with closure in order to pay for the excesses of the moneylenders a fundamental shift in the values of that society are exposed for all to see. The motives of greed and profit have eclipsed the principles of education, access to information and social justice upon which the public library was founded.

The urgent debate about public libraries should not just concern itself with the cost-effectiveness of lending books or of keeping dilapidated buildings open. No, it is of far greater importance. It cuts to the core choice for the people of this democracy; whether they want a society based on individuals as consumers or whether the social glue of community and culture, supported by a network of libraries, offers a brighter future.

Much of this debate so far has centred on book lending. I believe that public libraries have a more fundamental role to play, and that is to support informal learning. The twenty years I spent working in public libraries, in different departments and at all levels, provided me with valuable insight. As a library assistant I shared young people’s thirst for knowledge, and witnessed new families joining their local library, full of excitement. I saw children sitting still, enthralled by a storyteller. I saw at first hand the light in the eyes of the old or lonely whose trip to the library was a social lifeline; the unemployed embarking on learning new skills and finding direction; redundant workers rebuilding their lives; the retired making new beginnings, embarking on a new hobby, and of course all of those learners, so many, chasing their goals, immersing themselves in the vast body of knowledge represented by the public library.

At a senior leadership level I witnessed the pettiness of local politics, of bureaucrats unable to take decisions, the utter lack of direction given locally by elected members and the frustrating paucity of ideas in national policy.

On reflection, I have come to the conclusion that public libraries fulfil the role of learning support agencies by providing space, materials and dedicated staff for the individual to explore and to learn. In particular, libraries’ support and advocacy for informal learning, which can be deeply personal, goes far beyond what is acknowledged by funding regimes.

One of my favourite quotations, and one I have used many times in presentations to library staff, illustrates the essence of informal learning that takes place in libraries up and down the country on a daily basis:

“I can sit there and it’s like a wonderful bag of goodies. I’m trying to read all the old Derbyshire newspapers from 1785, and it’s superb – I know things the experts don’t! When you’re studying for qualifications you go in straight lines – now I wander.”
(Chesterfield library user) 2
This ‘learning’ dimension of the public library is too often understated by campaigners, and yet when the case against closures of libraries on the Wirral was made successfully, just over a year ago, the main thrust of the argument did not rest on book lending statistics but rather on the support those eleven threatened libraries provided for learners; schoolchildren, workers and the unemployed.

Part of the tragedy for the public library lies in the almost obsessive ‘managerialism’ which has in recent decades sought to reduce the complexities of a highly-valued community service to the miserly economics of a market stall. Despite the sheen of marketing, or the apparently highly innovative introduction of coffee shops, the point about libraries is that they are the focus within their communities. For those who have ‘measured out their libraries in coffee spoons’, all of their so called ‘knowledge has just brought us closer to ignorance’.

Recently I wrote that libraries should not be in decline but should in fact be the learning engines of our society; fuelled by the information explosion, tended by the information professional and stoked by an aggressive agenda of social inclusion and citizenship to bridge the digital divide.

To this agenda I would also add information literacy. Speaking in 2009, President Barak Obama said:

“In addition to the basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic, it is equally important that our students are given the tools required to take advantage of the information available to them. The ability to seek, find, and decipher information can be applied to countless life decisions, whether financial, medical, educational, or technical.”3
The abilities to which President Obama refers form the basis of information literacy. There is a job here for public libraries, to embrace the challenge of empowering all citizens to become information literate and to provide them with the tools and skills through which we can ensure a more equitable society.

The battles fought in every neighbourhood to save libraries are clearly not simply about saving books or subsidising the reading habits of the middle classes. They represent the heart-felt cries of ordinary people fighting for their right to information, learning and culture. Nor can the closure of public libraries just be seen as a threat to reading, for it represents ultimately a threat to one of the few remaining assets of a neighbourhood, part of the ripping asunder of the fragile fabric of so many communities. Ultimately, and more ominously, it symbolises an attack on the freedom of individuals.

1.      Letter from Swire Smith from the Keighley Library archive available from the K100 website http://www.bradlibs.com/k100/about/index.htm accessed 14 Jan 2011

2.      Proctor, R. and Bartle, C. (2002) ‘Low achievers: lifelong learners: an investigation into the impact of the public library on educational disadvantage’, Library and Information Commission Research Report 117, CEPLIS, Sheffield.

3.      Obama, B. (2009) ‘National Information Literacy Awareness Month – a proclamation’, The    White House; available at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/presidential-proclamation-national-information-literacy-awareness-month accessed 14 Jan 2011

Guest bloggers are not affiliated with VftL, and all views and opinions are their own.

Guest blog: Building Library Services in Worcestershire

Today’s guest blog post comes from Paul Williams. Paul is a major in marketing and Team leader Academic Services University of Worcester and one of the leads on the WLHC project. The project website is www.wlhc.org.uk.

The Worcester Library and History Centre (working title, with the final name yet to be decided) is already a pretty special place. What, to many, looks like a building site, dominated by cranes and swarmed over by builders, for me represents something much more valuable. Like many stories on this site, mine is a personal one, describing my good fortune in being involved in a project which is building a service around the community it will come to serve in a just a few short years. A project which understands why libraries are important places, why people value them so highly, and why we must continue to invest in their futures.

For the past 18 months, I have been involved in developing a unique service. With its origins back in the relatively prosperous times of 2004, WLHC is the result of a partnership between the University of Worcester and Worcestershire County Council, aimed at delivering a fully integrated library facility and service. I’ve always felt that I understood why libraries were special places to people, but never really stopped to articulate it until the beginning of this project. From the moment we sat down to start work on building the thousands of ways in which the various services could work together, we were given a set of key aims to guide us. Inspiration and aspiration, a place which helps people to realise their ambitions. Inclusivity and connection, the role of the library in bringing people together at the centre of their community, regardless of their background, connecting them with the place in which they live, as well as their history. Learning: a simple word but immensely powerful in helping people to change their lives.

Over time, these concepts have grown into a solid plan. The building will be a very visible commitment to these values, made possible by the depth of the Partnership behind it. Five floors will house the combined stock, and library staff, of the current city library and University library, roughly a quarter of a million books made available to all users. A huge childrens’ library, with space devoted to activities and projects, will form the destination of school visits as well as families in their droves, or teachers looking for inspiration. The ‘history floor’ merges the University’s wealth of information with access to the knowledge of the Records Office and, of course, the ten miles of archive collections which they bring with them. Add to that the captivating work of the Archaeology service, and the theme of connecting people with their past becomes ever clearer. Meeting rooms, facilities for local business, the Customer Services Hub, exhibition and performance spaces – all of these take the value of the library in the community, and simply extend it.

Several people, on this site alone, have spoken of how magical it was to going to their library when they were a child, and how this is something you simply don’t forget. I count myself amongst them, and see the same feeling emerging in my own daughter. Imagine then, how this building could be remembered in twenty years. How children can see archaeologists working to discover the past under their very feet, how they can trace the history of their school, or maybe their house, through the digitised maps and photographs of the Records Office, or maybe see University students working as groups to create visual materials, presentations for nursing qualifications or ideas for business start-ups, well down the pathway to achieving their own goals. It’s simply an environment designed to inspire people to achieve.

Of course, libraries today are so much more than the walls which contain them. Work is well underway on initiatives such as a Community Showcase, bringing the County’s clubs and societies together with the excellent further and higher education opportunities around Worcestershire online, providing the community with opportunity to further their interests and to be involved. Methods for presenting library users with e-books, online journal articles and other material, twenty-four hours a day, means that that knowledge is no longer locked in a single space. The University’s research collections are given potential avenues for digitisation, making them available to anyone. Again, a single community of users, not restricted by their background.

None of these initiatives would have been possible for the County or University to achieve alone, and not only financially. This project has allowed us to pool knowledge and expertise, and the key to this is that it is done in the context of the library. People understand the library as a symbol of learning and aspiration, and most of all they see it as something which is aimed solely at benefitting their communities. There is one thing which strikes me every time I talk with people about how we are going to introduce the next part of the service. People want to do something good, something which will be remembered and something which will inspire others. I think that’s worth fighting for.

Guest bloggers are not affiliated with VftL, and all views and opinions are their own.

Lisa’s story

I was sad to hear that Richmond upon Thames Library Service is considering making cuts. Some years ago I was a library assistant employed in two branches in this borough. So I thought I would write and share my experiences of working there.

Your first thoughts about the residents of this affluent area of south-west London are possibly that they are very privileged and wealthy and that they don’t use public services much – but that ain’t necessarily so. In among the districts where houses changed hands for seven figures, there were plenty of less affluent areas, areas of public housing, areas where residents relied heavily on public services like libraries.

This meant that the library service was used by a huge variety of people from all walks of life. Children at the local state primaries and secondaries came in to borrow books and use reference materials for homework. Often they were studying alongside pupils from nearby public schools that enjoyed national acclaim and whose parents were paying thousands of pounds a year for their education – but who were still relying on the local free-to-use public library to get the homework support they needed.

Our branch provided resources for parents home-schooling their children and for tutors working individually with children identified by the education authority as needing additional support. This is an excellent example of how a public library service has roots in a community and in that community’s wellbeing that are much, much deeper than many might initially suppose. How do we put a financial value on these roots? What happens if we pull them up?

Parents seeking opportunities for themselves and for their pre-school children to meet and socialise numbered high among the users, as did older people who might not have seen a friendly face all day had they not been able to pop in. We also ran reading events, holiday activities and a service for elderly and disabled people who were unable to come into the branch, choosing books for them each fortnight with great care and attention.

Every time a new best-selling book was released we had huge waiting lists of people wanting to read them. Our community noticeboards were covered with cards, posters and flyers for local events. There was a strong demand for local history and archive services and we were constantly making referrals to the specialists working in those areas.

Job-hunters came in to look at the papers, consult directories, use computers or the photocopier, borrow books and to get a little bit of moral support at a lonely and difficult time. And I met countless people pursuing an interest, embarking on further education, getting the information they needed to make some major life change involving moving, or study, or a change of direction. Suggesting that all this can now simply be done online from home presupposes an awful lot – that people have the access, the confidence, the motivation and the information-processing skills to find trusted sources. And, if they
don’t, who’s going to offer to help them, sitting alone at their computer?

Who on earth gets to decide that the needs and wishes and experiences of all these people, and all the others like them around Britain, count for nothing?

To me the most important function of Richmond’s libraries was their role in providing public space – a role that is almost more important in the small branches than in the bigger ones. And this is the reason why the borough should think extremely hard before closing them.

Libraries are places where people of all ages, outlooks, backgrounds, incomes, circumstances and opinions meet and mix. By doing this they get to know each other, dispel the demons of difference and realise that, actually, the things we have in common are much stronger than the things that separate us. These are the places where society is built. And they are not replaced by upscale book shops, town-centre coffee shops, health clubs with expensive subscription fees or anywhere where you need to spend money in order to belong.

We live in an time where public services are portrayed as services of last resort. This is a crying shame – and it is one reason why, rather than becoming less necessary, our libraries are more valuable than ever. They are places where we meet people who are different to ourselves and benefit from so doing. The damage we will do by cutting them is immense and lasting and goes far beyond the perhaps deliberately short-sighted debate over whether the Internet has replaced print and whether books are dead.

Libraries are about reading, and about so much more. And we can’t afford to lose them in order to have that brought home to us.

Gateshead’s community websites

Gateshead Libraries works in partnership with a variety of local community groups, to help them establish a web presence and build links with other organisations. Here are some of the community groups they have worked with to set up a web presence.

Avenues Community Centre – The Avenues project works with young people. It operates a detached youth work service and a daytime service which provides information and advice to young people. Sessions cover health and alternative education information and a separate young women’s group is also held. Different Communities are involved with the Project, including the local community and young people, the Muslim Community, Jewish Community, Visible minority ethnic community, Bangladeshi Community, as well Asylum seekers. The Project’s main aim is to include through community cohension and break the barriers of age race and gender.

Gafricom – Gafricom is an organisation of African people living in Gateshead and its surrounding area. They are working towards our vision that the African Community can become an integral part of community life and contribute effectively to a better Gateshead. They undertake projects, which enable Africans to obtain skills necessary for their future livelihoods.

Gateshead Arts Association – Gateshead Arts Association is an organisation that represents the interests of Amateur Arts groups in the Gateshead Council area. These groups cover the range of disciplines in the Performing, Literary and Visual arts. Often the Association hosts events which involve many of these groups in the same programme, which allows those groups who normally work on their own to meet with groups of another discipline, often to mutual benefit.

Gateshead Young Women’s Outreach Project – Many people, particularly women, lack confidence and self-esteem for a vast range of reasons, and this can have a major impact on their lives. The Young Women’s Project offers empowering learning opportunities where skills can be developed and built upon, enabling young women to value themselves and make confident decisions about their lives.

Stag Project [Update: this site no longer live] – The STaG Group provides an opportunity for gay men to meet other gay and bisexual men in a safe, relaxed and supportive environment. There is a range of activities, including social evenings, quizzes, a variety of talks and discussions on topics chosen by the members, outings, walks.

The Book Station – The Bookstation is the place to stop if you are looking for something good to read. Each month we will review a title that has been read at our young adult readers group which meets monthly at Gateshead Central Library. All the reviews on this site have been produced and input by them. You can send in your own book review or story. [Note. This site is no longer online. Links to archived version, April 2012]

The Lawnmowers Independent Theatre Company – The Lawnmowers Independent Theatre Company is run by and for people with learning difficulties.

Feel better with a book

‘Feel Better With A Book’ is a bibliotherapy project, which involves reading aloud within a group.

The aim of ‘Feel Better With A Book‘ (pdf link) in South West Essex, which has been running since mid 2009, is to help improve the wellbeing, confidence and self-esteem of mental health patients and other vulnerable people through the development of reading activities in groups.

Adrian Faiers, who is leading the project for NHS South West Essex, says: “Get Into Reading has become a national flagship for therapeutic read aloud groups and we are delighted to bring a similar programme to South West Essex.

“Feel Better With A Book has already had a considerable impact on people’s mental health and wellbeing. It helps those with mental health issues, those who are vulnerable and those who feel isolated to build social networks and feel more a part of the community.

“The programme works because it offers continuity and inclusivity, it is safe and is mutually supportive.”

Adrian Ure, who is leading the project for Essex Libraries, says: “We have had excellent feedback from people who have taken part in the Feel Better With A Book programme.

“One service user has told us ‘It has opened my mind, and being in a reading group has encouraged me and others in the group to talk about the different styles of literature and be and feel part of a whole’. Another said ‘the tea break helps us all to reflect on the discussion of the story or poem we have all read together and we all enjoy each other’s company.”

Funded by NHS South West Essex, Essex Libraries set up Feel Better With A Book groups, building on the model established by The Reader Organisation. The project is run in partnership with Mind, Rethink, as well as community mental health teams.

Five groups have been set up in South West Essex since June 2009, at Pitsea Library, Wickford Library, Brentwood Library, Fryerns Library and Laindon Library. The Fryerns group aims to support the wellbeing of older people and is built on previously held community tea parties for members.

Lasting a maximum of two hours, the groups meet weekly. Stories and poems are read aloud by a trained facilitator, with members joining in as they wish. As time goes on, members spontaneously share their thoughts, experiences and life stories. There is a wide range of books included and, in addition, self-help books are offered by libraries under a separate bibliotherapy scheme known as Get Your Life Back, also funded by NHS South West Essex.

The groups initially meet in mental health day centres, with the aim of transferring to the local library at the appropriate time, to encourage the integration of mental health service users into the community.

Once the groups are established in the local library, they are opened to new members from the local community, subject to a total of 10 participants in any group.

The success of the programme is being continually evaluated to show the health and social care benefits and the impact of read aloud groups on the wellbeing of those with mental health issues and of other vulnerable people.

What readers have said:

“It’s great being in this group. Everyone chips in their ideas. Half of them would never have occurred to me if I was reading on my own!”

“The knowledge that you don’t have to do anything is very important, but then trust begins to build and you’re able to share personal feelings with the group, so that they end up knowing more about you than friends you’ve known for years. You can say what you want and you know they’ll understand.”