Baroness Hollins spoke passionately at the House of Lords on Thursday 13 October about the necessity for libraries within our society. Libraries form the basis of many of the Beyond Words’ book clubs, providing people with learning disabilities the opportunity to share their feelings in a safe and welcoming environment. As Baroness Hollins says, “We should never underestimate the personal, social and cultural capital that comes from belonging to and participating in such valued mainstream activities and facilities.”
Read the full speech below:
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on initiating this debate and speaking so personally and passionately. When I was six, my parents were told that I would never learn to read but it was a good thing that I had blonde hair and blue eyes. My mother took me home and taught me to read, and introduced me to books and libraries, and I have been passionate about books ever since.
My remarks will focus on libraries, although many of my comments could relate equally to bookshops. My main question is whether the general duty, “to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for all persons,” as outlined in the Public Libraries and Museums Act, is in fact being met with respect to an often excluded group: people with learning disabilities, who were not mentioned in the Library briefing note.
I know of a few initiatives in public libraries that welcome them. Shared reading groups offered by the Reader Organisation are open to readers and non-readers like, to listen to literature read aloud and discuss what they have heard—but many people with learning disabilities struggle with oral storytelling because making sense of words takes them longer and they lack the confidence to participate. The good news is that their visual literacy is usually much stronger, and a preferred and good channel of communication.
Most people with learning disabilities have never used a library, and there is a lack of suitable books on the shelves for people who find pictures easier than words. Books Beyond Words, the charitable company that I set up five years ago as a spin-off from St George’s, University of London, is trying to rectify this. I declare an interest as the founder, editor and board chair, and also because my disabled son is a member of a Beyond Words book club supported by the Surrey library service. I hope that noble Lords will be patient with me while I explain the rationale behind this novel approach.
Beyond Words, in partnership with public libraries, has been developing book clubs in some London boroughs, Worcestershire, Kent, Medway and elsewhere in the south-east for adults whose visual literacy is far superior to their word literacy. The county that has taken this further than any other is Kent, where 16 different libraries now offer regular monthly or bi-monthly book clubs, and 10 special schools are starting book clubs for the senior students. These clubs will transition to a community library as school leaving approaches. I hope that their local libraries will survive because these are people who do not have easy access to transport.
The book clubs generally start with books from the 50-strong series published by Books Beyond Words. They are wordless books that tell stories in pictures to help people explore and understand their own experiences, and to learn about adult life and how to cope with its bigger challenges, such as love and relationships, health, death and crime. All the books explore relationships and emotions—perhaps unsurprisingly, given my background as the psychiatrist and psychotherapist. As there are no words, the group members look at pictures in turn, describing and discussing what they see and co-creating the story. Unlike in other book clubs, no pre-reading is required. It all happens in the club. Members can then be encouraged to borrow the books to reread at their leisure later. Some people who can read words say that they still prefer books without words since they can understand the story and the characters at a deeper level.
When one book has been finished, group members choose what they would like to read at the next meeting. At a recent book club in Epsom, co-facilitated by my son, the book club members were looking at the books on the library shelves to see what they might read next. One woman picked up books on epilepsy and diabetes, as she has both conditions. She then picked up the book When Dad Died and held it close to her. She was a little tearful and told the group that her dad had died and that she missed him. This prompted other group members to talk about their bereavements. The group agreed to read the book together at a future meeting. These books help people access and share their feelings and their own stories and support each other.
One school group in Kent catches the bus between the school and the library to get to the book club. It is a busy library and the group members are part of the life of the library—reading their books, talking and signing about the stories, guessing what comes next. Their teachers consider the whole experience to be a really useful part of their education, preparing them for their next steps in a very practical and enjoyable way. Many of these book clubs undertake what was called the Six-book Challenge, and is now called Reading Ahead. This national event is organised by the Reading Agency and supported by local libraries. When six books have been read individually or in a group, Beyond Words clubs host a small event to celebrate, with a certificate or a gift.
Many book club members may take a while to feel at home in a library for a variety of reasons. But book club meetings present a perfect opportunity to look for other books and return loans. Members learn how to use electronic devices for registering their loans and are soon keen to show other library users how to do this. Librarians guide them, offering suggestions on books that they might like. The Kent main libraries have a dedicated set of shelves for quick reads and easy read material, and other examples that people have then chosen include illustrated books on ABBA, trains, sport or cookery.
My experience is that libraries want to be as inclusive as possible but do not always have the skills and knowledge that they need. Sometimes they might have books without words, but no one reads them as they do not know where they are or how to use them. Training is usually necessary, with both librarians and volunteers quickly learning what works and how to sustain it. Once librarians have understood the needs of a group of people who are not generally library users, they become enthusiastic supporters. They observe people enjoying themselves and benefiting from books, as well as learning to use the library.
The first steps after deciding to host a book club are usually very simple—identifying a quiet place to meet, creating a shelf for suitable books and advertising the plan to partners and community groups locally. This is very important because people have to be recruited to come as new users. Book clubs then develop in a range of ways and expand beyond their original remit. For example, one group helped local hospital staff learn about books in this series that help people access healthcare, and another invited a policeman to come to the club after reading a book about criminal justice and was then invited to visit the police station. Several groups have gone on to explore art books for stories or visited the National Gallery or their local art gallery. Nine book groups in Kent obtained funding from the Arts Council, in partnership with Kent libraries and the Skillnet Group, to co-create three short stories in a new fantasy series called Picture This. The groups imagine the stories with artists and are proud now to have their own copies and see their own creation on the shelves of their local library, and available for others to buy.
Libraries and bookshops should be important parts of all communities, to support the widest possible range of people, including disabled people, to socialise, enjoy and learn. Libraries are free, warm and welcoming, and usually provide a disability-friendly environment. This is so important for people with such a low rate of employment—less than 10% of people with learning disabilities are in work. But belonging to a book club can provide a chance for a member to move into volunteering, as happened when Julie became a volunteer at Deal and Dover libraries and now helps to run book clubs for other people with learning disabilities.
The reduction in skilled staff in libraries and the threats to bookshops come at a very exciting time in the history of learning disability. More people than ever before aspire to a life of full participation rather than one of care. We should never underestimate the personal, social and cultural capital that comes from belonging to and participating in such valued mainstream activities and facilities. Does the Minister agree that public libraries and bookshops are ideal places to introduce people with learning disabilities to the world of books, if they and their supporters know that they will be assured of an appropriate offering and a warm welcome? Libraries and bookshops are safe places for vulnerable people to meet each other, to develop friendships through sharing their stories, and to develop their visual literacy in a supportive and enjoyable setting.
See the full debate here: