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Hackney community library service: meeting the needs of isolated people

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Outcome: communities

[Editor’s note: Chris Garnsworthy, Community Library Service Manager for Hackney Libraries, writes about what his team are doing]

“My church is now flats, the daycentre has closed and the local newsagent is now an artisan bakery. I feel so alone.” This and similar sentiments are common place in a society that elderly and disabled residents feel increasingly isolated from. The challenge, therefore, for us at Hackney’s Community Library Service (CLS), is to help our housebound service users by not only bringing them the books, music and films they love, but also by encouraging them to be part of a library community that cares and shows an interest in them as valued residents of this fast changing London borough.

Photo of a group of people standing in front of a small van. Everyone is holding books.
The Hackney Community Library Service team (plus, in the centre, Jon Burke, lead councillor for the service). Photo credit: Hackney Council

The CLS in Hackney is a firmly established outreach service that delivers to elderly, disabled and housebound people across the whole borough, as well as providing a library service to residential homes, housing schemes, lunch clubs, nurseries and the local hospice and hospital.

Hackney was one of the first boroughs to offer such a service when, in the late 1940s, a bright spark at Shoreditch Library started home deliveries to war invalids and those injured during the blitz. That person could never have realised that, almost 70 years later, the service would have developed into London’s largest home visit service serving over 750 individuals and institutions.

Black and white photo of an old library van
Early delivery van. Photo credit: Hackney archives

Meeting the needs of isolated people

With isolation and loneliness increasingly becoming something people are not afraid to admit to, the service has now developed into one that can react to an individual’s circumstances as well as their library requirements. As library staff, we can be caring friends rather than council or health officials, and therefore be allowed access to hidden needs as well as helping them feel wanted as part of a unique library community.

With our local internal and external partners, we provide access to our telephone reading group, social care services, befriending schemes, charitable groups and to assistive health orientated services. The telephone reading group has been particularly successful, with the group reading a pre-chosen title then discussing it via a conference call. Indeed, to make it special, we have occasionally asked the authors to take part in the session. Participants have included Mark Billingham, Val Wood and Quentin Jardine. Their participation also gives us the chance to achieve local interest and encourage new members through newspaper articles and online publicity.

Track record

Our track record in making a difference to people’s lives is extensive, and it should be noted that it is mostly the books themselves that make the difference. Long-time service user Pamela told us that, through all the treatment and medicine she takes for her crippling arthritis, the only thing that makes her forget her pain is listening to her talking books.

96 year old Dorothy says that her books are the only thing that make life worth living, and Arsenal fan Manny, whose mental condition had previously kept him in a darkened room for 3 years, is now up and about after an initial breakthrough when he left his room to excitedly come to the door and receive some football books we had chosen for him.

Creating a promotional film

It’s a fact that most living rooms we stride into carrying the resident’s monthly library bundle have the telly on, so we had the idea to make a film to give to our readers that showed them the service in action and that could also be used as a promotional tool.

We made it ourselves for no cost thanks to staff skills; our service users embracing the idea and offers of help from within the community. These included local comedian and poet John Hegley who wrote and then reads a poem about our service! The council loved it and put it on YouTube as well as adding it as a link on the homepage of the adult social care site.

Raising our profile in the council

To survive in these days of cutbacks and spending squeezes, we need to work efficiently and be regarded as important by our senior managers and the council as a whole. We therefore endeavour to publicise the benefits of our work as much as possible through newsworthy stories in staff news bulletins and local newspapers.

We invite councillors out on delivery rounds and look to fit our service in with council priorities, such as changing our vehicles from diesel to electric in response to the current high importance associated to zero vehicle emissions in the borough. The support of our managers and the council gives us the drive and resources we need to provide an excellent and valued service that can adapt, innovate and respond to community needs.

A photo of a man standing beside a new small white van which says 'I'm electric' on the side
Hackney community library service’s new electric van. Photo credit: Chris Garnsworthy/Hackney libraries

The staff are also a vital element and they share the community focussed goals we set for the service. In the process, they have received both local and national recognition via awards for their high level of customer care and service. In other words, everyone being on-board this library bus is vital to achieve all we want for the most important people of all – the home visit service users.

Most importantly, to remain relevant to everyone, it is vital we spread the word to stakeholders and partners alike that the service works well because it is a library service, a service that no-one else provides; and through libraries we can give care and support and create a community for those who feel isolated, lonely and excluded.

This favourite and unprompted quote from our dear friend Kathleen, who also appears in our film, sums up all we want to achieve: “I love my books and your service makes me feel just that little bit wanted. Without it, I’d be finished.”


The WOW! Awards are an independently run national customer service awards based on public nominations and we won the Community Focussed Service Award category. Over 21,000 nominations were whittled down to 64 finalists and 14 categories and we received the award at Monday’s gala event in central London. This is a great achievement for a small library home delivery team who get a great deal of job satisfaction from their work at the best of times, however receiving this recognition is very special and reflects well on the service itself and is also reward for Hackney Council who support and value the service so highly.

To keep in touch, follow Hackney libraries on twitter or apply to join the Hackney Community Library Service .


Please note, this is a guest blog. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of DCMS or the Libraries Taskforce

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  1. Comment by Tony W. (East Sussex) posted on

    What an amazing life enhancing service you provide for all your 'customers'. How lucky they are. Hope you are able to persuade other Local Authorities to follow THE leader. Congratulations to one and all. When do the MBE 's arrive. January?

  2. Comment by Ruth posted on

    This report is very inspiring for the following reasons (1) the cooperation between Hackney Coucil and their library services, particularly the community library service, (2) the personal interaction with elderly citizens which means they feel valued and cared for, and (3) the fact that users can remain in their homes and not clog up nursing homes or hospitals - this the library service is almost a branch of Council healthcare.

  3. Comment by KB posted on

    What is additionally amazing about this service, is that the team also find time to visit and deliver books to patients at the local hospital in Hackney, making it a truly "wrap around" service to the whole community.