April 2022

Libraries are a wonderful free resource, bringing a world of learning and imagination right into readers’ hands, so for anyone who loves books, the thought of not being able to get to the library is pretty upsetting. 

Whether they’re housebound through illness or limited mobility, live in an isolated spot with no bus into town, or perhaps care for someone else, people who lose library access can feel cut off from one of life’s great pleasures.

That’s why the Home Library Service (HLS) is so valuable. Run by the Royal Voluntary Service (RVS) under contract to Dorset Council, it pairs readers with volunteers who bring books to their door, usually every three weeks. There’s a choice of more than 150,000 books (including audio books) from the LibrariesWest network of seven library services across the region. Most readers are older members of the community, although there’s no lower or upper age limit. Some use the service for a short time – maybe just for the winter, when it’s harder to get about, or following an operation – while others come on board permanently.

Maria Jacobson has been the service manager since 2004. “I started off working eight hours a week, but now I do more than 30,” she says. “Since those early days the service has grown to cover all Dorset libraries and everyone in the county. Bridport is the biggest volunteer group in the area, and there are smaller groups in Beaminster and Lyme Regis.”

Bridport Library’s HLS patch covers the town and several villages, reaching as far as Charmouth. The scheme is so successful here – there are currently 12 volunteer deliverers and choosers – that a Bridport coordinator is in place to run the local service, recruit volunteers and provide a link between Maria and the voluntary team. Maya Pieris has just taken up this post. “I wanted to volunteer to do something that made a difference – something that wasn’t ‘me’, that would be a challenge,” says Maya. “I have library experience, so when I saw a leaflet about the HLS I followed it up. Maria inspired me to get involved.”

HLS volunteers undergo all the relevant legal checks and essential training, and Maya completes a referral form for each new reader before they receive a visit. Readers complete a profile form with details of their interests and what sort of books they like to read, then they’re paired with a volunteer.

“One of the most important parts of the process is the relationship built up between the reader and the HLS volunteer,” says Maria. “Usually readers leave it to the volunteer to choose their books, so it’s vital that the volunteer has an insight into the reader’s character and interests. And for our older or most vulnerable readers, the visit is a chance to make sure everything’s OK – we have details of people’s emergency contacts, just in case.”

Some readers like to choose their own books and order them by phone or online for delivery by their HLS volunteer. Maria says the staff at Bridport Library are “fantastic”, and there are also excellent managers at the smaller branches in Beaminster and Lyme Regis.

During the first lockdown in spring 2020, libraries closed totally and the service stopped, although Maria kept in touch with the volunteers and encouraged them to phone their readers. “I wanted everyone to feel they hadn’t been forgotten,” she says. In July 2020 HLS resumed as a doorstep delivery service, with volunteers collecting books from the library and dropping them off outside each reader’s home, following strict Covid safety guidance. Library staff also followed Covid guidelines, disinfecting items and leaving books untouched after being handled (initially for 72 hours). Then in summer 2021 the full service sprang back into action and volunteers could once more go into people’s homes if both parties were happy with this. 

Two long-standing HLS volunteers are Felicity and Sue, who share a round covering Morcombelake, Chideock and Charmouth, where they look after five readers. Felicity has been an RVS volunteer for 45 years – since it was the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service – and got involved with the HLS 15 years ago after her father used the service. Sue has worked in adult literacy and enjoys encouraging people to read and share her love of books. 

“It’s a privilege to be able to do this,” says Felicity. “It’s an enjoyable voluntary role with a tremendous reward, as it’s centred around people. We build up some lovely friendships, and I do enjoy listening to people talk about their interesting lives. Our readers are quite an eclectic group: one likes murder mysteries, and another likes to order her books online for herself.”

“One lady in her 80s read the book reviews in the Saturday papers then gave us a list, which included some great suggestions for our own reading, too,” adds Sue. “Being housebound can take away the ‘buzz’ of life, but the relationship that builds between volunteers and our readers can help them to keep their personality. And escaping in a book is good for everyone’s mental health.”

New readers are always welcome to sign up for the service. If you can’t get to the library because of ill health or loss of mobility, you can call 01305 236666, email dorsetwiltshirehub@royalvoluntaryservice.org.uk, visit www.royalvoluntaryservice.org.uk or speak to a member of staff at your local library who will pass on your enquiry. HLS volunteers are always needed, too.