Home Library Service providing a lifeline to hundreds of Oxfordshire residents

Sprightly nonagenarian Mary Norcutt is among hundreds of Oxfordshire residents who welcome the library service into their home.

Mary receives a visit from a volunteer from Oxfordshire County Council’s Home Library Service once a month, where she’s presented with a host of new books to devour.

According to Kevin Salway, Home Library Service Manager, the free service provides a lifeline to many – supporting the County Council’s commitment to Thriving Communities, providing services that enhance the quality of life across Oxfordshire.

The council’s network of more than 40 libraries play a crucial role in the community, and the Home Library Service extends the boundaries to those unable to get to their local branch.

Kevin said: “The Home Library Service makes a massive difference to people’s lives. I speak to volunteers and I speak to the customers and I get an awful lot of satisfaction from the service we are able to provide. For some people it’s lifesaving.

“It isn’t just about the books, it’s about the social interaction and combating loneliness. It’s about providing a friendly face.”

The Home Library Service has grown significantly over the past few years. In 2015 it had 195 customers and now boasts more than 800.

There are 225 home library volunteers working across Oxfordshire and the service is always on the lookout for more. Volunteers must apply online and agree to a DBS check.

Mary, 91, doesn’t drive and would find it almost impossible to get from her home on the outskirts of Nettlebed to Watlington Library more than seven miles away.

But the Home Library Service is much more than just a scheme where you can get books, audio books, CDs and DVDs.

Friendly face

For Mary and countless others like her, it’s a chance to welcome a friendly face indoors for a cup of tea or coffee and a chat.

Mary started using the service in spring last year and enjoys visits from volunteer Karla Edis.

“Someone from the council came to a coffee morning to talk about the Home Library Service and I jumped at it straight away,” explained Mary. “I see Karla about once a month and she usually gives me half-a-dozen books.

“Once I start a book I motor through it. Fictional detective stories are my favourite and Karla always picks well. We’ve got to know each other’s tastes.

“It’s really nice to have a chat. The hour goes ever so quickly. I’m always happy when I know Karla’s coming down. She’s a very sweet person, I can tell you.”

Mary was born in Henley and educated in Harpsden. She worked in a sawmill, then as a gardener at St Mary’s Hospital convalescent home in Nettlebed, and later as a bookkeeper in Henley.

She believes the secret to a long and healthy life is keeping her brain active, something the Home Library Service enables her to do.

“I do the Daily Mail crossword every morning and then get stuck into a book. I also like doing jigsaw puzzles which Karla brings from the library. I think keeping my brain active is essential.”

There are 225 home library volunteers working across Oxfordshire and the service is always on the lookout for more. Volunteers must apply online and agree to a DBS check.

Karla, 71, started as a volunteer last year and enjoys visiting Mary and two other customers.

“I love every minute of it,” she said. “It’s very social and I love providing some company for them.

“I’ve always enjoyed books and really like coming into the library and choosing the next lot of books for them.”

Karla is a well-known face in Watlington, having started the interior decorating business Drapes Design Co on Couching Street in 1982. She retired last year, handing over the reins to daughter Belle and a colleague.

“Volunteering was something I wanted to do when I retired,” she explained. “I also volunteer at Nuffield Place and will keep on doing this for as long as I can hold a driving wheel.”

How it works

The Home Library Service is offered to people of any age who are housebound and can’t get to the library due to disability, illness or full-time caring responsibilities.

Kevin said: “Our aim is to serve people who struggle to get to a library, can’t get to a library or who can get there but can’t carry the books home. If somebody wants the service they will have the service.

“It’s open to any age and we supply everything from books in regular-sized print and large-sized print to audio books on CD, music CDs and DVDs.

“We get requests for everything, from Mills & Boon right through to really gory crime. Some of the older generation really like the blood and gore!

“We visit once every three weeks and usually give customers between two or six books.”

Volunteers don’t have to be ardent bookworms. With resources like ‘Who Else Writes Like?: A Readers' Guide to Fiction Authors’ by Ian Baillie, they can recommend a raft of new titles to customers.

“Customers are given a library card and nearly all the time we can get them the book they’re after. What I try to do is link up volunteers and customers with similar interests and likes,” Kevin said.

Volunteers range in age from 18 to a woman in her mid-80s and the service is always expanding.

“We’re doing a lot of promotions from within the libraries and at WI meetings, talks, care homes, retirement homes ­– word is getting out there.”

Meet some of our other volunteers

Sylvia Mullin, 69, from Kingston Lisle, near Wantage, has been volunteering for two-and-a-half years and has five customers on her Home Library Service round.

These include a couple from Kingston Lisle who are both 79, two ladies from Richmond Letcombe Regis Retirement Home in their early 90s, and a woman in her mid-50s from the village who recently suffered a stroke.

Sylvia said: “It’s a very flexible service and I usually go on a Wednesday about every three weeks. I spend the whole day on it and they are always very appreciative.

“After a while you really get to know what kind of books they like and they seem to like the books I choose.

“But it’s more than just about the books. You really get to know them and they enjoy talking about their lives. I get a lot of satisfaction from it.”

Sylvia is a fan of 19th Century literature and lists Charles Dickens’ Bleak House among her favourite novels.

She recently completed an Open University English Literature degree and her love of books runs in the family – her daughter Zoe White works as a librarian at Witney.

Jackie Cordell, 61, from Horspath, started with the Home Library Service in March last year after a chance meeting with a fellow volunteer at a yoga class.

She started off delivering books to three customers at a retirement complex in St Clement’s and now her round has grown to five.

“They are all extremely interesting people with a real diverse taste in books. Some of them like crime detectives. One person is really interested in eco-living and eco-friendly homes.

“One of the ladies has started taking DVDs. She’s really into Japanese animated films after spending a lot of time in Japan when she was a child.

“One of the ladies can’t really get out so taking her the books is a real lifeline. Others do have family and friends around them but can still get a little isolated.”

Jackie worked as a research scientist for Oxford University for more than 30 years, looking into lymphoma and leukaemia before retiring about six years ago.

She lists American novelist Anne Tyler among her favourite authors and has belonged to a book club with five friends for more than 15 years.