North Yorkshire’s long-running home library service is an integral part of the county’s social support system and with another coronavirus lockdown it may provide a lifeline for more residents.

The service was established to allow those unable to visit libraries to both keep reading through regular book deliveries to their homes, with the bonus of social contact with the network of volunteers who make the deliveries and collections.

While social distancing rules mean drop-offs and collections have to be done with great care, they can still provide a valuable point of contact for people isolated in their homes due to a combination of lockdown and their own circumstances, in addition to bringing the stimulation reading provides.

Around 1,400 people across North Yorkshire benefit from the service and the current lockdown means more are likely to find it a way of coping with the restrictions needed to beat coronavirus.

They rely on a team of hundreds of volunteers who operate the service, with different people taking on different roles to cope with the challenges of covering a county unique for its combination of size and remote communities.

The service operates in both urban and rural areas, with both County Council-run and community-managed libraries involved. In towns, the services are centralised for convenience but in rural communities they operate from local branches, with regular drop-offs and collections.

Last year’s restrictions around the pandemic saw increased demand for the service and now the country is back in full lockdown it is anticipated more will come forwards to take advantage.

The scale of the operation is reflected in the fact that in the last two months of last year 7,628 books and audio books were delivered to more than 900 people. Annually, a team of around 250 volunteers put in around 14,500 hours of work, making around 11,500 visits.

We provide the books for the service and pay the volunteers’ costs for delivering and collecting books.

The county’s library network relies heavily on its own band of volunteers and they also contribute to ensuring the system works smoothly and effectively.

General manager for libraries Chrys Mellor said: “It tends to be seen as a service for the elderly, but it is there for anyone who can’t get out.”

That means some children’s book deliveries are made alongside those for adults, where parents are isolating or unable to leave their homes for other reasons.

For many, the deliveries provided a form of “unobtrusive contact”, Chrys said, with volunteers normally stopping to chat, though that element of the service is restricted to distanced drop-offs and collections while lockdown remains in place.

Volunteers also distribute leaflets on behalf of organisations like the fire and health services.

“We are reliant and grateful that we have such an army of volunteers out there,” said Chrys.

The positive impact of the service can be seen in the responses from those who benefit.

During the first lockdown, home deliveries had to be suspended and 4,500 telephone calls were made by users just wanting someone to chat to in the absence of personal calls.

One user said: “They’re the only people I see most of the time since I can’t leave home. I buzz for a week after they come.

“I can't praise the library enough, out of all the services that were meant to help me they're the only ones that have actually delivered.

“It's not just the books, it's the consistency and familiarity – they ground me. I’ll lose track of time being on my own without stimulation for so long, but then Thursday comes and I’ll be back to myself, it sets me straight for another fortnight.

“It’s so important that they’re familiar faces, they will tell me a little about their lives and ask about me, ask how my son is doing. I value that so much. It's not old age that makes your brain go, it's the isolation – and everyone is always in a hurry, the whole world is in a rush – it's so nice for someone to make time for you.”

Cllr Greg White, Executive Member for Libraries, said: “The home library service is a proven success, providing a vital service for those who would otherwise struggle to use libraries.

“It would not be possible to operate this without our team of dedicated volunteers, who provide more than just a delivery service. The current pandemic has shown just how important communities are and this is a fine example of people working for the benefit of others who would be even more severely impacted without their help.”

To inquire about how to join the home library service, call 01609 533800.

The friends who volunteer together

The home library service has helped a friendship of four decades endure, with two friends who met at the nursery gates now working together for the good of the community.

Annabel Garnett and Jennifer Leitch struck up a long-term friendship when both had young children and that has seen them each take on a volunteering role with the service, which operates out of Selby library as part of its county-wide coverage.

Annabel’s love of reading took her into the branch and she took up an invitation to get involved, with Jennifer taking a role later.

Although each worked different routes initially, changes in staffing meant they ended up working together, making fortnightly deliveries to people like Albert Hamer, aged in his 90s, who would otherwise struggle to get fresh books to read.

Both women enjoy helping others and recognise the value the service brings to those who use it – as well as the satisfaction they gain from volunteering.

Annabel said: “I was still working part time when I started, I borrowed books and was asked if I was interested when I was in the library. It has been brilliant, we get attached to the people involved.”

Jennifer added: “We enjoy it and get a lot out of it. For the people who use the service, we are on their calendar and they look forwards to us arriving.”

Although current coronavirus restrictions mean more social distancing, in normal circumstances the visits involve time for a chat to provide much-appreciated social interaction for those who may face long periods of isolation.