Norfolk: how libraries can connect communities

Norfolk has a well-established Healthy Libraries scheme that is having a significant impact on social isolation and loneliness. The library service runs a range of initiatives from singing and colouring groups to a reading project aimed at people who are housebound. They have played a vital role in keeping people living in the large rural county connected both before and during the pandemic.

What was done?

Norfolk County Council launched its Healthy Libraries initiative in 2015 in partnership with public health. Staff receive training in Mental Health First Aid Lite, dementia and autism awareness, and health information literacy skills. 

The service has also developed a range of initiatives to promote good health and wellbeing among users of the county’s 47 libraries. Not all of them are focussed on social isolation and loneliness, but most have an impact on them.

One of the longest running initiatives is Just a Cuppa, which offers people the opportunity to pop in for a cup of tea or coffee and chance to chat and connect with others.

Assistant Head of Norfolk Library and Information Service Sarah Hassan “It was a member of library staff who came up with this. The council had just launched a campaign on loneliness and they thought it would be an easy and effective way to help.

“During the pandemic we obviously haven’t been able to do this, but we moved it on to Zoom and in the first lockdown we were doing it every day. We had 1,000 taking part at one point across the county.

“Our library staff were also helping in other ways, coordinating volunteers, helping with food and medicine deliveries and even providing bereavement support. On top of that they made 36,000 calls to elderly and vulnerable residents to make sure they were okay.”

Other schemes that have been run include Reading Friends at Home where volunteers read to people over the phone who are housebound, ‘knit and natter’ groups, an adult colouring group called Colour Me Calm and singing groups. Many were able to run online during the pandemic. 

“We are always trying to come up with new ideas and ways of engaging people. Before the pandemic we had a harpist come in. She wanted to practise and it was really amazing. People would stop and listen and smile – it is about creating a welcoming environment, somewhere people feel happy and comfortable,” Ms Hassan added.

The impact

The work of the Norfolk library service has been recognised by the Library and Information Association, winning a libraries change lives award.

Prior to the pandemic nearly 60,000 people a year were taking part in the activities that the library service ran – a number that included both older people and younger adults with children.

And even though the pandemic restricted what could be done, more than 3,000 people took part in the online activities that were organised.

One individual who benefitted from the Reading Friends initiative described the sessions as “brilliant”. “I really enjoy them. I am housebound for much of the time, and have found activities on Zoom really help me to feel less isolated. I have had so many more opportunities to engage with other people.”

Head of Norfolk Library and Information Service Jill Terrell said: “Health and wellbeing has really become embedded in our service, taking a county-wide approach with colleagues in public health, Active Norfolk, adult learning and the NHS – and that is making a real difference to social isolation and loneliness.

“We are a large rural county with many remote communities, but the library service has terrific reach. This is why we launched the initiative in the first place.

“Our staff have been marvellous. They are so caring and compassionate – and with the training and resources in place have been able to take a really holistic approach in supporting local people. They recognise when someone needs help or a kind word. If it’s anything medical we refer them on to the health service and specialists, but if it’s something social we help. I guess in that way we have always supported social prescribers and encouraged behaviour changes.

But it’s not just the staff in the library buildings. We have a mobile library service and a home delivery service that are going out too, and have added an online option for much of our offer to keep people connected.

Lessons learned

Ms Terrell said it is important to keep an eye on who is not being reached when it comes to loneliness and isolation. “There are so many different groups that are socially isolated. Before the pandemic began we were concerned that there were few men using the groups – women have always used libraries more than men. We have a lot of jobs where men are working on their own in rural communities.

“We decided it was something we needed to address so we launched an initiative aimed at them called ‘Read My Mind’. The plan was to do it in person, but it started off online. It is workshop based so we have done some creative writing, some sessions where the men have been talking about their experiences and now we have an ambition to do a creative performance. We’ve had 30 to 40 men involved. It has worked really well.”

The online focus of the work during the pandemic has also highlighted other groups that the team had not managed to reach previously.

Ms Terrell added: “There is an understandable focus on the digitally excluded – people who are not familiar with the online technologies. We have always tried to support them and there is plenty of IT support we can provide to people.

But we also noticed that there were people who started to attend our digital events during the pandemic that we had never seen before. These were people who do not have transport or were in really remote locations – the socially excluded.

Next steps

To help address that issue, the service is now focussing on developing a blended approach, offering both online and face-to-face options.

Ms Terrell said: “We want to get a lot of the things we were running in person before the pandemic back, but we recognise the digital offer is very important and better for some people so we want to make sure we can offer both options.

“We are also starting in project, NHS Connect, in partnership with the health service. It will be aimed at people with cancer and low-medium mental health issues. The idea is that we gift them a digital device with some data on and help them link in with some of the opportunities that are available to help them stay connected and manage their condition.”

On top of this, the service has also made addressing social isolation and loneliness a key strategic priority. “We don’t do big, long strategy documents in Norfolk – we do one-page, focused documents basically listing our priorities.

“One of them focusses on this issue – ‘no lonely library customer’ and ‘a warm welcome for the vulnerable’. They are ambitions really – a reminder to ourselves of what we are trying to achieve, and a statement to our communities about how we are here to support them. The pandemic has made this sort of work more important than ever.”


Jill Terrell, Head of Norfolk Library and Information Service, Norfolk County Council: