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Story Bus by Leeds Library Service

The Story Buses were initially launched in January 2020. The buses arose from the need to replace the library vehicle fleet and resulted in two Story Buses, named Sam and Nelly by the children, with exciting exterior designs by illustrator Nick Sharratt and interiors with well-designed spaces to sit and read.

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The Story Bus is a targeted service for children aged 0-5 and their families, delivered in priority neighbourhoods of the city where there is less engagement in library services, and poorer outcomes for children in the Early Years. The aims are: 

  • to foster a love of books and reading in the early years 
  • to encourage families to share books and reading activities together 
  • to promote regular library use in the target areas 
  • to support the development of language, communication and literacy 
  • to provide access to an early years cultural programme of theatre, authors, storytellers and illustrators.

The challenge

There are significant challenges in Leeds in terms of early learning and achievement. There is a low take up of early years services including the free offer for two year olds, and the percentage of children attaining a good level of development at the end of the Foundation Stage is significantly lower than the national average. A focus on work to improve language and communication and to sow the seeds of positive early reading experiences is now a key priority for the city. The Story Bus service makes an important contribution to this priority. 

The solution

Many families, especially those in more disadvantaged areas, are wary of council buildings. Parents may be less confident readers themselves. With increasing struggles to put food on the table and to heat their homes, visiting a library is not a priority.

The solution is to bring the library to these families. The Story Buses do just that, providing a creative, nurturing, non-threatening environment with books and story-related activities. Children and their parents/carers are welcomed into the space by the staff team who have a rich knowledge and understanding of early children’s literature. The team promote and recommend books and also model best practice in terms of sharing books and reading activities to increase the confidence of parents in reading with their children.

The Story Buses will provide a termly programme of visits. The schedule of visits is based on a clear rationale of equality of access, focusing on priority neighbourhoods and including children’s centres, early years settings and community stops.  Pop Up visits are also planned across the city during main school holiday periods when the Story Buses will support community events, e.g. local festivals. During term time, the flexible programming also allows time for special visits to schools and other settings as part of key promotions e.g. World Book Day.

Children and parents are often accompanied on their first visits by trusted individuals such as the children’s centre or Early Years staff, or they are also free to explore at their own pace. Books can be borrowed and returned subsequently to local libraries or Early Years settings.

A large van (story bus) with various children's story characters covering the outside

The impact

It is still early days for the Story Buses, as the full launch was delayed due to the pandemic.

However, there has been a widespread welcome among parents, families and practitioners. 

Anticipated outcomes of the service are that:

  • more children and families enjoy reading, including those who would not usually access libraries
  • more families are introduced to the wider range of activities that libraries can offer
  • increased percentage of children and families who are active library members in target areas 
  • improved language, literacy and communication in these target areas.

This feedback was provided by a local nursery teacher:

The Library Bus came for the second time yesterday. The children really enjoyed it, they were able to borrow some books to read in nursery and then they can return them to the library next door. Today when I did story time with the books they had chosen, it opened up a discussion about “what are libraries”? It was lovely to hear that some of the children use the library and they talked about what books they have borrowed recently. The Bus was so welcoming, calm and child friendly.  

I observed the small group of children who went on the Library Bus yesterday. It was really interesting watching some of the children who normally prefer to observe than engage. They all participated in the story showing understanding, asking questions and using language in different context. Reflecting on this I think the enclosed environment, small group and the reduced noise level made children feel comfortable and ready to engage."

How is the new approach being sustained?

The Story Bus is included in core revenue funding. Leeds Libraries replaced its fleet of mobile libraries in January 2020. Previously there was one children’s mobile, this was increased to two as part of the fleet replacement and the decision taken to have these with a specific focus on 0-5 age range to support the city priority of improving early literacy. 

Lessons learned

Since the Story Buses relaunch in October 2021 we have been running a series of pilot routes across the city to analyse how the stops work best during term time and in the school holidays as well as seasonally. 

We have learnt that good communication with Early Years teams and Children’s Centres is crucial, both in getting the messages out about the service to parents and carers but also in terms of route planning and timing

There is also a need to have a flexible approach to planning the service and to be ready to take on the ideas and contributions of users.

Early evidence shows that:

  • Young children show a more sustained interest in books, concentrate more, and use language more richly in the Story Bus environment.
  • Parents are excited about the Story Bus and are keen to explore it, including those who do not use libraries. One Early Years practitioner explained that, for parents, “there is no pressure and less anxiety” with the Story Buses.

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