Miranda McKearney OBE, Chief Executive, the Reading Agency

Miranda McKearney OBE, Chief Executive, the Reading Agency

One of the positive constants over the last few years has been the work of The Reading Agency (TRA).  The charity is behind the imminent Summer Reading Challenge, the ongoing Six Book Challenge (SRC) and the new Reading Well Books on Prescription schemes as well as a host of other stuff.  To my mind, the TRA is the closest thing that English public libraries have to a national marketing and publicity agency, something which is desperately needed for the atomised and increasingly underfunded service.

At the forefront of the TRA during this time has been Miranda McKearney, who was one of those who set up the body (she says that the idea was created at a kitchen table with friends) and is its Chief Executive.  One suspects that she knows more about what is really happening to libraries nationally, and the factors and personalities affecting them, than pretty much anyone else in the country.  I am therefore delighted that she agreed to answer a few of my questions, which I share with you below.

If you could change one thing about UK public libraries, what would it be and why?
Am I allowed two?

What are the key challenges you say for UK public libraries at the moment?

  • Budget reductions
  • Getting on the front foot with media – if the only messages are negative and are about cuts, it becomes impossible to position libraries with policy makers as a dynamic solution/player . That’s why we’ve been channelling lots of energy into SRC and Books On Prescription media work.
  • Massive digital change requiring a reshaping of the traditional reading offer to the public  and new workforce skills

What are the key strengths that you see?

What are the key weaknesses?

  • Vulnerability in the face of public sector budget reductions. Policy makers are obsessed with economic growth. Libraries need to develop a narrative which plays into this – see my LGA speech.
  • The public are unclear what the contemporary library offer actually is. And this offer is delivered inconsistently, with a  post code lottery. The Universal Reading Offer sets out a definition of the contemporary reading offer, and what the public should be entitled to expect.

What plans are there to include e-books in future offers of the Summer Reading Challenge and, indeed, Books on Prescription?

We’re looking very seriously at this. And of course the digital dimension to these programmes extends way beyond the texts themselves – for instance the Summer Reading Challenge’s Booksorter is a massive, crowdsourced reader recommendation tool. It helps readers log their own reading, and find what other people have enjoyed;  it shares ideas from every kind of child and community, not just those that can afford to buy books.

Sarah McIntyre, the illustrator for 2014 did this copyright free image last year.

Sarah McIntyre, the illustrator for 2014 did this copyright free image last year.

The different themes for the SRC are often the source of discussion among librarians.  Is it possible for them to send you ideas for future years or even to vote on the choices?

This year we’ve developed a 3 year  plan for the SRC. As part  of this, we have consulted ASCEL, who in turn have involved all their members, on ideas for the themes. These ideas in turn have been suggested by librarians at conferences etc. Each ASCEL region discussed their choices , and submitted feedback to the ASCEL lead on the SRC strategy group. Two front runners emerged from this process, myths and legends (with a very contemporary twist, and illustrated by the amazing Sarah McIntyre)  in 2014, and animals in 2015.

Do you see any special challenges for the TRA when it comes to the increasing number of volunteer-run libraries?

For many charities , the fragmentation of important networks is an issue because it means there is no streamlined way of communicating, so it uses up lots more resource . It’s much harder to communicate efficiently with schools, for instance.

With community run libraries , we’ve established a policy for 2013, and will be monitoring how this pans out during the Summer Reading Challenge and Reading Well Books on Prescription.

To what reasons do you ascribe the success of the SRC?

My answers to this are multi-layered because its success is due to a combination of factors to do with audience need, and the partnership framework through which it is delivered

  • It responds to a real social need. To become literate, children need to enjoy reading and far too many of them don’t – which is why Ofsted is now requiring schools to have reading for enjoyment policies. Public libraries offer vital out of school reading for enjoyment support, and SRC is an imaginative, universal way of them delivering that.
  • It makes reading really fun, active and appealing, so children love doing it. That means it works! All the evaluations have found that it improves children’s reading enjoyment and motivation, their reading range, and helps prevent the summer holiday literacy dip that can be so damaging.
  • It offers a co-ordinated way of combining libraries’ brilliant work to make more of an impact. The same model applies to the recently launched Reading Well Books on Prescription. It is designed to provide national co-ordination combined with total flexibility locally. A voluntary sector partner (TRA) helps aggregate local work, which helps local libraries cut costs and  present themselves as part of something big and exciting, delivered across the UK . The Summer Reading Challenge now accounts for 20% of all children’s books borrowed annually, and for 48,000k children joining the library each year.
  • It is put together by a range of creative TRA experts from different backgrounds – publishing, libraries, writing  design etc. They are supported by a strategy group with librarians working at grassroots level who provide a reality check and expert advice – so it’s a real partnership.  The creativity of the approach inspires both children, young volunteers and the library staff delivering it.
  • It’s very simple to understand and therefore easy to communicate and get stakeholders behind it.  Because it happens every year/ is a consistent brand working across the UK it provides a consistent platform to build stakeholder commitment. This includes public libraries who continue to make it a core part of their reading service – if services started dropping out the model would stop working because the economies of scale would be lost.
The most successful library promotion in the UK

The most successful library promotion in the UK

  • Underneath the simplicity of the concept, it’s underpinned by a whole range of best practice resources, training, a shared evaluation  framework etc.
  • Because it is ubiquitous, it means national partners can get behind it. This year, partners include media partners TES and the BBC, education partners from National Association of Teachers of English to the Children’s University, Trinity and the Bridge organisations (for piloting the Arts Award), RNIB, Hay Festival, Welsh Books Council and Cymal, British Council (for delivery overseas). In Scotland it is sponsored by Tesco Bank, and participation there has risen 25% since the sponsorship started 3 years ago – we are launching it in Scottish Parliament, with Malorie Blackman, the new Children’s Laureate.
  • It is a platform for really big advocacy for libraries – e.g this year in England Frances Osborne is hosting the launch at No 11 [I am going to be there and hope to bring a report – Ed.] and the All Party Parliamentary Group for Libraries is supporting a popular MP drop in event at Portcullis House the day after.
The Duchess of Cornwall with Korky Paul and Lauren Child

The Duchess of Cornwall with Korky Paul and Lauren Child

It’s great to see that Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall were involved in the Summer Reading Challenge event at the Hay Festival and I know that the Duchess has been involved before.  Did you approach her to start this relationship? What do you think is the main reason that she wished to become involved?
The Duchess is very interested in literacy, and works with a lot of charities in this area. We had already been discussing the potential for her to champion the Summer Reading Challenge (especially in its 15th anniversary year in 2014), when the possibility arose of including the SRC in her pre planned visit to Hay with the Prince of Wales.  This came out of our partnership building work with the Hay Festival which has been small scale in 2013, with big potential to grow in 2014 and beyond. The  Festival organisers had secured a royal visit to launch it, and we , together with the School Library Association, were included in their plans.

Two speeches by Miranda have been recommended by her for further reading, the first was made to the LGA and the second was in Scotland this month.  My thanks to Miranda for the interview and to the Reading Agency for all of their hard work to boost reading and public libraries.