New Years Honours 2023: Chris Garnsworthy awarded the British Empire Medal

Chris Garnsworthy

Honoured: Chris Garnsworthy

A passionate advocate of library home deliveries has been honoured for his work in the New Year’s honours.

Chris Garnsworthy was awarded the British Empire Medal for services to home visit libraries – a service he’s run in Hackney for decades and continued through the pandemic and beyond.

He said; “It’s like I have thousands of grannies and granddads. It’s changing lives and not that many people get that opportunity.”

He recently retired as Hackney’s head of community libraries and said the award was for the whole team who’ve done extraordinary work before and during the pandemic . When lockdown happened there was a brief pause whilst they changed home deliveries with three-week quarantine for books and deliveries wrapped in new bags left on the doorstep, rather than handed over in person.

Instead of face to face visits they phoned residents every week and delivered food and medicine. They kept up the telephone book club too.

“When people are lonely and isolated its only going to get worse. I felt we needed to find a way to continue during lockdown.”

One team member tended a distraught reader’s overgrown garden for them to cheer them up.

This is the second honour awarded to Hackney library staff in the last six months.

Mr Garnsworthy’s boss Sue Comitti was awarded the British Empire Medal in the Queen’s Birthday Honours last June.

Mr Garnsworthy started as a Saturday assistant in libraries in Haringey as a teenager in 1979 because the money was better than at his job at a sweet shop.

He quickly fell in love with the work and has worked hard to get home delivery and the library service for housebound residents better known.

He said: “Every street will have housebound people.”

He explained how the staff build relationships and trust with residents and reduce their feeling of isolation.

One 93-year-old reader Kathleen told him : “I love this service, it makes me feel that little bit wanted.”

Mr Garnsworthy and the team, including film-maker Lucy Bristow, made two films about the service to raise its profile.

It is thought to be the first of its kind in the UK and started after books were delivered to residents in wartime Hackney, even in bomb shelters.

Mr Garnsworthy said that after the war, Hackney libraries launched its own scheme.

He has written a booklet about it – and, as luck would have it, just before the pandemic the team hosted the world’s first conference on housebound services at Stoke Newington town hall which was attended by more than 120 people.

“Crime writer Martina Cole spoke very movingly about housebound libraries,” he said.

It meant Mr Garnsworthy helped advise other council libraries on how they could support residents during the pandemic.

He even joined international Zoom calls with thousands of librarians in Australia and Canada to share tips.

Mr Garnsworthy started working with housebound residents in 1992.

“It’s my dream job, going round to people, eating cakes and having jumpers knitted.

“I hate to walk away not being able to help.”

He became manager of the community libraries service in Hackney in 2008.

“We are able to flag up all sorts of things – [for example,] we are able to get disabled bays outside people’s homes.”

He said many older residents do not have the internet or anyone to help them with digital technology and the team have been able to help them with problems.

They can also signpost them to charities and community support and spot any problems if they arise, such as help from the memory clinic.

They produce a newsletter and a telephone book club so housebound readers can discuss books over a conference call.

The team have also worked with Hackney Archives to make dementia-friendly jigsaws for residents, using familiar scenes of Hackney.

Mr Garnsworthy has also saved the life of one reader.

He was worried something was wrong because one resident usually left her books on a window sill for him to collect to save him carrying them.

One day the books were missing.

He discovered the reader lying on the floor and it is thought she had suffered a stroke hours earlier.

“If the library [staff] had not gone there she would have died.”

Another housebound reader had been lying on the floor in her bathroom for a day and a half after an accident.

Mr Garnsworthy heard her calling out and was able to get in and help and call an ambulance so she could get a check up.

One resident who was unable to read was so concerned when her stairlift broke she called the community library service first to check they could still deliver her talking books.

Mr Garnsworthy gently asked if she’d got other basics like food sorted out – but the books were a priority for her.

He also recalled how the service was praised by the daughter of one resident in their funeral eulogy and said how much it had meant.

Mr Garnsworthy retired after 41 years in libraries.

However he is determined to carry on raising the profile of home delivery services and tweets about it @HomeVisitLibs .

Chris Garnsworthy and Nigella Lawson

Chris Garnsworthy and Nigella Lawson

When cookery writer and television presenter Nigella Lawson visited Stoke Newington library as part of the literary festival she wanted to know all about it.

“She really loved the idea. She was absolutely fascinated by what we do.  I have spent much of my career trying to get national awareness if it.”

He said it would be great to get a celebrity delivering books. One for Nigella, perhaps?