William Neil Richards was born on May 11, 1949, in Bowmanville, Ontario. He received his primary and secondary education in Bowmanville. Richards earned a Bachelor of Arts degree at Carleton University in Ottawa and attended the Library Science program at the University of Toronto.
In 1971, Richards moved to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where he was employed as a library assistant at the University of Saskatchewan Library from 1971 until his retirement in 2002. In 1982, Richards took a leave of absence from his position at the University of Saskatchewan to work as a volunteer with the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives in Toronto.
From the 1970s until his death, Richards was active in local, provincial and national gay organizations, including the Canadian Gay Archives; the Gay Interest Group of the Canadian Library Association; the Zodiac Friendship Centre; the Gay Community Centre of Saskatoon; the Gay and Lesbian Support Services in Saskatoon; Metamorphosis, and the Saskatchewan Gay Coalition.
Richards worked on many early AIDS awareness initiatives in Saskatchewan. In 1990 he founded and organized Visual AIDS, a month long series of exhibitions, lectures, plays and public events. As well, he has staged three large exhibitions about AIDS at the University of Saskatchewan Library, and was the co-ordinator for Saskatchewan's Day Without Art project in 1992.
In 1975, Richards joined others to form the Committee to Defend Doug Wilson, enlisting the support of the University of Saskatchewan's Employees' Union (CUPE Local 1975). This initiative led to a resolution of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour asking the provincial government to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Richards helped organize the 1976 convention of the National Gay Rights Coalition in Saskatoon, one of the first gay rights gatherings in Canada. In 1982, he co-authored a library selection guide to lesbian and gay fiction, Out on the Shelves. Richard's book, Celebrating a History of Diversity: Lesbian and Gay Life in Saskatchewan 1971-2005: A Selected Annotated Chronology, was published in 2005. In retirement, Richards volunteered at the University of Saskatchewan Archives & Special Collections, where he continued his passion of collecting materials related to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Richards received numerous awards for his work in the areas of gay rights and AIDS education: The Dr. Stanley Stead Award by the Saskatoon District Health for the Visual AIDS project (1991); the first GALA (Gay and Lesbian Achievement) Award (1993); the University of Saskatchewan's President's Service Award (1995); the Doug Wilson Award (1998) and the Saskatchewan Centennial Medal (2005). The Neil Richards Collection of Sexual and Gender Diversity at the University of Saskatchewan Archives & Special Collections was named in recognition of Richards' contributions to preserving the history of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Saskatchewan.
Richards died in Saskatoon on January 12, 2018.