Designing good public engagement: participation with purpose

August 6, 2019

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by Georgina Bowyer, Policy and Development Officer, Carnegie UK Trust

This blog is part of a series designed to support potential applicants to the Engaging Libraries programme.  Engaging Libraries provides funding and support to UK public libraries to run public engagement projects, connecting people with research on health, society and culture.


Public engagement is at the heart of the Engaging Libraries programme.  Public engagement is a term that is used in different settings with varying nuances, so it is a concept that can sometimes be unclear.  For us, public engagement means a two-way process: it invites people to actively participate and engage with ideas and concepts.

Participatory and Purposeful

Engaging Libraries encourages public libraries to think broadly and creatively about developing activities that are truly participatory – events or projects that create an opportunity for people to consider and debate ideas with others.  We are looking for activities that inspire curiosity, spark debate and stimulate conversations, but that do not tell people what to think or do. Public engagement at its best supports people to make connections between ideas, their own lives and the world around them.   Activities may include conversation, interaction and listening, but must go beyond a traditional lecture format.  Here are some examples:

  • workshops, events, debates and discussions;
  • exhibitions, festivals and pop-up spaces;
  • film screenings, theatre and games;
  • joint writing or arts projects such as a family fun make-and-take activity; and
  • apps, websites and discussion forums.

Public engagement is by its nature purposeful.  Competitive applications to Engaging Libraries will be able to identify the difference that the engagement makes to the people, partners and communities involved.  For example, will the activity increase understanding, or will it challenge assumptions and reduce stigma, will it open minds and engage people’s critical thinking?  Applicants should consider how the activities are relevant to the difference you want to make and the people you want to engage with. Activities are most successful when framed around ideas and themes that are meaningful and relevant to participants.


To help translate ideas and research into engaging activities and make them ‘come alive’, we are asking libraries to collaborate with partners.  Given the remit for research within Engaging Libraries, all projects must involve a researcher.  In addition, we encourage libraries to form partnerships with creative people or organisations – this could be at a local or national level or anything in-between.  For example it could be an artist, musician or web developer in your local area, or a well-known theatre company or arts organisation.  Collaborations could also involve people or organisations who bring a particular set of knowledge, skills, expertise or connections to your project – for example, a charity, a school, care home or youth organisation.

Why public engagement is important

The generation of and development of ideas, research and evidence, are activities and processes that bring a wealth of knowledge and understanding and have the potential to enrich our society and people’s lives.  In the past, these ideas and processes have often been handled by a slim sector of society, giving others the opportunity to read or hear about their findings, primarily through universities and libraries, or within a particular sector of employment.  Public engagement is about providing an opportunity for a wider group of people to find out about, and actively explore ideas and research.

Offering this opportunity has benefits not only for participants, but also for research and researchers.  For participants, this type of activity is relevant given the huge volume of information available to us and concerns around echo chambers and the prevalence of fake news.  Engagement with research can help people to hone critical thinking skills and give them a chance to consider new ideas.  Libraries are particularly well placed to carry out public engagement given that they are viewed as a safe space in communities.  Amongst the benefits for researchers, are that public engagement gives them the opportunity to learn from the way that people and communities interact with and contribute to their ideas.

 Contact us

The Engaging Libraries team are always very happy to talk through ideas – we are Jenny, Rachel and Georgina and you can contact us via @CarnegieUKTrust, [email protected] or (01383) 721445.  We look forward to hearing from you.


Please note that full information about the Engaging Libraries programme including the criteria for selection can be found on our website here.  Applications are open to public libraries in the UK and close on Wednesday 25 September.