Engage, respond, innovate? Hackathons and Public Libraries

January 22, 2020

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By Anna Grant, Senior Policy and Development Officer, Carnegie UK Trust

On the surface a report exploring hackathons[1] in public libraries may appear a relatively niche topic, serving a small Venn diagram of individuals.

However, public services are increasingly challenged to keep up to date with the needs and wants of their users, within a challenging context of increasing financial and personnel constraints. Given this, there is a growing response for organisations to explore more creative, alternative methods to extending their reach and developing and improving their products and service offerings.

Hackathons are an example of one of these approaches. Hackathons have been particularly interesting to organisations over the past decade as they have been shown to deliver:

  • inherent value for participants, including opportunities for socialising, networking and skills development.
  • a novel way, generally outside of regular service, to engage with the public, including those who may not be regular service users. This engagement can be simply an inherent part of the process or a valuable outcome in and of itself.
  • an opportunity to explore a challenge or theme in detail, importantly to give space to the issues and potentially produce solutions.
  • while retaining an attractive format, in generally being considered low risk, manageable resource input and results focused.

Additionally, using hackathon as a lens, or vehicle (or other preferred metaphor) within the public library sector, the questions and themes raised within hackathon development can quickly begin to appeal to a broader set of individuals and organisations:

How are we, as a service, currently engaging with and learning from our regular users and low-users? How are we trying to engage with, or change perceptions of non-users? How do we support staff grow their digital confidence? Can we work collectively with other organisations to tackle shared issues? How are we using our service data?

Clearly, we are not proposing that hackathons are the catch-all solution to the many and often deeply embedded structural challenges that the public sector, and particularly the public library service currently faces. Indeed, the critiques and limitations of hackathons are varied (and reviewed in detail in this report), so require services to be considerate, explicit and realistic in their expectations of what a hackathon can achieve for their given service.

Ultimately, Engage, respond, innovate is intended to share experiences of library services delivering hackathons within the UK and internationally, spark inspiration for alternative ways of working, grow confidence of library staff and deliver practical guidance on how to run or support a hackathon for both libraries and broader services.



[1] If hackathons are new to you, the method is essentially: a process that brings together a group of individuals with a cross-section of skills or knowledge to focus on a particular theme or challenge and produce solutions within a concentrated period of time.