Engaging Libraries: bringing people, public libraries and researchers together to explore health, society and culture

June 12, 2019

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By Jenny Peachey, Senior Policy and Development Officer, Carnegie UK Trust

What would it mean to the people your library service serves if they had the opportunity to connect with research on health, society and culture, in a safe space, on a topic that was meaningful to them? Would it cultivate curiosity about the biological, emotional and social aspects to loneliness, and so perhaps inspire them to act on this issue? Would it enable people to think critically about the portrayal of refugees in the media through engaging with research on the reality of living as a refugee and  having conversations with refugees? Would comparing the different ways people across time and in different cultures define and tackle a health issue or social problem challenge them to question what they took as “fact” or “the right way to do things”?

People + Public Libraries + Researchers = huge potential

The Carnegie UK Trust, Wellcome and the Wolfson Foundation believe that there is huge value in bringing together people, public libraries and researchers. Public libraries and research are about ideas. Being exposed to different or new ideas can challenge all of our unquestioned beliefs and assumptions. In turn, this can help cultivate open-mindedness, curiosity, empathy and tolerance. Supporting and enabling these skills and qualities has arguably never been more important.

The three Trusts and Foundations are working together on Engaging Libraries Phase 2: a programme to support public libraries run public engagement projects on research on health, culture and society. We will offer:

  • funding for libraries to run a public engagement project; [1]
  • support with identifying and partnering with a research institution;
  • a Development Programme with access to experts through a series of workshops; and
  • support with evaluation and measuring impact.

Why public libraries?

As welcoming and trusted spaces that are open to all, free at the point of access and with a rich heritage of skills and expertise in connecting people to ideas and to one another, we think public libraries are the ideal  space to bring people into contact with exciting ideas and broaden horizons, and to enable people to have challenging discussions on difficult issues. By working in partnership with researchers we hope that public libraries will establish fruitful new relationships  that will extend beyond the life of this programme. Sustainability is about more than a project, it’s about building partnerships that can lead to new and different projects again in the future.

Why researchers?

There is a growing appetite from the university sector to demonstrate their civic role by sharing the outputs of research, or including people in it. They generate and house ideas and ideas-makers. We hope Engaging Libraries Phase 2 will allow research to be more open and accessible to the public – or even for people to have a role in shaping research – with researchers working and engaging in the community, through the public library.[2]

What do we mean by public engagement?

Public engagement for us means providing engaging opportunities for the public to consider and debate ideas: two-way activities such as workshops, festivals, joint writing or arts projects or debates. We are particularly interested in the outcomes of the public engagement activities that libraries undertake – what difference has the engagement made to the people, partners and communities involved? For example, have the activities given people a new way of looking at an idea, or have they challenged the way people think or feel about something?

Public libraries can work with one or more partners to deliver their public engagement activities, such as schools, musicians or artists.  The only specific requirement is that all applicants partner with a researcher or team of researchers.

How is Engaging Libraries Phase 1 different from Engaging Libraries Phase 2?

Engaging Libraries Phase 1 ran 2017-18 and supported 14 projects across 16 public library services.

We are offering more money and more support than Phase 1 in the form of a new Development Programme: a series of face-to-face workshops and an online network. The Development Programme will include substantial input from external experts, stimulating learning and discussion on topics such as evaluation, partnership working, strategic thinking and marketing. We are also removing the restriction of the number of applications that can come from a service – although be warned: it’s unlikely that more than two projects per service would be funded!

In terms of the programme scope, we have expanded the topic areas from Phase 1 to now include health, society and culture. This  reflects the wider areas in which public libraries have both an interest and an impact, and  a wider set of issues that relate to the human experience. Libraries are free to choose which topic they would prefer to focus on, based on what has a resonance for their service and community. We are also open to public library services bringing their own definitions and ideas of what topics come under health or society and culture.

The other important change for Phase 2 is that participating public libraries must work in partnership with a researcher or a research team. We saw some really productive and exciting work come out of joint working between public libraries and universities in the first phase of projects. There is broad interest in this agenda and we are keen for public libraries to have the opportunity to engage with it.

We have a new set of  criteria against which applications to  Phase 2 projects are will be assessed, reflecting these changes to the programme. Please make sure you refer to our Engaging Libraries Phase 2 Application Pack to see our criteria.


Applications are open now until Wednesday 25th September. You can find out more in our Application Pack and FAQs, and we’d love to hear from you. You can email the team at [email protected]

Please get in touch if you have any queries or want to chat an idea through: we’re happy to help!

[1] Up to £25,000 for applications from a single service and up to £50,000 for joint applications.

[2] Whilst the focus of the programme is public library-university partnerships, we would accept applications to work with an Independent Research Organisation.