Libraries and researchers: creating engaging partnerships

July 22, 2019

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By Sophie Duncan, Deputy Director, NCCPE

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.

The programme provides the opportunity – and support – for public libraries to forge relationships with researchers.  In this blog, we hear from Sophie Duncan at the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement about how public libraries might approach partnerships with researchers.

Identify a topic

Engaging Libraries provides a great opportunity to engage with researchers, and develop really thoughtful engagement opportunities for library users. To get started, you might want to identify an area of research that you are interested in – a topic or theme within the health, society and culture remit.  This could be something you have seen in the news which you think would resonate with your community, perhaps related to a new development in health, a social issue or an aspect of local history.

Identify a researcher/ research group

It can be difficult to know where to start when trying to find a researcher or research team to work with. First port of call could be looking at the website of your local university, to see what research areas they are interested in, or asking colleagues if they have any connections. Many universities employ people in Public Engagement roles such as Public Engagement Officers, or as Impact Coordinators, and they often provide a fantastic route in, and can help you locate the right people. Many departmental websites will have pages showcasing their research and researchers, and some will have a public engagement specialist listed there. Departments will have a mix of established researchers, PhD students, and so called ‘early career researchers’. In addition, lots of universities have research centres. For example, there are Wellcome funded research centres, most of which have a public engagement manager, who may be able to help you find people to work with. At the heart of great partnerships is mutual benefit – therefore you will need to be open to exploring what your researcher needs from the partnership, as well as what you need for your community.

Effective partnerships

The recent publication ‘Higher Education and Public Libraries: Partnerships Research contains examples of library and university partnerships, and captures some useful learning about how to ensure library-researcher projects work well.  These include:

  • Shared aims: the most successful partnerships are based on shared values and desired outcomes. Projects are more likely to succeed when it is clear what the partnership will set out to achieve and how this will be measured
  • Commitment: all partners want to engage and are prepared to commit resource to the partnership
  • Understanding: each side is prepared to learn each other’s language and drivers of partnership
  • Value: the partnership has a clear value to both sides that justifies the time and effort of working together. It is useful to articulate this and review it regularly
  • Reciprocity: contributions from and benefits for all sides
  • Adaptability: flexible approach to working together to respond to changes as they occur.
  • Clarity: each side knows what is expected from them and the other party, and there are dedicated contacts in each organisation and processes for managing the relationship

Mutually beneficial partnerships

Libraries and universities have a lot to offer each other.  Public libraries are experienced and skilled in delivering interesting and engaging activities and in connecting with people in their local communities. In that context, the opportunity to partner with a public library is very attractive for researchers. Meanwhile, researchers bring new, interesting ideas, evidence and data and real expertise in their area of specialism. Many researchers are keen to work in communities, perhaps to share the findings of their research with new audiences, or to find out how different groups make sense of their research, or could contribute to it. This motivation to engage with the public has been given added momentum by research funders, who are keen to ensure that what they fund creates value for the public, and that those who they fund engage with their communities in new and productive ways. The ideal Engaging Libraries project should be a partnership between a library service and a researcher that is equal and mutually beneficial.

NCCPE Support

The National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) is providing support for Engaging Libraries and can provide advice and signposting to help identify the right partner(s) for your project. To find out more, you can read the application pack here or email the Engaging Libraries team at [email protected].

We look forward to hearing from you!