Public Libraries: engaging the “incurably curious” about health

July 3, 2018

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By Andy Wright, Carnegie Associate

Back in June 2016 I was delighted to attend the CILIP Health Libraries Group conference where I delivered a workshop with Debbie Hicks, Creative Director at the Reading Agency, about the SCL (now Libraries Connected) Universal Health Offer. As part of that workshop, I talked a little about the secondment I’d just completed on behalf of SCL at Wellcome, a global charitable foundation committed to improving health through helping great ideas to thrive. As I described Wellcome’s fantastic library, gallery and events space – The Reading Room – I reflected how public libraries were potentially great places to deliver similar events and activities “for the incurably curious” on the topics of health and wellbeing.

Fast forward to June 2018, exactly two years later, and I could not have been more thrilled that myself and my Carnegie colleague Rachel Heydecker had been invited to deliver one of the Friday morning keynote addresses at the CILIP Health Libraries Group Conference. The topic? Engaging Libraries: a Wellcome and Carnegie UK Trust partnership programme designed to give public libraries across the UK and Ireland the opportunity to move beyond health promotion and explore dynamic and discursive ways to connect people with health and wellbeing.

Great things have happened since the launch of Engaging Libraries in October 2017. We now have 14 Engaging Libraries projects across 17 public library services that have encouraged debate, curiosity and conversation about health through comic cons, theatre performances, death cafes, hula hooping and animation workshops and much more. There has even been a science ceilidh! Through these activities, public libraries have encouraged discussion around a range of topics including mental health, body image and ageing.

In addition to presenting at the Conference, just being there provided an opportunity to network and learn from a number of key staff from the world of health libraries. In turn, we had the opportunity to both celebrate public libraries’ role in providing health information and to challenge libraries to build on this and use the public library’s unique position as a trusted space to start conversations and debate; to actively cultivate curiosity about health and wellbeing.

This week (2 – 8 July) is Health Information Week, a multi-sector campaign led by the Knowledge for Healthcare department of Health Education England, to promote the good quality health resources that are available to the public. This campaign aims to encourage partnership working across sectors and benefit all staff and the public by raising awareness of the resources that are available to them.

The need to encourage partnerships resonates. The key thing that struck me at the CILIP Health Conference, as it did two years ago, was that whilst there are pockets of joint working going on across the country, there are real opportunities to take a more strategic approach. Again, I am struck by the how the Engaging Libraries projects are already pushing boundaries with the range of external partners with whom they are working.

Given the aim of the campaign, Health Information Week provides us all with the ideal opportunity to reflect on how we can move towards a more strategic approach to cross-sector working – not just to provide information but to engage people creatively about health to get them thinking and asking questions.