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Public libraries are unique spaces in the public realm – they are open to all and provide safe, trusted spaces where people can spend time freely, without pressure to part with money or provide a reason for their presence. They also connect people to ideas and to one another – making them an excellent place for discussion and debate about all sorts of challenging subjects.
At the Carnegie UK Trust, we work with libraries as we consider them critical to improving the wellbeing of individuals and communities. Rather than give grants, we seek to change minds through influencing policy and changing lives through innovative practice and partnership work. We are currently working in partnership with Wellcome and the Wolfson Foundation on a significant new programme to support public libraries to run public engagement activities on research about health, society and culture – Engaging Libraries Phase 2.
This exciting programme builds on the legacy of a pilot project – Engaging Libraries – which supported public libraries to work with others to deliver public engagement activities which sparked curiosity and conversation about health and wellbeing in communities. We found that libraries were able to encourage conversation around difficult or taboo topics or ideas, such as death and body image, and that they seized the opportunities to forge new relationships and partnerships.
Engaging Libraries Phase 2 provides public libraries with a similar opportunity – to engage people in creative ways with topics that are relevant to them, within the broader remit of health, society and culture, working in partnership with researchers at universities.
After a competitive shortlisting and decision-making process, we were delighted to announce 14 Engaging Libraries Projects across 16 library services, which will bring research into communities, facilitate partnerships between public libraries and universities and explore a range of issues from fake news and air quality to the menopause and multilingualism.
A key part of Engaging Libraries is a Staff Development Programme, which started with a two-day Kickstarter event for all projects at the end of November. We wanted to share some of the activities and resources from the event and workshops with the wider library community.
Working in Partnership
We are lucky to be working with the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) to help the Engaging Libraries projects develop effective approaches to partnership. As part of a workshop on partnership, project staff used partnership planning cards to explore the different stages to working in partnership:
- Getting started: broken down into scoping, finding and building
- Working together: broken down into governance, delivering and reviewing
- What next: broken down into revisiting and revising, sustaining, maintaining or ending, scaling and increasing impact
Each stage was associated with various questions to ask and elements to consider.
Questions such as ‘Is this partnership right for us?’ and ‘What do we want from a partnership’ helped to stimulate discussion amongst those who are looking to start a partnership with an academic. For the projects who already had academic partners in place, conversation focussed on effective communication in partnerships, and maintaining relationships post projects. These partnership planning cards can be accessed online on the NCCPE website.
High Quality Engagement
With the projects using a variety of public engagement methods, staff were inspired by a keynote on Public Engagement from Beth Stone, Head of Learning & Audiences at the National History Museum. She spoke about the NHM’s mission to create advocates for the planet, and how they create experiences that connect people to nature and empower people to act. This was followed by an interactive workshop, focussing on the four principles of high quality engagement which should be considered to develop thoughtful, purposeful engagement that is appropriate to the needs and interests of all those involved.
Four principles of high quality engagement
Purpose is at the heart of public engagement, and the ‘why’ behind the engagement activity.
People are involved in the project as participants, and the engagement needs to be appropriate for them and framed around their needs and interests.
Process should be appropriate to the purpose and the people the activity is engaging with, and projects should be planned in a professional manner.
Evaluation should be used to both inform your approach and assess its value, encouraging learning to be embedded and improvements to be made.