Universities and public libraries engaging society

Universities and public libraries have a key local role - Georgina Bowyer explains how they have worked in partnership during the pandemic to support local access to information.

Georgina Bowyer is a Policy and Development Officer at Carnegie UK Trust

Both public libraries and universities are key assets in their places: as well as being physical meeting places offering tangible resources and opportunities for learning, they contribute to the social fabric of their place and their communities.

They provide a point of connection for people; a doorway to information and improved knowledge; tools to help us better understand ourselves and the world we live in; and opportunities to look beyond the immediacy of what we face and discover new horizons. In the context of coronavirus, both universities and public libraries have faced barriers in using traditional face-to-face methods of sharing knowledge and facilitating learning – yet both are needed more than ever. In facing the challenges together, public libraries and universities are finding unique opportunities to engage communities with their work.

During the coronavirus crisis, the requirement for accurate and reliable information has been underlined and exacerbated. In the digital world, access to “information” is widespread, but knowing who and what to trust is incredibly difficult. The crisis has also deepened divisions: we have seen inequalities widen in terms of finances, living standards, and access to education. Race inequalities and the toxic nature of embedded structural and institutional racism have also been brought to the fore.

Civic commonalities

Libraries and universities cannot be bystanders as society wrestles with these challenges. Both have opportunities to provide physical and digital spaces for learning and dialogue. Furthermore the blending of skills and resources can bring improved reach, greater accessibility and inclusion. It can also bring engagement that is both embedded in robust and reliable information and presented in a dynamic and exciting way.

The commonalities between public libraries and universities are why the Carnegie UK Trust, Wellcome and the Wolfson Foundation partnered to develop the Engaging Libraries programme.

Engaging Libraries supports public libraries to work with universities to develop and deliver public engagement activities on research on health, society and culture. There are fourteen library and university partnerships currently participating, from all around the UK. The cohort has experienced a plethora of challenges in continuing to develop public engagement projects in the current context. However, the opportunity for libraries and universities to work together to connect with communities is one that has become increasingly relevant and valuable.

During 2020, two of our Engaging Libraries projects swiftly adapted to the digital environment and delivered online activities. Falmouth Library collaborated with academics from the European Centre for Environment and Human Health at the University of Exeter, and FoAM – a non-profit organisation bringing together art, science, nature and everyday life. The partnership ran AccessLab workshops online – where scientists and citizens discussed research around climate, environment and health. The workshops supported the public to gain skills that will better enable them to access and use scientific research in their everyday lives. The project engaged small groups of people, in considerable depth with a high degree of interaction.

Meanwhile, the Tickets to the Afterlife project ran three author events and a Death Cafe over Zoom during the first national lockdown. The project explores the concept of libraries as “death positive” spaces and is run by the library services in Redbridge, Kirklees and Newcastle in collaboration with Northumbria University. The work investigates whether people’s attitudes to death change depending on where they live, on their cultural backgrounds or both. In comparison, these activities have a broader reach, engaging members of the public from all over the country, and of course they connected people with a topic of particular salience during the global pandemic.

Face to face

Going forward, Engaging Libraries participants have the opportunity to design physical modes of engagement, or to offer a blend of digital and in-person activities. Digital activities bring the possibility of a much increased reach and the ability to bring in experts from anywhere in the world. This allows libraries to connect with the universities who have the best expertise on the topic they are interested in – and visa versa. The move to digital public engagement can also reduce costs for academics in terms of less travel and time commitment to be involved with a library event.

However there is also much to be valued about the local approach, and embedding activities in the geographical community. Many of the projects have chosen to work with universities local to them, and have an enhanced opportunity for place-based working whereby the library and university can share contacts and resources to help build presence and reputation in the locality. For example, in Manchester the public library is working with academics to engage communities on the topic of multilingualism, and inviting the public to access and reflect on research about Manchester’s language diversity.

Whether engaging in-person and delivering through place-based collaborations, or engaging online to connect with leading experts or reach large and diverse audiences, partnerships between universities and public libraries have great potential. The blend of knowledge, skills and resources can connect people to research on crucially important topics. Whilst this not only has benefits for those people and their communities, the involvement of the general public can also inform and enrich research for the future.

To find out more about the Engaging Libraries programme you can visit the Carnegie UK Trust website here.

One response to “Universities and public libraries engaging society

  1. Good article. In Coventry we are working very fruitfully with the public library on projects for our year as City of Culture!

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