July 27, 2021

Engaging Libraries – Reflections on the programme so far

by Rachel Heydecker, Policy and Development Officer, Carnegie UK Trust

Over the past 15 months, public library services have been continually adapting and redesigning their offer to respond to the changing nature of the COVID-19 pandemic. They have shown creativity and innovation; pivoting to deliver interactive homework support, online activities for all ages, contacting library members to offer support or wellbeing calls and a huge range of other activities that have had a positive impact on the public.

Daily life has changed significantly for many people, in different ways, at different stages of the pandemic. The public have been prompted to think more about loss. Issues such as misinformation and social isolation have become increasingly prominent. More positively, many areas across the UK have seen an increase in community action and spirit.

It is in this context that 16 library services around the UK have been taking part in the Engaging Libraries programme, supported by Carnegie UK. The programme sees public libraries working in partnership with higher education institutions and community partners to bring the public into contact with research across a range of health, societal and cultural topics. You can find out more about the participating projects here.

The programme aims to allow public libraries to build upon and explore their civic role as safe spaces for participation and engagement with research. In this time of profound change and challenge, the programme’s aims to bring people into contact with new ideas and open minds feel more important than ever.

The COVID-19 pandemic required the programme participants to redesign many elements of their project plans and public engagement activities, to allow for activities to be delivered online, or in a smaller scale face-to-face way. Partnerships with academics and community partners also faced changes due to the widespread impact of the pandemic.

We are now able to share some of the findings from activities held from the start of the programme to May 2021 across a range of projects. We can share this information due to the work of both the participating projects delivering activities and gathering evidence, and our independent evaluator Marge Ainsley.

As many projects delayed activities due to COVID-19, these findings are based on 8 out of the 14 projects which had held public engagement events by May 2021 and had the opportunity to collect data through a survey used across all projects. You can read our previously published findings from two of the Engaging Libraries projects which transformed and delivered activities online during the first national lockdown.

What we’ve found so far

While not all of the Engaging Libraries projects were delivering activities during the time that data was collected, we are already able to see how libraries and their partners are energising and empowering the public.

  • People are coming into contact with new ideas…: 85% of survey respondents agreed that they had learned something new, ranging from practical skills such as how to use an air quality monitor or how to better manage their own menopause symptoms, to how to plan for a death, or be better informed about how to deal with their or someone else’s grief.
  • … and they’re more interested in the topic afterwards: 81% of survey respondents agreed with the statement ‘It made me more interested in/curious about a topic.’
  • People are being inspired to do something after their Engaging Libraries experience: Almost 70% of people said they would talk to others about their experience, and over half of respondents said they would research the topic or something they had learnt about in more detail.
  • Engaging Libraries activities are helping people to be more open-minded: 88% of respondents agreed with the statement ‘It made me think differently or in more depth about a topic.’ Here’s what a few participants said:
    • “This will change the way I think both personally and professionally”
    • “It made my own experience make a lot more sense, things sort of clicked.”
    • “I hadn’t thought about the air quality in our home until I got the monitor and now I’m telling my husband to keep opening the windows all the time!”
  • People are more likely to try other events or activities at (or organised by) a library as a result of their experience: 87% said they would visit their library for events based on their experience of Engaging Libraries. Many expressed high satisfaction with the events and said the events they attended provided an open and welcoming environment to discuss topics which people would not ordinarily have access to. This is testament to the work of library staff and partners in creating engaging and quality events and activities during a pandemic.
  • People’s perceptions of public libraries have altered: Over 60% of survey respondents agreed with the statement ‘I’ve changed my views on what libraries offer as a result of my experience’. This suggests that Engaging Libraries could be contributing towards a change in perception in what libraries offer.
  • It’s not just the public whose views of libraries are changing. The views of university partners involved in Engaging Libraries has also been affected: “Working on this project has really opened my eyes to the important role libraries are playing and can continue to play in local communities. As an organisation and location, libraries have so much trust and credibility —something that is really hard to earn for other organisations.”

A word on digital: the ‘Zoom’ effect 

The vast majority of the public engagement activities which took place up to May 2021 were held online.[1] This has had some unintended consequences, such as projects reaching further afield than their local area – survey responses were received from Germany, Australia, Dubai and beyond. We also evidenced benefits of public engagement activities being delivered online, including people being able to fit an online event in around other commitments and people finding this more convenient, as well as audience members reporting greater confidence in asking questions in an online setting.

Projects remain aware of the need to reach and include the digitally excluded, and we continue to encourage them to consider how best to reach and engage with their target audience. Many of the projects who had not started delivery during the timeframe of these findings are hoping to hold at least some face-to-face activities.

Looking ahead 

Over the summer, the Engaging Libraries projects will continue to deliver events and activities, with the programme coming to a close in November 2021. We will continue to support library services, evaluate the experiences of those who attend events and encourage library services to integrate learning and resources from their projects into their wider service offer. We look forward to sharing more about Engaging Libraries throughout the year.


[1] Other activities involved telephone conversations or postal interactions.