Step 2

Starting a project partnership
    What comes first? The project idea or the partnership?
    Ideas for public engagement
    How do I find a public engagement partner?

    You can find a project partner using our interactive map

    What if I can’t find the partner I need in the directory?

    Don’t worry if you can’t find a suitable partner on the map. Two different library services talk below about how they found higher education partners even though they don’t have any local institutions: 

    Claire Pickering, Wakefield Libraries
    Victoria Varley and Kate Smyth, Oldham Libraries

    Sign up to newsletters and join online communities: 

    • NCCPE public engagement network 
    • The Library Innovators’ network is a good place to ask for recommendations from library peers. If you work in a public library you can request to join this group by emailing 

    Find people who can help you:

    • Higher education librarians can be a good starting point for navigating a higher education institution (HEI)
    • Search for the public engagement team in a HEI you are interested in working with
    • Find a specific academic and contact them directly.
    Key messages to engage HEIs

    In the videos below, academics talk about the positive impact partnering with libraries on public engagement has had for them:

    Dr Claire Nally, University of Northumbria talks about her partnership with Redbridge, Kirklees and Newcastle libraries on Death Positive Libaries.
    Dr Lynn Duncan, University of Dundee talks about her partnership with Glasgow Libraries on Sharing Stories.
    Professor Hugh Coe, University of Manchester talks about his experiences of working with Calderdale Libraries on Something in the Air?
    Broaden reach. Evidence shows that public libraries reach audiences that HEIs find difficult to engage with, including women, older people, families, disabled and D/deaf people.

    What's the evidence?

    93% of HEI partners involved in Engaging Libraries agreed that working with libraries had helped them reach new audiences.

    'We wouldn’t have the same type of access [to audiences as libraries]. And the relationships the library has built with the community are really good.'

    Dr Lynne Duncan, University of Dundee

    Increase the relevance of research to the public. When the public participate in public engagement activities in libraries they can see how research is relevant to their lives and can access information or research they would not normally see.

    What's the evidence?

    67% of the public felt that Engaging Libraries had made research or complex information more relevant to their lives.

    'I think I’ve got a better idea of what university researchers do. I can’t say I understand it all, but I definitely can appreciate that it’s useful and needed'

    (Member of the public)

    Build local community partnership networks. Working with public libraries can help higher education institutions to build networks with a wide range of community partners and organisations that libraries already work with regularly.

    What's the evidence?

    93% of HEI partners agreed that the Engaging Libraries project had helped them strengthen their relationship with the community.

    'The libraries have so many connections to various local youth groups, and we have some psychologists that are interested in applying for some funding in collaboration with those youth groups. It’s sometimes very difficult for them to source groups to work with, so actually having libraries as a mediator in the introduction has been fantastic.'

    (Camilla Irvine-Fortescue, Public Engagement Project Coordinator, Heriot-Watt University)

    Develop public engagement practice by trying new approaches and activities in collaboration with public library professionals who are skilled in engaging their communities.

    What's the evidence?

    85% of HEI partners agreed that they can describe what effective public engagement ‘looks like’ more confidently as a result of the Engaging Libraries programme. 

    'It’s been a massive extension on the work that I’ve been doing to this point' (Dr Stacey Pitsillides, VC Senior Fellow, Northumbria University)

    Get ideas for new research. Public engagement in public libraries can have a direct impact on researchers, sparking ideas and making new connections in the community.

    What's the evidence?

    85% of HEI partners who took part in Engaging Libraries agreed that they had been inspired to be more responsive to the needs of the community.

    'I have started talking about doing different kinds of research. I think, especially with something like menopause it is very easy to work in an echo chamber of women of a similar age, or a similar kind of background… blue collar women, for example, we know very little about, we know very little about what younger women and men think about it. And that was something this project really helped push'

    (Dr Vanessa Beck, Associate Professor in Work and Organisation, Bristol University)

    For more information on the drivers of partnerships for HEIs, the Higher Education and Public Libraries: Partnerships Research Independent Mind report by Arts Council England is very useful. 


    'I’m not sure I would have been as happy to get up and go to the nearest university to sit in on a discussion'
    Member of the public
    Engaging HEIs – what they want to know about you:
    • Which audiences you routinely engage
    • Where your libraries are located and what facilities they have
    • What online presence you have and who engages with it
    • What types of public engagement events you usually run e.g. rhyme times, job clubs, knit and natter sessions, cultural activities etc.
    Engaging HEIs - things you might need to know about them:
    • Timeframes for setting up projects can be very different to public libraries – they can be a lot longer and activity can take place over numerous years
    • Resource and capacity constraints: Academics tend to be very busy and their time can be very constrained – this can affect communication and engagement from the HEI
    • Academic research is driven by topic/subject matter – they need to know that you understand what research they do and that you are interested in engaging with this
    • Many HEIs work across wide geographies – your local HEI might not be the most relevant partner, depending on the focus of your public engagement topic.
    How do I develop successful partnerships?

    There are many other toolkits available to help you develop and deliver successful partnership working, including:

    Top tips for successfully working with HE partners

    In the videos below two different library services talk with, and about, their higher education partners and give tips for building strong partnerships:

    Sibohan Kneale, London Borough of Sutton Cultural Services
    Glasgow Libraries and the University of Dundee

    These tips have been developed based on feedback from library services and higher education partners who have worked together on projects.


    • Agree shared goals and aims with your HE partner. Understand what the aims of the researchers are and make sure you are both getting something out of the project.
    • Have confidence in your own knowledge and expertise.
    • Communicate regularly through the lifetime of the project. Online communication tools make this a lot easier to fit into busy days. 
    • Ensure that the library service is credited alongside the academic partner in marketing materials and literature about the project. Agreeing branding guidelines at the outset will ensure you get credit alongside your academic partner for your work.
    • Have an open mind. You may have an idea about a partnership or project at the beginning but this may change as the project develops. Be open to changing your approach, but keep in mind your goals and aims.
    • Look for academic partners you feel you can work well with. If your preferred choice is too busy or isn’t interested in your project then you may need to look for someone different.
    • Be prepared to translate academic language for your audiences. Not all academic partners are used to preparing materials and workshops for the public. You can also work with public engagement professionals to support academics so that the public can engage with their work.
    'We developed a fantastic relationship with our academic researcher. It was very much a two-way process with us both using our skills and areas of expertise to enhance our project and make it a success'
    Library staff member
    Staff member


    • Undervalue what libraries bring to the project. You are likely to have a stronger understanding of communities and public engagement skills than many HE partners.
    • Defer to academic partners because they have a higher ‘status’ as an institution. You may know more than them about the communities you are engaging, and the best way to do it.
    • Be afraid to disagree. Honest and open communication will make the partnership stronger
    • Expect HEIs to work to the same timescales as libraries. As mentioned before, they can take a lot longer to initiate and deliver projects than libraries.
    • Expect academics to have an up-to-date understanding of public libraries. You may need to bring them up to speed about what libraries offer these days.
    'When I first had a meeting with [the academic partner] and they were talking, I was thinking I don’t even know what that word means. And in the beginning, we said ‘well they must be right, we’ll leave it like that’ and then after a bit we thought, no, the public won’t know what that means. So it’s given us the confidence to say ‘we know what we’re doing and we know about the people we deal with’.'
    Library staff member
    Staff member