[Editors note: This is a guest post from Andy Wright, who is on secondment at the Wellcome Trust]
I’m over 4 months into my 6 month secondment at Wellcome and feel very much like I’m now at the business end of the deal. My brief is to explore commonalities between the SCL Universal offers, and the overarching aims of the Wellcome Trust, with a view to identifying funding and development opportunities for public libraries.
I’ve done the learning about Wellcome bit, I’ve done the teaching Wellcome staff all about public libraries bit, and I’ve done the scoping.
The scoping exercise culminated in a half day workshop where I brought together 35 staff from across the sector to explore some of the ideas I had for projects to develop the libraries health offer in collaboration with Wellcome. Delegates included representatives from the Libraries Taskforce, SCL (each of the Universal Offers was represented), ACE, The Reading Agency, the wider public library service including some members of the Universal Health Offer group, the British Library and, of course, several members of staff at Wellcome. I had also met representatives from Public Health England and Health Education England and their input contributed to the event although they were unable to attend.
I split the delegates into five groups and, after some lively discussion and debate, their final task was to come up with a five minute pitch which catalysed their very best idea relating to libraries and health. These were then pitched to my “Dragons”, ably played by Ciara Eastell (President of SCL), Debbie Hicks (Creative Director at The Reading Agency) and Simon Chaplin (Director of Culture and Society and a member of the Executive Board at The Wellcome Trust), who coincidentally happen to make up my secondment steering group.
Although all five of these “Dragon’s Den” style pitches were different in scope and content, there were similarities and common themes – they were all focused on the potential to develop a model to enable public libraries to connect with health practitioners / academics / science and the arts holistically on the subject of health, using the unique strengths of a public library – its physical location, knowledge transfer potential, the diversity of people using libraries and its role as a community hub – in a creative and imaginative way.
There was a real energy and enthusiasm in the room, and people made positive comments about how the day had been shaped and the breadth of ideas and thinking that came out of it. One of the things I’ve learned on this secondment is how much weight Wellcome put on what they refer to as catalysing conversations. Their whole ethos is very much around having a coffee and a chat, not as a way of making the working day go by quicker, but as a way of generating ideas, stimulating thought, and encouraging true innovation. Those things can only happen if you create the right environment, and that’s what the workshop was all about – getting a bunch of bright people in a room together and talking about libraries as they relate to health.
Over the next two months, I’ll shape proposals for pilot projects based on some of the key ideas which were generated by the Dragon’s Den pitches and the wider work I’ve been tackling on the secondment. I’ve already put together a draft vision for the projects and am getting feedback on this ready for the next steering group meeting in mid-April.
It all feels timely given that purpose three in the newly-released draft Libraries Taskforce document Libraries Deliver - Ambition for public Libraries in England 2016 - 2021 is all about Health and Wellbeing. My vision, with Wellcome and SCL support, would use a series of pilot projects to move this work into whole new areas, developing and extending existing good practice; building a stronger evidence base for libraries’ work in delivering better health outcomes; devising innovative ways of working with health authorities and other organisations, with the ultimate aim of strengthening the public library as a key resource for improving health and well-being.
The next step is to build on that work; to present a compelling case, to get a range of already interested partners enthused, and to put some meat on the bones of what is a fantastic opportunity to make a positive contribution to one vital aspect of the work of public libraries at a time when stories of cuts and austerity make more regular headlines. I’m confident that my secondment will deliver real tangible opportunities for public libraries and consolidate the sector’s relationship with the Wellcome Trust.
Please note, this is a guest blog. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of DCMS or the Libraries Taskforce