Experiments of citizen engagement in public libraries

Experiments of citizen engagement in public libraries

Anna Paola Quaglia
Main Organisation
Other Organisations
Public Libraries 2030


"Experiments of citizen engagement in public libraries" was a pilot project run in 2021 by the European Commission’s Competence Centre on Participatory and Deliberative Democracy (CC-DEMOS) with Public Libraries 2030.

This pilot project had two ambitions.

First, to support civic experimentations in public spaces or places of recognised or emergent public significance, such as public libraries.We focused on the issues of biodiversity depletion and the making of urban green infrastructures, as this pilot project complemented another ongoing participatory project, BiodiverCities. In this regard and within this project, Public Libraries 2030 supported public libraries in Novi Sad, Lisbon and Valongo in the design and implementation of participatory activities in their cities (Rough Guide, pages 33-43).

The second ambition of this pilot project has been to support the work carried out by the CC-DEMOS on public spaces and exploration of the different participatory and deliberative formats that are ‘out there’.

The final output corresponds to a Rough Guide to Citizen Engagement in Public Libraries, published in May 2023 and available here. The document is authored by practitioners of Public Library 2030 and Lisbon Libraries Network. The rough guide explores the role of public libraries in citizen engagement processes and, more generally, in the making of democratic life. It presents case-studies and examples from across Europe of actually existing "experiments". The rough guide also e.g., offers a critical reflection on what are the ethical implications and considerations for librarians and practitioners in a citizen engagement process.

Please note that the above description is partially taken from the Rough Guide (pages 4-7). Please also note that this project''s page will only present highlights from Novi Sad, Lisbon and Valongo's case-studies.


Participation Spectrum

When and Where

Start Year
End Year
Other Country

Policy Context

Policy Stage
Context of activity
Exploratory project
Science or Policy Field


Communities or representatives involved
Public libraries (i.e. librarians)
How were the Participants selected?
Through what means citizens knew about the call for participation?
It depends on the case-study considered.


Methodology description
Detailed description is presented in the Rough Guide:
- Lisbon case study, pages 33-37;
- Novi Sad case study, pages 38-40;
- Valongo case study, pages 41-43.


Main Outcomes and Lasting Achievement
The evaluation of the activities carried out in the frame of the project illustrates that public libraries can take on a leverage role ​all along the cycle of the ​participative process​​​​:

Outreach phase - How to connect with citizens, communities, institutions
-Public libraries are open places of trust as they have the capacity to get in touch with the individual citizens and diverse groups who are using the library for different purposes.
- Public libraries have a strong and heterogeneous network with academic and socio-cultural institutions, grassroots-organisations and schools allowing them to reach a broad range of target groups.

Exchange phase - How to involve different groups into participation processes
-Public libraries can touch on topics related to societal challenges and offer a collective space of exchange and reflection. They can make use of the knowledge inherent in the libraries’ collections and facilitated by the librarians. Many different formats such as exhibitions, workshops or lectures can be used to engage different groups around a specific theme.
- Public libraries have the facilities to organise public events. Designed as public spaces they can easily welcome groups in a familiar setting.
- Public libraries have further developed online engagement tools during the COVID-19 pandemic and have the expertise to adapt them to the different audiences.
- Public libraries increasingly achieve the knowledge and techniques for successful participation processes and integrate them into their permanent working mechanisms. The idea of the library as “a third space” is deeply affecting the role of the librarian. This includes also the achievement of skills related to engagement activities.

Implementation phase - How to follow-up the outcomes
- Documentation and communication strategies are essential activities for public libraries. They are thus well placed for channelling transparent procedures for the follow-up of participation processes.
- Communities around public libraries are built from a perspective of continuity. This offers the opportunity to stay in touch with the involved groups.
How were the outcome taken up within the process they were carried out?
It depends on the case-study.
Feedback provided
Other Feedback
Each case-study followed up with citizens in a different way. For example, Novi Sad City Library co-authored a book with the local BiodiverCities expert (see https://cop-demos.jrc.ec.europa.eu/citizen-engagement-projects/novi-sad-biodivercity). Please see the Rough Guide for Citizen Engagement for Public Libraries for further details. The Rough Guide was presented by PL 2023 and Lisbon Libraries Network at the Next Library Festival that took place in Aarhus in May 2023.
Were the methodologies used elsewhere?
Methods, methodologies, approaches and tools are presented, together with examples from other case-studies, in the Rough Guide for Citizen Engagement in Public Libraries. The hope and ambition is that each case-study will offer inspiration and practical insights on how to experiment elsewhere with participatory approaches, in collaboration with public libraries.


Lessons Learn
This first pilot of experiments in citizen engagement took place during a global pandemic and challenged the participants to find alternative and innovative ways of working with their publics.

These first experiments showed us that building strong collaborations with local partners is essential, that clear alignment on goals and outcomes is a must. Thinking about long term outcomes in a co-creation process is ideal. The public library, the partners and most importantly, the citizens all remain in contact with each other long after a single event or project is concluded.

These first experiments show that there is a real possibility for libraries to be partners in enabling citizens to be active members of their communities.
​​All three libraries intend to further expand their engagement activities around biodiversity​ as it became obvious that the interest in these issues was very high. Participating groups and citizens expressed their wish to stay active and connected in this field beyond the duration of the project.​​ ​​​​

Another shared added value of the project is the enlargement of the libraries’ network, ​to include ​the academic field, the European project partners, and the local communities​​.​ The libraries concluded that the establishment of the contacts with the academic and municipal partners had opened doors for further collaboration. ​
"While each citizen engagement process and public library context may present its own unique set of questions and challenges, it is important to remember that these processes serve to address real-world issues, and build up active citizenship and a widespread culture of participation. Setbacks will be part of the process. It takes time and commitment to construct a culture of participation for all, changing the relationship between citizens and public institutions. As facilitators of such processes, it is important for public libraries to frame this not only as an exercise of citizen empowerment but also as a learning opportunity for themselves".

Concluding remarks from the Rough Guide (2023, p. 75).