Community library events give faculty and researchers a forum for public engagement

By Terry Kosdrosky

Public Engagement & Impact


A blustery, snowy weeknight didn’t stop a good-sized crowd from packing a recent Ann Arbor District Library forum for a discussion on health equity. Leading the conversation were Washtenaw County Commissioner Felicia Brabec, county health officer Ellen Rabinowitz, and Paul Fleming, a professor at U-M’s School of Public Health.


They shared information and answered questions about disparities in health access and outcomes in the area, and talked about ways the county is trying to reduce inequality. Fleming discussed his research on how anti-immigration rhetoric and inconsistent enforcement prevents immigrants — even ones here legally — from seeking healthcare.


Interest in the event — part of the District Library’s Sustainable Ann Arbor Forum — underscores the appetite people have for direct interaction with experts. The informal setting allows two-way discussion and the ability to share different ideas on a topic.


As libraries host more of these interactive forums, the discussions have  become prime venues for academics to engage with the public. It’s a fun, relatively easy way to share research with a general audience and to learn more about community concerns.


“With an opportunity like this you get to see your research from another lens,” said Fleming. “I’m not talking to another researcher or even an immigration rights activist. It’s real interaction with all kinds of people, and I don’t always have the chance to do that. So I was really happy to do it when they reached out and asked me.”


Ann Arbor District Library Events Manager Tim Grimes said the Sustainable Ann Arbor Forum is one of several ongoing events that feature U-M faculty speakers. School for Environment and Sustainability Dean Jonathan Overpeck will speak at the March 21 forum, and SEAS professor Tony Reames is scheduled to present on April 18.


In addition, U-M Department of Psychology faculty present at the monthly Exploring the Mind events, and the library partners with the U-M Depression Center for Bright Nights, a series of Q&A panels throughout the year on mental health.  In fact, a study on the series showed that the forums improved attendees’ understanding of mental health issues. 


“U-M faculty have historically been an excellent resource for AADL events, and we have several longstanding series with U-M departments featuring faculty as expert speakers,” said Grimes.


Fleming said community library events are a great way to get new, research-based ideas into the public discussion. The forums also mesh well with an academic’s skills of presentation and discussion.


“I think we waste a lot of our energy, passion, and knowledge when we only talk to each other as academics,” he said. “Publishing in journals and talking at scholarly conferences is important, but if that’s all we’re doing then that knowledge never spills out into the broader conversation. No matter what topic you work on, other people should have the opportunity to know about it and ask questions about it. So if you get an opportunity like this, go for it.”