The European Cultural Foundation has just launched an open call for the Europe Challenge 2022, after finishing the pilot edition with a small group of libraries, who went through a year-long programme and helped to co-design the scheme, along with the partners Demsoc, Public Libraries 2030 and OBA (Amsterdam Public libraries).  

We interviewed the Europe Challenge team, Nicola Mullenger and Olga Alexeeva. If you’re interested to know more about how you can join and be part of a Europe-wide citizen-led change, working with your communities, read on: Deadline to apply 27 May 2022.

IFLA: Can you describe the Europe Challenge in a few words? Where did the idea come from?

Nicola and Olga: The Europe Challenge is a way of saying: the best way for Europe to solve its biggest challenges is by recognising the power people have in their own communities and their own spaces. That’s why it’s about communities working with libraries. Libraries are safe and trusted spaces, and are homes for the knowledge we all share. At ECF, we work with public spaces, like libraries, all the time, so we recognise their incredible power.

What sort of challenges do you see applicants as being able to address?

We are open to a broad range of issues that libraries and communities want to work on, as long as they matter to you and can be shared with other Europeans. In the pilot year of the Europe Challenge there was a huge range just among the seven participating libraries and their communities. This included challenges on: active citizenship, access to knowledge & digital transition, public health and technology, inclusion & equal rights, environmental sustainability of urban areas, women and technology, and democratisation of our public space.

This year, we will be looking specifically at challenges that address the library as a safe cultural space for dialogue, diversity and understanding between different people, and/or that concern access to trusted information and curated knowledge for better informed opinion and debate in society

The Europe Challenge 2022 will welcome both immediate and urgent community responses (that can also include specific emergency actions for refugees and others affected by the war in Ukraine) and longer term actions addressing general issues and needs of communities.

What do you see as the unique potential of libraries to contribute to the Foundation’s goals?

We were founded in 1954 at a time when the Europe of today was just an idea: Europe then was recovering from a huge war. Our founder, Denis de Rougemont, believed that without a shared sense of common destiny for all Europeans, the journey towards a more unified ideal of Europe would be difficult if not impossible to realise. Today, we find ourselves again facing a huge set of challenges – and that sense of common destiny is just as important. Then, as now, we stand for a Europe where all Europeans can live, express themselves, work and dream freely, in diversity and harmony. Libraries, as homes to shared, trusted knowledge, and places where we can meet others, experience together and collaborate with each other, are, for us, one of the most commonplace and accessible representations of that – as ‘microcosms of democracy’ (quote Ieva Morica, Director of the Lampa Conversation Festival, Latvia). They are vital to our goals!

Which stories have already marked you most?

All of the libraries and communities that took part in the pilot edition of the Europe Challenge brought forward inspiring ideas and projects. For example, one library and community used beekeeping to explore urban biodiversity and ecological change in a small town near Barcelona – read more here about God Save the Queen. Another library worked together with a drop-in centre for people who have no homes in Aarhus, and employed a social librarian from that community that helped to shape the development of library services, for more read Tales from the Street .

Do you have particular goals for types of libraries to get involved?

We welcome every kind of library  – based in Europe* – to get involved – from public libraries, to mobile, rural, school, university, and prison libraries, municipal and national libraries. The libraries have to be working with a community to be able to apply.

What would participating libraries gain from being part of the learning-by-doing process?

There are lots of skills that will be developed by libraries – including local change-making, co-production, facilitation and network development. But it’s also about bringing skills and perspectives into the library from elsewhere in a new way. One of the libraries, Kranj City Library, in Slovenia, that took part in the pilot, put it really well: ‘Involving the local community in the planning of activities offers you the possibility of networking with library users and local communities that you otherwise would not reach. Such cooperation means activating the local community, strengthening the importance of public space, addressing topics that are important for active citizenship and broadening perspectives by connecting different skills.’ 

Is this an approach that you think could be taken up more broadly?

It depends a little on what we mean by ‘approach’. The plan is for the Europe Challenge to grow, with more libraries taking part each year. So that we can scale this kind of innovation to more and more people. So, yes – I guess we would also say that! But I would say that this approach doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to people. It is about people meeting and sharing their difficulties and working together to solve them. In some way, of course, libraries have always been at the heart of this!

Find out more on the Europe Challenge website:

Join the Q&A session on 19 May 2022 at 2pm Amsterdam time.

* Europe is regarded in cultural terms and in and beyond the official European Union member states. We understand Europe as a genuinely cultural endeavour, a community of people, their ideas, visions and social dynamics. A true civil society that relates to each other across political borders, shares in mutual solidarity and assumes its global responsibilities around the world.