Commissioning libraries to improve public health

Sue Williamson has been head of Library Services at St Helens Council since August 2013, and has many years of experience in a variety of roles in libraries. She is a vocal and enthusiastic advocate for public libraries and their role at the heart of the community, including delivering on local agendas and supporting outcomes in health and well-being.

In 2013, Arts and Culture in St Helens – part of St Helens Library Services – was awarded a grant from Arts Council England (ACE) to deliver a programme of arts in libraries which we called Cultural Hubs. In 2015, as part of Cultural Hubs, Public Health commissioned a 12-month pilot Arts on Prescription programme, through the Alef Trust. The programme exceeded expectations in all areas and a second programme has been commissioned.

Public Health involvement

We began a conversation with Public Health in 2012, when ACE gave us a grant to deliver projects to explore the benefits of arts engagement for those suffering from mental health issues. We asked Public Health to help us by being involved in a steering group to shape the programmes and choose the artists involved.

When the money from ACE ran out, Public Health continued to support further programmes and a strong relationship developed based on recognition of outcomes, which included increased self-esteem, resilience and confidence, a lessening of social isolation, better levels of physical activity and health and increased citizenship through volunteering, education and employment.

In 2015, Library Services became part of a Public Health and Well Being Team which has helped strengthen partnerships and increase awareness of the pivotal role that libraries can play in delivering Public Health outcomes.

Arts on Prescription

Aimed at those experiencing mild to moderate stress, anxiety or depression, the Arts on Prescription programme ran from June 2015–July 2016. 53 people completed the programme and using the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale, showed an average improvement of 5.2 points at programme exit, with a social return on investment of £11.55 for every £1 spent.

Users were very positive about the benefits, feeling that expressing themselves through a variety of art forms really helped increase their well-being. Many indicated that sessions being held in libraries helped, as they viewed libraries as safe, non-judgmental and non-threatening spaces.  The social nature of the workshops was really important, as many had felt lonely and isolated because of their issues.  One participant said:

Before taking part, I felt I’d lost sense of who I was and felt I was trapped in a dark place. I can now see light again and have regained confidence in the person I used to be. The creative process is responsible and I get lost in drawing and painting for hours on end. I now feel I can join new groups and meet new people.  Without this programme, I honestly think I would still be at home feeling lost and alone in the darkness.

77% of those who completed the programme had referred themselves, and it seems clear that a programme like this is well suited to those whose initial motivation levels are high.

Putting libraries at the centre

Cultural Hubs has helped us develop libraries as cultural centres, because we commission largely local artists and run a CPD programme as an integral element.

It has also put libraries at the heart of supporting the aims of St Helens Council, which are:

  • raising and achieving aspirations
  • (having a) sustainable health and social care system
  • growing the economy
  • being connected.

The programme has also helped us to develop a reputation for a positive contribution to health and well-being, particularly for those who feel excluded.


NCVO’s Cultural Commissioning programme works with the arts and cultural sector, commissioners and policy makers to strengthen commissioning of arts and culture. Sign up to our mailing list to hear the latest updates from the programme.

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