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Nick Barley in front of Edinburgh International Book Festival marketing materials

The Institute for Medical Humanities (IMH) and the Department of English Studies are delighted to announce the appointment of our new Professor in Practice, Nick Barley.

Nick Barley is the Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, widely regarded as the world’s largest and most dynamic book festival.  

The Book Festival, which this year celebrates its 40th anniversary, brings world-renowned thinkers, writers, performers and activists from around the globe to Edinburgh to participate in a three-week programme of events. It makes a profound contribution to the cultural life of the UK by engaging audiences in their hundreds of thousands, including through an ambitious community outreach programme and hybrid events.  

Since his appointment as Director and Chief Executive of the Book Festival in 2009, Nick has built its international reputation as one of the world’s leading literary festivals by increasing the diversity and capacity of the Book Festival programme, growing audiences, and ensuring financial sustainability including through the challenges of the pandemic.  

In 2010 he founded Word Alliance – a partnership of literary festivals in Melbourne, Beijing, Jaipur, Berlin, St Malo, New York and Toronto – serving as its President until 2019. Prior to joining EIBF, Nick served as Executive Director of The Lighthouse: Scotland’s Centre for Architecture, Design and the City, and as a publisher and editor.  

The IMH’s relationship with Nick began with Hearing the Voice – an interdisciplinary research project on voice-hearing funded by the Wellcome Trust (2012–2022). Our collaborations ranged from themed Book Festival events and workshops, to the commissioning of  new works, to a ground-breaking empirical study of the way writers and readers experience the voices, presence and agency of fictional characters. The early stages of this collaborative process were documented in Working Knowledge: Arts-Research Collaborations 

Earlier this year, the IMH was awarded a £9 million Wellcome grant to develop the Discovery Research Platform for Medical Humanities (DRP-MH). The Edinburgh International Book Festival will be a key ‘site’ and partner on the Platform, initially focused on piloting an ambitious study of the relationship between reading, the imagination and mental health.  

The study will gather data from readers and Book Festival audiences to create the ReaderBank – the world’s biggest open-source databank of information on reading habits, mental imagery, and wellbeing.  

Nick is stepping down from his role as Book Festival Director in September 2023 but in his capacity as Professor in Practice, he will make a vital contribution to the DRP-MH and in particular its international reach and potential. His joint appointment to IMH and the Department of English Studies will be of great value to staff and students, particularly of Creative Writing, as Nick will be sharing his extensive knowledge of the literary and publishing worlds through guest lectures and seminars.  

Of his new position, Nick said: “I’m very excited about this appointment. Working across the Department of English Studies and the Institute for Medical Humanities will give me a wonderful opportunity to contribute to excellence in both research and teaching – and I’ll do everything I can to champion our work together through my international networks. In particular, I will support the development of ground-breaking research into reading and the imagination through the new ReaderBank project, a mass research exercise that will be rolled out at literary festivals all over the world.” 

Angela Woods, Director of the Institute for Medical Humanities and the DRP-MH, commented: “Our collaborations with Nick have been fuelled by his profound curiosity about imagination, passion for books, and commitment to reimagining the public life of research, so we are delighted to have the opportunity to work with him more closely on the Discovery Research Platform for Medical Humanities and in his new role as Professor in Practice.” 

Ben Alderson-Day, Associate Professor in Durham’s Department of Psychology and Co-Director of the DRP-MH said: “It’s fantastic to have the chance to work with Nick again. His presence in the team will push us to be even more bold and creative in our research, via ambitious collaborations like the ReaderBank project.” 

John Nash, Head of the Department of English Studies remarked: “The Department of English Studies is delighted to strengthen its close relationship with the Institute for Medical Humanities by having Nick Barley as its first ever Professor in Practice.  Nick has tremendous experience as leader of one of the world's most important book festivals. This appointment gives us an opportunity to further develop our relationships with a range of literary and cultural organisations in the UK and internationally, for the benefit of students, staff and the wider English Studies community.” 

The IMH and the Department of English Studies warmly welcome Nick to Durham University and look forward to working with him in the future.