By Keiva Hummel
In a letter to one of his contemporaries, Thomas Jefferson once wrote that “…wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government…”1 This important underpinning of democracy—a well-informed electorate—has been weakened in recent years by a variety of factors, including a growing distrust of institutions, the spread of misinformation on social media platforms and by partisan news outlets, and legislative actions to restrict access to certain books in school libraries and impose restrictions on curricula.
For these and other reasons, it is more important than ever to make balanced and accurate information available to the public, to combat false information, and to promote a more informed electorate.
Libraries represent some of the last public spaces that are accessible to all people, particularly to those individuals from populations that have been historically marginalized. They are champions of lifelong learning that provide public access to technology and foster opportunities for users to explore new ideas and satisfy their intellectual curiosity. Libraries also serve as centers of literacy and education, academic and professional development, and engagement and dialogue.
Recognizing the challenges of today and building on the many ways that libraries already serve as a valuable leader, the American Library Association (ALA) launched a new initiative in 2014 to support deepening libraries' role in community life. The initiative, Libraries Transforming Communities, seeks to strengthen libraries’ role as core community leaders by training librarians to facilitate community conversations and provide resources to support these discussions. More than ever, today’s libraries are important civic hubs that strengthen access to civic education and foster more equitable engagement among diverse populations.
Libraries and Civic Life
These days it is easier than ever to access and share immediate information with a worldwide audience, no matter the authenticity of the content. Thanks to this ability to share information so widely across a potentially massive audience, misinformation has become a much more prevalent issue over the last several years including calculated disinformation efforts to purposely spread false information.
In addition to these efforts to spread false information, legislators across the U.S. over the past year have introduced legislation (some of which has passed in certain states) to ban books and limit information on certain subjects, including laws that impose gag orders on educators. A 2016 report by PEN America documented the initial “soft censorship” that was occurring in libraries and schools at the time, and “highlighted the disproportionate targeting of books by or about people whose identities and stories have traditionally been underrepresented in children’s and young adult literature, such as people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, or persons with disabilities''.2
In the article, "Librarians as Islands of Trust", Ellen Knutson states how “the decline of trust between citizens and institutions is a long-standing concern and serious issue in democracy.”3 The impacts of misinformation and increasing censorship of historically oppressed voices, has further eroded the trust in our institutions and democracy. Libraries are particularly well-suited to support rebuilding that trust between the community and social institutions.
In general, libraries have been one of the most notable public spaces that are open and accessible to people from all paths of life. Libraries have been the spaces where people from historically excluded populations have had greater access to information and technological services, books, and free internet. In times of emergency, libraries often become de facto spaces to receive direct services and connect with aid efforts. During the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, for example, libraries responded by becoming vital lifelines to vulnerable community members, providing for immediate needs, offering food and emergency care bags, in addition to their usual library services.
ALA Project Director Samantha Oakley recently spoke on the League’s April 2022 Promising Practices Webinar: “Elevating Libraries as Civic Spaces” on the natural role libraries play in supporting the exchange of ideas and discussion. Oakley discussed, “how especially today with our increasingly siloed echo-chambered society, that means libraries must curate and host conversations themselves. Conversations are an exchange of ideas and the library is a natural home for that, in fact, your local library is almost certainly already leading conversations through a variety of means including hosting community reads, book clubs, panel discussions, and more.”
Growing Library Civic Capacity
Over the years in learning exchanges with librarians, the Kettering Foundation has sought to investigate the ways that libraries could support communities to address pressing problems. This was exemplified in a Fall 2008 engagement effort, when a series of discussions on public policy issues were hosted by the 12 Presidential Libraries of the National Archives and Records Administration in collaboration with the National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI).
"Hosting National Issues Forums at the Presidential Libraries is consistent with our emphasis on civic education," Allen Weinstein, archivist of the United States, said. "Presidential Libraries are public places and it is appropriate for citizens to engage in discussions about major public policy issues in the midst of a presidential campaign."
"Participants in a forum," the late Governor William Winter, a NIFI chairman emeritus, said, "deliberate with one another eye-to-eye, face-to-face, exploring options, weighing others' views, considering the costs and consequences of public policy decisions. In a democracy, citizens have a responsibility to make choices about how to solve problems and forums help enrich participants' thinking on public issues. By offering citizens a framework for deliberative forums, NIFI helps the public take an active role in acting on public issues."
By libraries directly engaging community members in deliberative discussions and civic action, this work is shifting libraries from archaic institutions to agents of positive change.
Libraries Transforming Communities
The Libraries Transforming Communities (LTC): Models for Change was a collaborative initiative between the American Library Association (ALA) and the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD). LTC was developed to answer a growing call from library workers for resources and professional development opportunities to learn how to do community engagement work. Resources were developed with best practices from the dialogue and deliberation field to introduce librarians to various engagement models, with the goal of enabling libraries to foster conversation, and lead change in their communities.
The initiative helped to address a critical need within the library field by developing and distributing new civic tools and resources, and providing support for librarians to engage with their communities in new ways. ALA Executive Director Tracie Hall emphasized, “It’s our job to ensure that all users have access to an array of arguments, sometimes competing arguments, so they can make their own decisions about the world and their place in it.”
As part of LTC, there have been many resources developed to support libraries of all sizes to take on the role of facilitating dialogues within their communities. These resources include rotating grant opportunities for libraries, informational webinars, and several engagement tools. All these engagement resources are available free to the public, including a facilitation guide and asynchronous e-course on how to lead community conversations with examples of dialogue and deliberation models that work well for different library types and community sizes, and much more. ALA created the website, programminglibrarian.org, to be a peer-to-peer network to engage with these civic engagement resources, facilitate networking, and share learning among programming librarians.
Library-led conversation topics range widely anywhere from large national issues to local ones, including on mental health, voting, racial justice, food access, encouraging student reading, supporting LGBTQ+ community, use of public spaces and parks, and many more.
As librarians work to foster better and more equitable community engagement efforts, case studies continue to show evidence of the good work happening across the U.S. and demonstrate what a vital position libraries hold in our communities.
A few example case studies on library programs that promote community-civic engagement were shared by ALA during the previously mentioned National Civic League webinar. Below are brief descriptions of the programs, and these stories can be heard in full in the above recording of the League’s “Elevating Libraries as Civic Spaces” webinar.
- Café LOUIE at Louisville Library: Provided community members ongoing space to discuss important topics with civic leaders.
- Owls Head Village Library in Maine: In advance of a controversial local vote on an expansion with the local airport, a professional facilitator was brought on to host a community forum due to the contentious nature of the issue.
- Pottsboro Area Library in Texas: When the Texas power grid failed after a brutal winter storm overwhelmed the system in Winter 2021, the library immediately responded by supporting the community in whatever ways were needed. This garnered trust from the community and the library then hosted community conversation about emergency weather response.
The Programminglibrarian.org site has a number of case studies. Below are three example case studies of library programs that promote civic education.
- Presidential Election, Pandemic and Polling - New Jersey's Union Public Library: NJ's Union Public Library invited a political science professor to discuss the 2020 election polling results.
- Mock Citizenship Naturalization Interviews - San José (Calif.) Public Library: This program supports community members with their journey to citizenship through mock interview prep.
- Female Veterans Art Therapy Program - Sacramento Public Library: This program series at Sacramento Public Library offers virtual art therapy for female veterans.
Many more stories of library-led engagement work can be found on the National Civic League Promising Practices database, programminglibrarian.org website, and the NCDD Resource Center.
Libraries are important civic hubs that provide greater access to higher quality information, and they are more equitable spaces because they are more inclusive and accessible than other community locations and have ample resources to support better engagement efforts. When building a community that is inclusive, libraries provide vital public spaces where all people are welcome and have opportunities to engage in local civic affairs.
All the resources for supporting community conversations including the facilitation guide, information on various conversation models, and the asynchronous e-course; can all be found on the ALA LTC website. As more libraries utilize these tools to support better community conversations and build capacity across diverse populations to be more civically engaged, their efforts will lead to a healthier and better informed democracy.
Keiva Hummel is Civic Engagement Program Director for the National Civic League.