Libraries Foster Civic Engagement


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Libraries are at the center of a movement to involve their communities in public discussion of the important issues facing people today.

The American Library Association launched the ALA Center for Civic Life (CCL) in 2010 in conjunction with the Kettering Foundation. The goal was to "promote community engagement and foster public deliberation through libraries."

As part of that effort, the center has been preparing libraries and librarians to hold forums for deliberation that address issues of local and national concern. The group also launched a series of training webinars, which can be viewed at the Programming Librarian website.

A key player in the initiative is ALA Past President Nancy Kranich, founder and Chair of the ALA Center for Civic Life Advisory Committee, who recently wrote, "Americans are more disconnected from each other and from the institutions of civic life than ever before."

This has manifested itself over the past 30 years, she said, in citizens not voting, hesitating to work with political parties and service organizations and attending community meetings and political events.

She wrote, "Librarians share concerns about the erosion of civic engagement and participation in our communities. Today, many are working closely with our communities to find new means to connect citizens and boost civic participation.

"This is because libraries uphold and strengthen some of the most fundamental democratic ideals of our society. We not only make information freely available to all citizens, but also foster the development of civil society."

Libraries, she noted, have hosted community-wide One Book/One Community reading clubs in cities like Seattle, Rochester, Chicago and New York. They have also forged partnerships with local museums and public broadcasting stations.

"These new services increase social capital — the glue that holds people together and enables them to build bridges to others," she said.

Other libraries have reached out to their communities to encourage public discussion.

In Virginia Beach, Va., when the aging and undersized Bayside Library needed to be replaced - and the police precinct building was faced with the same need - the library invited library patrons and the police department's Citizens Advisory Group to discuss combining the two projects. They came up with the happy solution of acquiring a small amount of additional land from a nearby hospital that would enable both buildings to be built separately, with enough room for segregated parking.

In Ohio, the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County made an effort to connect with its community, which was reeling from the loss of major industries. Working from a report by the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, which stressed the importance of safe spaces where people connect and build trust to take collective action, the library offered meeting space for the community to discuss issues facing it. 

One of the results of those discussions was the passage by voters of a referendum for additional library funds, despite the community's economic woes.

Library board President David Ritchie said, “The library had become so important to people’s lives that they were willing to go to bat for it.”

The ALA's efforts have been further spurred by its receiving a 2012 Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program Grant of $250,837 from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

ALA will partner with The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation on the first phase of a multi-phase initiative, The Promise of Libraries Transforming Communities, which will develop a sustainable national plan to transform the role of libraries in their communities by advancing community engagement and innovation.

“The ideas at the heart of this project are particularly timely for the challenges facing public libraries as they rethink their role in their changing communities,” said IMLS Director Susan Hildreth.

Maureen Sullivan, ALA president, said “The role and contribution of libraries in ensuring informed and engaged communities is critical to our society and the future of our democracy. This grant will provide librarians with the tools and training they need to lead their communities in finding innovative solutions to the challenges they face. Now is the time for librarians to assume this important leadership role. ALA very much appreciates this support from IMLS.”

More than 350 librarians will take part in a range of professional development activities planned during the grant period. The Promise of Libraries Transforming Communities is one of Sullivan’s key initiatives.

The ALA Public Programs Office (PPO) will manage the project. PPO's successful civic engagement initiatives have included the Let’s Talk About It reading and discussion series, traveling exhibitions, film discussion programs, the Great Stories CLUB, LIVE! @ your library and more. 

Looking to engage with your community? An ideal place to start is with your local library.



Community as Intellectual Space Conference sponsored by the Puerto Rican Cultural Center (PRCC) and the University of Illinois' Library School (UIUC GSLIS) Community Informatics program. Photo by Emily Barney.

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