Oleg Kagan’s comments to my July 7 post and another librarian’s comment on the Lead Pipe blog suggest the idea of public libraries becoming hubs of civic discourse is worth exploring.
Do citizens really want it?
Oleg described an unsuccessful civic program at the Will & Arial Durant Branch library in Los Angeles: “we invited the League of Woman Voters to do a program explaining ballot initiatives etc., pushed it in the community, and still got 0 people.” Does poor attendance at programs like these suggest citizens don’t want library services around civic engagement? I don’t think so. My hunch is that poor attendance is partly because informational programs don’t address what the public perceives it needs.
Generally speaking, the public has plenty of civic information and communication. We have access to regional, national and international news & opinion sources and websites for departments at every level of government. We also get frequent outreach from elected officials and non-profits via TV ads, emails and robocalls. Citizens also circulate information and commentary via mobile devices, website forms & comments, Facebook, Twitter and blogs. Yet despite all this info and communication, many of us report we’re not up on the issues and our voices are not being heard. What’s missing are personal connections around civic matters, dialogue and the messy process of sorting it all out.
I believe millions of citizens hunger for richer, more rewarding public discourse. What we need are better ways to filter, validate and contextualize information. Public libraries can play a big role in the development of new models for knowledge generation and civic engagement — if they step up to it.
Sorting things out @ your library
My sense is that citizen disengagement is a partial response to being caught in multiple informational crosshairs; being the target of commercial and political messages, pitches & pleas from non-profit organizations and the unfortunate recipients of buckshot from distant hoaxes and scandals. I’m willing to bet citizen engagement would be stronger in discourse we helped generate.
Imagine a few engaged citizens partnering with their public library to host chats in their community’s living room. Simplicity and informality would work well here, so I’d start with a basic structure of impartial facilitation (preferably by a member of the library staff) and a few agreements to help guide the conversation. The agreements might be to ask of whatever emerges as a topic of interest: 1) are we interested enough to talk about the subject again 2) what information would we need to enrich the conversation and 3) do we know anyone else who might want to join the next one?
Folks drawn to a forum like this would likely do a good job at self-moderation and be pretty resourceful about acquiring and distributing information. Their library facilitator could also provide assistance, or course. Participants would also spread the word if they felt the forum was valuable.
If the conversation series didn’t catch on, I’d encourage the library facilitator to actively find out why through participant outreach. And then I’d try another one with new citizen collaborators and new topics. As this would be new for libraries and users, it might take a few tries before the thing took hold.
I’m continually amazed at how easily non-users summarize their information needs and share ideas for how libraries could offer helpful services for them. Having people in the library for loosely structured discussions about civic topics could be incredibly fruitful for libraries as well as citizens.
One reason (of many) why this a good idea for public libraries
Librarian Emily Ford recently confessed to losing some professional mojo in a recent ItLwtLP essay and it prompted this comment:
I work in a public library. I think we should be fostering social discourse, serving as a community space, showing the community how the library can be a hub of discourse and learning, where issues of relevance to the community (e.g. economic and political) can be discussed and debated, etc. We do make some efforts in that direction, but I’d love to see those efforts amped up a hell of a lot more. I mean, honestly, the onus is on us to convince all taxpayers of our value to the community and society at-large. If we fail to provide something for everyone beyond access to free popular DVDs (and books) and services to the small portion of the population with children, then we’ve failed and have little grounds to complain when taxpayers at-large vote to cut our funding.
This hits a big nail squarely on the head: public libraries need new service offerings to attract more of the citizens who actually fund them. Let’s face it, library users are not well represented by young people entering the workforce or by 30 – 60 year old property owners who are employed full-time. Continued public library contractions seem inevitable unless more taxpaying citizens become users.
Nurturing informed, respectful civic discourse might draw us in … and it wouldn’t take a whole lot of new resources either.
What might get in the way?
I’d guess institutional culture would be the biggest barrier. Services like these would require and foster experimentation, change and new blood coming into the library. In practice, all three are fiercely resisted by public library staff, trustees and friends.
Staff education and training might also be a barrier. Think about what it would take to facilitate discussions among engaged citizens. It would require a deep and active engagement with users and information that David Lankes has termed participatory librarianship.1 Information needs arising from these discussions might involve synthesis, curation and perhaps even the creation & dissemination of high quality civic information. How many public libraries are staffed to meet these needs today and how well are library schools preparing new librarians to meet them?