At a time when polarization is the defining and dividing feature in American politics, public libraries are the place to bring communities together to solve local problems both big and small. In general, civic engagement means people and groups working together to make a change that promotes the quality of the community.
The benefits of a more formal approach to civic education in the public library are tremendous. Public libraries by the very nature of their service can level the playing field for the unrepresented and marginalized populations. Public libraries who offer local civic training bring their residents into the decision making process, make government more accessible, and can even nurture future civic leaders. Librarians may find there are many civic-oriented resources including curriculum at the national level (see iCivics or Center for Civic Education) but few resources like this exist at the local level. Here is our opportunity!
Start by identifying examples of how a citizen might engage with your local government today:
- Serve on boards and commissions.
- Provide public input at a monthly town hall meeting.
- Attend a quarterly meet and greet with your elected councilperson.
- Read an upcoming notice or agenda for a public meeting.
- Respond to an online survey for public comment.
- Write a letter to your local elected official in support of new proposals.
- Register to vote.
- Vote for mayors, city council, referenda.
Next, identify how your local town engages its citizens. It might provide the following:
- Accessible town website with contact information.
- Online postings of council agendas and public notices.
- Live recordings of town meetings for those who cannot be present.
- Online surveys requesting public input on proposed changes.
- Electoral information for locations, candidates, and issues.
Librarians have a unique opportunity to position themselves as civic leaders that can bridge the gap between apathy and engagement, bringing community members from unaware to informed. If libraries see themselves as purveyors of civic education think about how much value the library has brought to the community.
When you teach your residents how local government works, you provide them with the education, skills, and tools to take action, get involved, and help solve local problems.
Some examples include:
- Create an informational workshop or series of workshops that explain how your local government works and how residents can be participate in their government. Call it “Your City” University or “Your City” 101, for example.
- Ensure your library partners with your local town to provide election information in your lobby and on your website.
- Publish info guides and pathfinders with links to voting places and sites like BallotReady, an app that provides background information on down-ballot races for positions like school board seats, judges, and commissions (which can be hard to find). Include this app in your workshop on local government.
- Host a town hall-type meeting; make the library the place for civic (and civil) discussion by sharpening your facilitating skills.
- Partnering with local high schools to teach young adults the importance of their vote and responsibilities as local citizens (reach the students to reach the parents).
Reluctant librarians may question whether civic engagement is a part of their mission or question their authority to be that civic place. Reports conclude that this is an untapped opportunity for libraries and helps local elected officials do their job because by reducing political apathy, it makes their jobs easier and grooms future government leaders.
Municipal officials say both they and the public need more training for engagement processes and that “important players (including citizens, the media, community and special interest groups and their own city halls) are not stepping up to their proper roles”1 Oddly enough public libraries were not even listed as ‘important players’ in this report.
City and county officials believe their community’s public library “should definitely” or “should maybe”2:
- Provide information concierge services to access government services 81.9%
- Provide citizenship education services 78.9%
- Provide a forum for convening public discussions: 76.1%
Libraries that adopt a more formal approach to civic education contribute greatly to the participatory government this country’s founding fathers envisioned. Collectively, the thousands of public libraries have the capacity to change the face of government one community at a time by opening up government to those who want to participate but don’t know how. If your library is offering civic education classes please comment below and tell us about your programs!
For more information see the following reports published by the Urban Library Institute:
- Civic Engagement Stepping up to the Civic Engagement Challenge.
- Library Priority: Community-Civic Engagement”.
- Partners for the Future: Public Libraies and Local Governemnts Creating Sustainable Communities
- Barnes, William and Bonnie Mann. Making Local Democracy Work (Washington, DC: League of Nations, 2010) p. iii.
- Horrigan, John B. The Role of Libraries in Advancing Community Goals: An Analysis of Factors Influencing Local officials’ Responses in the ICMA/Aspen Institute/PLA Libraries Survey. (Washington, D.C.: Aspen Institute, 2017) Chart 15b-‘Public Services and Civic Engagement’, p.13).