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Participatory Culture in a Candy Shell

by Margaret-Melissa Laurelle Knox on October 13, 2017

by Margaret-Melissa Laurelle Knox, MLIS Student, Wayne State University (Detroit). Contact Margaret-Melissa at margaret.melissa.laurelle@gmail.com

“Participatory culture is a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices. A participatory culture is also one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another.” – Henry Jenkins, Mizuko Ito, and danah boyd. 1

The term “participatory culture” had no meaning to me until recently. It is a term that has been around for at least a decade, and it is an idea that Henry Jenkins, a provost professor at the University of Southern California School of Communication, has been working with for more than two decades.There is a relationship between participatory culture and libraries; in some cases, the would would not exist without the other. It behooves us, as librarians, to be aware of the relationship, and to promote collection development with participatory culture in mind.

I recently took part in a family discussion about the electoral college. One family member cleverly used round candies to illustrate a point: in the two-party system, the candidates are narrowed down to two choices (say, a purple candy and a brown candy), selected from a group of other round candies. With the pool of choices limited in this way, certain aspects of the future were determined even before the presidential election. Round candies are useful for illustrating options, and have a place in popular culture, and it is one that I hope will facilitate conversation.

If you think of a library collection in terms of an assortment of round candies (brown and blue M&Ms, orange and yellow Reese’s Pieces, green and purple Skittles, red Sixlets, pink SweeTarts, etc.) and the library relies on other branches to supplement the missing pieces of the round candies collection, you would think that the collection would be fairly complete. However, it isn’t complete. When developing the collection, the square candies were overlooked, the chocolate varieties, the nuts (a bit controversial), the caramels. Participatory culture is dependent upon opportunities being available, upon participants knowing that there are choices beyond round candies, being able to interact with others in various formats, having access to the other varieties, being able to create, and being able to share.

The connection between the access that libraries provide and the ability to participate in culture is clear. Participation in civic engagement, in media, and in entertainment is vital to underrepresented populations, to the disenfranchised, to our youth as they discover their voice, and to our public. Libraries provide more than Internet access; some libraries provide equipment to capture the many formats of story, of participation, of communication, of transmission. Others provide the safe spaces needed for participation. Beyond the oft-mentioned “digital divide” is an entertainment divide, and a media divide. These divides are, in part, the problem of the round candies collection. It must remain ever in our minds that our collections are for more than the active users: the collections are for all within the service community.

In “By Any Media Necessary,” Jenkins and his co-authors discuss how forums that center on popular media (chats, blogs, YouTube, Facebook) have become venues for civic-minded action.3 There is a need for services and programs that encourage these behaviors, that continue to provide opportunities for populations to participate in popular culture. This in turn may provide the tools for them to engage in more civic-minded pursuits, or, at the very least, become an informed and active population.

“If participatory cultures are to reach their full potential,” Jennifer Jacob Henderson writes in The Participatory Cultures Handbook, “it is not enough for us to post our own videos, data, comic strips, and short stories. We must also acknowledge disparities in access and rulemaking, and work to promote equality, respect, and freedom in our engagements. These values constitute the ethical core of participatory culture.”4

The “ethical core of participatory culture” is reflective of our core values as librarians. Our collections, traditional and nontraditional, need to provide equity of opportunities. Whether it is updating the graphic novel collections, expanding the offering of video games, or providing Internet access, all of these activities improve our patrons’ equity of access to popular culture, and provide opportunities for participation and growth.


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