A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Making a Difference: Civic Engagement at the Public Library

by Mark Smith, mark.smith@lssi.com on October 26, 2012

Are libraries the right place for civic engagement? Given the right opportunity, would members of the community come to the library to discuss important topics and to learn more about each other? Can library programs make a difference in addressing the big issues facing our society?

These are the questions that drove the California Council for the Humanities (CCH) and the Riverside County (Calif.) Library System (RCLS) to partner in the creation of an innovative program to promote civic reflection and engagement in libraries. With funding from a Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grant from the California State Library and CCH, six branches of RCLS tested the theory that the public library is the natural place for a community to engage in dialogue about societal issues. Excited by the potential of such programming, RCLS staff members readily agreed to participate in the project that CCH boldly dubbed “Making a Difference.”

The experiment began when CCH Director of Programs Vanessa Whang contacted the RCLS librarian (at that time Nancy Johnson) in the late summer of 2009 to inquire whether RCLS would be interested in partnering with CCH to train a cohort of librarians to create and facilitate civic dialogue and reflection programs in their libraries. The answer was overwhelmingly yes. We wanted to participate. We were even more motivated to do so when we learned that RCLS would be CCH’s sole library partner for the first year of the pilot program.

Evolution of the Idea

Whang and CCH Senior Program Officer Felicia Kelley related that the project evolved from a number of discussions that had been taking place among CCH staff for some months, a “mosaic of ideas,” in Whang’s description. Part of the impetus arose from an earlier CCH library program for youth, created by Kelley, called “My Place”; part came from “Get Involved,” an initiative of California State Librarian Stacey Aldrich to promote skilled volunteerism in the library; and another part came from Whang’s past experience working in a community cultural center. “We were impressed by the creativity and engagement of the My Place librarians and we found the notion of libraries as ‘hubs for civic engagement’ particularly resonant,” said Whang.1 She added that her work at the center, which served as a community gathering place for a wide variety of people, reinforced her belief in the continuing need for places that use cultural works and personal experience as catalysts for getting people to interact. Kelley went on to explain that “libraries are the only viable public institution that people have the chance to experience every day. Libraries are real crossroads where people can encounter other people with views different from their own, a place where people can come together and share views in a safe space.”2 Whang added that “we wanted to test the idea that libraries could be more proactive in creating opportunities for interaction among those people and thereby create a greater sense of real community.”

The other catalytic element in planning the program was the role of the Project for Civic Reflection (PCR). This organization has been working for years to encourage people to come together and reflect on their values and the values that shape their communities. PCR pioneered the concept of using a text—a short written piece or other cultural artifact—to elicit a discussion under the guidance of a trained facilitator. CCH approached PCR because of its long track record of using this technique with many service-oriented groups such as AmeriCorps and Campus Compact, as well as many state humanities councils across the country. However, they primarily worked with groups of employees, members, or volunteers of an organization who had common goals. The idea of using the concept in a public library environment where anyone from the public could be involved was greatly intriguing to the staffs of both PCR and CCH.
CCH staff felt that PCR’s technique of using a text that presents a rich array of possible interpretations to stimulate discussion, held huge promise for the project. Using as a metaphor of how potters make a smooth cut in soft clay by easing in the point of a tool at an oblique angle instead of straight on, Whang explained that a story (or a film clip or a song) can create an easy point of entry into the discussion of a potentially difficult subject. Whereas heading straight into a controversial issue can immediately put people at odds with each other.

But why did CCH staff even want to bother? Why do they feel that it is so important to have community members come together and interact with each other? For one thing, it’s their mission, which states that, “The Council connects Californians to ideas and one another in order to understand our shared heritage and diverse cultures, inspire civic participation, and shape our future.”3 Kelley went on to explain: “It goes back to fragmentation and isolation and alienation. When people don’t talk to each other, they fear each other. People that are fearful are more easily manipulated and that becomes very dangerous.” Whang added: “It’s perhaps the irony of the information age that we are more connected than ever virtually, but so much more in need of connectedness in real time and space.”

We asked CCH what qualities they were looking for in a library partner and why they chose RCLS. Whang answered that initially they had been on a path of working only with branch libraries, as they had in the past, until Aldrich steered them in a different direction. Aldrich suggested they work at a jurisdictional, or system, level. Whang said she immediately saw the value of that idea, and that any hope for making civic dialogue in libraries an embedded and sustainable practice that could lead to systemic change would have to have buy-in from the top down as well as the bottom up.

Once they had made the choice to work at a system level, then they sought a library system that had certain characteristics. They wanted a system that would be large enough, and with enough demographic diversity, that it could offer branches that served different types of clienteles. In short, they sought a system that could be a microcosm of California. Riverside County encompasses a wide range of communities: modest and affluent; urban, rural, and suburban; and with mixes of ethnicities, ages, and levels of education. “We had heard good things about the Riverside County Library System,” said Whang. “We heard Riverside is a respected system with a reputation for being on the leading edge of practice; a place that would be willing to take a risk on something new; a place that would embrace the concept.”

Why Did RCLS Say Yes?

The RCLS management team jumped at the opportunity to partner with CCH to present these programs. In many ways, the project marked the culmination of a multi-year growth toward offering outstanding and different programs for adults in the county library. Like most libraries, RCLS had offered children’s programs for many years. But library management and staff came to recognize that a key service response lay in expanding its programming offerings in a variety of avenues. In 2004, RCLS launched an extensive outreach program to Latino residents called Leer Es Triunfar (Reading is Succeeding). In addition to extensive new programming to the adult and young adult Latino community (including computer classes, ESL classes, and author programs), the library began celebrating El día de los niños/El día de los libros (Children’s Day/Book Day)—Día for short. RCLS staff also took a lead in organizing a statewide committee to investigate the feasibility of promoting Día on a statewide level. That effort led to the California State Library adopting Día as an official program, thus becoming a so-called “Día state.”

Concurrent with that effort, RCLS had begun to promote new and varied cultural programming for adults in a number of ways. Through the work of a contract employee, Kathryn Morton, RCLS added a vibrant cultural programming series starting in the fall of 2007 and extending through the spring of 2008 (and repeated again in the spring of 2009). This series brought multicultural programs of poetry, music, performance, lectures, and demonstrations to RCLS. Meanwhile, other libraries in the county were presenting their own adult programming series. The Temecula Library began partnering with the school district to present a Temecula Reads series and a similar series began in Glen Avon called Jurupa Reads. At Palm Desert Library, library staff and the Friends group launched a vigorous series of programs, including a cooking series in which chefs demonstrated recipes and shared their creations with the audience. As a result of this new emphasis on programming, total program attendance increased at RCLS by 120 percent from 2005–06 to 2008–09 and, in the same period, adult program attendance quadrupled from 15,517 to 61,748.

Against this background of escalating adult programming, CCH’s proposal to explore a new type of programming, one that had not generally been tried in libraries before, greatly appealed to RCLS management. Whang and Kelley sketched out CCH’s vision for these programs. They would have the following characteristics:

  1. Library staff would be formally trained to facilitate discussions among attendees at the programs, and that these discussions were designed to be for small groups of people to allow for depth of interactions.
  2. The programs would key off a “text,” which they liberally interpreted to mean a short story, poem, painting, film excerpt, photograph, or any other cultural artifact with ample potential for interpretation.
  3. The library staff would seek out partnerships in the community to bring diverse points of view to the programs.
  4. The programs would be organized around national holidays and days of observance in order to provide a rich context for community discussion and engagement (such as the MLK Day of Service in January) and to aid in the coordination of technical assistance provision.

RCLS management and staff immediately recognized that these programs were fundamentally different than the standard library program. In the traditional adult programming model, the role of the library staff is to organize and promote the program, introduce the event, become part of the audience for the event, then serve refreshments at the end. In this new model, the role of library staff is at the front of the room, not the back. Armed with the training provided by CCH, the staff would reach out to partner agencies, pick the text, and then be responsible for gently guiding a discussion among patrons. This is a very different model and one that could be very intimidating to some staff. First, librarians need to handle expectations of the public who are used to being presented with a program rather than their discussion being the program. Second, if the point is to draw out a public discussion around a topic that may be controversial, library empoyees could find themselves in the middle of a very animated, even confrontational discussion.

The Participating Libraries

Rising to the challenge, six RCLS managers volunteered to participate in the program. In keeping with CCH’s interest in having diverse communities involved, the six participating libraries represented very different communities. They were:

  • Cathedral City, located in the desert region of the county, serving a mix of middle-income families and winter retirees. Branch manager: Amy Dodson.
  • Coachella, a small facility located in a remodeled church in the eastern Coachella Valley desert area, serving a population that is approximately 80 percent Latino, with a high percentage of monolingual Spanish speakers. Branch manager: Veronica Evans.
  • Glen Avon, a larger facility in the west end of the county serving a modest-income community in a semi-rural area west of the city of Riverside, with an ethnically diverse population of Latinos, African Americans, and whites. Branch manager: Tracie Carignan.
  • Home Gardens, a new library wedged in an unincorporated area between the cities of Riverside and Corona, serving a largely Latino population with many monolingual Spanish speakers. Branch manager: Alicia Doktor.
  • Palm Desert, a large and modern building co-located with the College of the Desert community college library and serving a demographically mixed community—including college students, nearby country-club residents, snowbirds, Latinos, and others. Branch manager: Jeannie Kays.
  • Woodcrest, a beautiful, new, LEED-certified, craftsman-style library facility serving a mainly upper-middle-class community in a suburban area just south of the city limits of Riverside. Branch manager: Connie Rynning.

The Training

This is the group—joined by RCLS regional managers and program staff—that assembled in October 2009 for training sponsored by CCH and conducted by PCR. PCR trainers Ryan Lewis and Georgina Dodge led a two-day session in which RCLS staff members explored not only the techniques of stimulating and guiding discussions, but also how to select literature that would bring out the type of discussion that CCH and PCR encouraged.

A quote from the text The Drum Major Instinct by Dr. Martin Luther King began the training. In a very encouraging tone, Lewis asked, “What does this say to you?” All attendees were asked to have read the text the day before in order to be prepared to discuss. However, at first no one felt truly prepared to answer how this text made them personally feel. This stems from a traditional programming setting in which participants are rarely asked their opinion, and much less often how they feel. Another question was presented, “What do you think Martin Luther King Jr. is saying here?” Once participants understood this was a different, more comfortable setting, an inspiring discussion followed. Each participant spoke of his or her experiences, memories, and reactions to this quote and the text in its entirety. The text evoked a profound reflection that all participants felt they needed to share. It was a discussion that was hard to conclude.

Lewis commended all of the participants for having shared, and said with a smile, “You have now participated in a civic discussion, the type of discussions you will be having at your libraries.” Giving the group some time to reflect on what had just commenced, Dodge led a debriefing. She noted techniques and offered suggestions on leading a discussion. In addition, the entire training was devoted to sessions on civic discussions, such as the initial exercise, with different forms of literature as well as themes. Lewis and Dodge discussed the three stages of civic reflection: what happens before, during, and after the discussion. By the end of the training all participants understood the foundation of this new model of programming. It meant to encourage participants to reflect on their personal experiences and impressions, listen to those of others, and discuss ideas on a deeper level. Most importantly it is creating a sense of space and community within the library for civic reflection, civic dialogue, and civic engagement.4

The Programs

Between October 2009 and June 2010, the six libraries participating in Making a Difference held a total of eighteen programs, most of them planned around the following observances: Martin Luther King Day, National Women’s History Month, César Chávez Day, and Memorial Day. The programs reflected a range of complexity. The first two programs were held at the Woodcrest and Cathedral City libraries and built a discussion around the themes of the book, Wherever There’s a Fight: How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California.5 In both cases, the library offered a program featuring a reading with the book’s authors and a separate program in which the library managers led a discussion of an excerpt from the book.

In celebrating MLK National Day of Service (also known as Martin Luther King Jr. Day), the Palm Desert Library (PDL) planned a two-part program. The first part of the program was a community discussion. Those who participated in the discussion would be offered a “backstage pass” as well as premier seating at the second part of the program, a meet-the-author event. To create an intimate discussion, Kays focused the discussion on a particular audience: teens. She led a stimulating discussion with the teens around injustice and nonviolent solutions in the community of Palm Desert. The discussion centered on the text Burro Genius by award-winning author and peace advocate Victor Villaseñor.6 More than fifteen teens participated in the discussion.

After reading the assigned text, participants were asked thought-provoking questions in relation to education. The protagonist in the book is chastised for his inability to speak English—this resonated deeply with many of the participants. They shared their stories, as they related to the feeling of being a burro (slang for an idiot). As more and more participants began to share personal stories, Kays turned the discussion into a message of empowerment, asking the often difficult question, “What are you going to do about it?” followed by a friendlier version, “What are some non-violent solutions?” They pondered for a long time. Some mentioned they did not think they could do something about it. Further questioning led to a revelation. In reading the novel and participating in this discussion, they now realized they could do something about the injustices they faced in school with nonviolence, as both King and Villaseñor did.

The second part of the program had many in the community very excited, especially the teens who participated in the first part. Villaseñor would speak at PDL. The event was full to capacity. The teens who participated had a chance to meet Villaseñor before the program with their “backstage passes.” They also sat in the front row and received their very own copies of Burro Genius. Villaseñor’s speech was moving, as he spoke about the importance of education and peace. While he discussed his life story of being dyslexic and punished for it, he spent most of his time sharing how he did something about it: He finished school and became an award-winning author all because he believed that he was more than a burro.

March 31 marks the birthday of labor rights activist César E. Chávez. The Home Gardens Library (HGL) hosted a program titled “Dream Street” in partnership with the Inlandia Institute, a nonprofit literary center supporting literary activities within the Inland Empire. The program focused on the changing nature of the American Dream through the photos and writings of local artist Douglas McCulloh’s book, Dream Street.7 The program consisted of a photo exhibit and a community discussion. The program began with a presentation from McCulloh about his work on Dream Street, which centers on the men and women who work in the construction industry building houses in the Inland Empire area of California. These workers—often undocumented and poorly paid—struggle to provide a piece of the American Dream for others, as they build California suburban neighborhoods, while they also know that the dream is far out of their reach.

After an interesting presentation, McCulloh and the HGL branch manager facilitated a civic discussion about the American Dream, immigration, and labor rights today. The discussion began almost immediately as all twelve participants had something to say. The discussion led itself as attendees shared stories and presented additional topics in relation to labor today. The conversation continued and lasted well over the two hours allotted for the program.
Perhaps the purest example of what these programs can evoke came at the Coachella Library’s Memorial Day program. Having been unable to secure a desired speaker, branch manager Evans decided to make the participants the speakers. Attendees were invited to “honor the sacrifice of our military troops, to share photos and personal experiences, and to enjoy a discussion about freedom with local teens,” Evans said.8

While initially surprised to be put at the center of the program, the nine teenagers and twelve adults in attendance soon volunteered to speak about their experiences or those of their loved ones. Evans asked the adults to explain to the teens what various terms or phrases meant (such as “the draft,” “Agent Orange,” and “deployed”) as they came up in the discussion. Three of the men personally brought up their diagnoses of cancer from the spraying of Agent Orange. One teenager shared an essay that she had written on “What Freedom Means to Me.”

Evans said, “The oldest female, who appeared to be in her late eighties, was so happy just to be among widows who understood and shared the commitment their husbands made. One widow currently has two sons serving in different parts of the world. There were many moments of sincerity. A few teens came in to the library [later] and said they’d never seen a man cry.”

Evaluating the Program

Following the conclusion of the Making a Difference programs, staff and management began to discuss the pros and cons of the project. Some evaluation occurred in internal staff conversations and some with CCH and PCR staff. While the reactions of staff and management are very positive, a debriefing session held on June 21, 2010, revealed that staff and library administration had somewhat differing reactions to the program.

Is any new endeavor free from bumps in the road? Management tended to see this pilot as an important turning point for the library system, one that changed the dynamic of the kind of programming offered, and began to position the library as a key crossroads of the community where the public could feel comfortable engaging in this type of conversation and exploring topics of individual and community values. While the participating staff wouldn’t disagree with this or dispute the success of the programs, they (not surprisingly) tended to feel the challenges more acutely. There was confusion about how to structure the dialogue programs (for example, should there be a typical presentational event and then have a text-based dialogue as a pre- or post-event discussion?). Some weren’t sure why they were being asked to program around national days of observance. (This was the choice of CCH in order to have a subject-matter focus for programs, the possibility for collaboration among branches, and to be able to coordinate the timing of planning and debriefing technical assistance calls with the library staff.) Some of the branch managers were unclear if staff or management were in charge of determining the content of the programs. As stated previously, this was a very different model of library programming, so the road from old to new was not always smooth.
Nevertheless, the overall assessment of both branch and administrative staff was highly positive. The following are the broad conclusions shared by all RCLS staff:

  • The civic reflection model was effective; the public did seem to find the library a natural place to come together and they did engage in the process and interact meaningfully at the library.
  • This type of programming is an opportunity to connect the library with new clienteles, develop new partner opportunities, and position the library in a new and potentially exciting relationship with the community.
  • Library staff acquired valuable new skills that represented a growth opportunity for themselves and for their libraries.
  • The programming put the library at the center of the community and the library staff gained new insights into the nature of their communities and what sorts of programming resonated with their communities.
  • These programs required a different standard of success; unlike other programs, drawing a huge crowd was no longer the goal. In some cases, the staff wished more people had come to the discussions, but crowds of more than twenty or twenty-five people made meaningful dialogue more difficult.
  • Simple is better. Discussions built around simple content—like a single page of literature, a few photographs, or a film clip—were often more stimulating than programs built around more elaborate or longer presentations.

Most significantly, library staff found that this type of programming can be highly rewarding and can lead to very interesting connections. In one instance, a group from the University of California Riverside traveled to HGL for the first time. A few days later, that same group was instrumental in holding a meeting at HGL attended by National Democratic Party Chairman Tim Kaine. In another situation, a local group that fights for the rights of local residents to have safe air and water, partnered for a discussion at the Glen Avon Library. Several weeks later, that same group presented a health fair at the library that drew dozens of local residents.

CCH was pleased by the first year of the project as well. “We learned a tremendous amount from working with Riverside, PRC, and our other consultants on this pilot. We believe it does have the promise to effect profound change in libraries and we feel lucky to be able to continue to improve the program with our partners and support libraries to not only be access points of knowledge, but places of community engagement,” Whang commented.9 Kelley added, “As librarians and staff learn new skills, a base of knowledge will grow upon which others can build. We hope by providing this training that we are giving the librarians something no one can take away.”10


Making a Difference lived up to its name. The programs made a difference with the citizens who attended them and with the library staff. We are pleased that CCH was awarded a second year of LSTA funding (for 2010–11) and combined with its own resources has expanded this project to two other California libraries—Salinas Public Library and the Yolo County Library—while funding a second year of participation by RCLS. CCH instituted various improvements to the program (which has since been renamed “Now We’re Talking”) based on its experiences with RCLS and its own evaluation, and hopes to continue
to expand it to other jurisdictions who are interested in engaging with their communities in a proactive way. The staff of RCLS is very grateful to CCH for bringing this exciting project to Riverside County and is committed to making civic engagement an enduring aspect of its programming and services into the future.


  1. Vanessa Whang, email interview with the author, Feb. 27, 2011.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. An account of the training can be found on the website of the Project for Civic Reflection.
  5. Elaine Elinson and Stan Yogi, Wherever There’s a Fight: How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California (Berkeley, Calif: Heyday Books, 2009).
  6. Victor Villaseñor, Burro Genius: A Memoir (New York: HarperCollins, 2004).
  7. Douglas McCulloh, Dream Street (Berkeley, Calif: Heyday Books, 2009).
  8. Veronica Evans, Coachella Library program report, June 5, 2010.
  9. Whang, email interview with the author.
  10. Ibid.