A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Public Libraries Celebrate the Democratic Ideal

by on October 22, 2018

Election Day, November 6, 2018, will soon be upon us and the library is a great place for citizens to become better informed about issues, policies, and candidates. In a world besieged by fake news, the library is a shared community space where truth matters. Eric Klinenberg, author of Palaces for the People describes public libraries as “the textbook example of social infrastructure in action,”1 and Washington Post columnist, Katrina vanden Heuvel, adds “democracy in action: …places where everyone is welcome which offer resources that everyone can access.Public libraries are crucial for our civic communities throughout the year, not just before and during our elections.

Public Libraries Can Help Citizens Get Out and Vote
As Election Day draws near, of course, public libraries want to encourage civic participation. The ALA makes it easy for public libraries with their toolkit, Smart Voting Starts@your Library.3 The kit helps libraries:

  • develop campaigns to promote voter registration and to increase civic participation in elections;
  • access to websites about the legislative process, voting and government;
  • Great Ideas—direct links and contact information to public library systems around the U.S. who have already established programs;
  • Sample Questions for Candidate Forums and Templates for Letters to Government Officials;
  • Bibliographic resources, videos and CD-Roms; and
  • Registration with Project Vote Smart (ww.vote-smart.org) which entitles registrants to receive a free resource book, website guide, a reporter’s source book and a toll-free service that puts each library in touch with a researcher.

Library Civic Engagement Is A Year Round Commitment
Long after Election Day, communities share library spaces to study, to socialize, to get online, to get job training, and more. There are many different ways that public libraries engage communities in civic discourse with each other. A 2016 Pew Research Center Study on Attitudes Toward Libraries found that communities increasingly found public libraries “safe place[s] to spend time, to pursue educational opportunities, or a place where creative juices flow.” The study found no generation gap when it came to libraries: 81% of millennials and 77% of baby boomers found the public library a place to find “information that [was] trustworthy and reliable.”4

Public Libraries Celebrate the Democratic Ideal
The educator and philosopher, John Dewey, understood that our “democracy [was] more than a form of government; it [was] primarily a mode of associated living, …a communicated experience.”5Our public libraries certainly celebrate that democratic ideal.

The Role of Digital Access in Civic Outreach
Jessamyn West has observed that digital access expanded the library’s role in civic outreach far beyond its traditional parameters. “[Civic outreach] is more than just about voter registration.  It expands to include taking care of our world, each other, and ourselves so that we can be good community members.” 6 West discovered a Ham radio operators club (boxboro.org) at her local library which proved invaluable when other infrastructure networks went down. That club led her to free online training for Skywarn Spotter Training—www.skywarn.org.7

Communities know that their public libraries offer tax help and lend books but when disasters strike, and unfortunately, they often have, public libraries have offered desperately-needed information resources, access to digital services, help lines, and charging and heating stations.The New Jersey State Library system offers a Disaster Preparedness Tool Kit.  In turn, The National Council for Behavioral Health has a nationwide Mental Health First Aid program which provides professional training for organizations on how to address mental health related crises.8

Civic Outreach Through Community Engagement
Public libraries around the nation offer innovative and creative ways to engage with their communities.  Whether it is the Montgomery County Public Library in Rockville, Maryland which developed the REAL Program along with the Jewish Council for the Aging to offer library services at county Health and Human Services or Idaho’s Boundary County Library District, America’s Best Small Library 2017, which repurposed its community space and upgraded its tech needs with a FAB lab.9At the end of renovations, nearly half of the 11,869 people in the county had library cards.10

Public Library’s Challenge:  Support & Educate a Better Informed Citizen
Each experience that a citizen has in a library space equates to an opportunity for democratic engagement and the public library’s challenge to support a better informed citizenry. Public librarians may discount the importance of their interactions with the public. If former House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s, principle, “all politics is local” is true, then all library interaction is civics. It almost seems too simple to define democracy as a friendly face, a computer space, or a toddler reading circle. Democracy leans upon a two-prong support–civic participation and popular suffrage. Dewey concluded that a “democratically constituted society” included two traits—points of shared common interest and a freer interaction between social groups. If that’s where democracy begins, then what better place to engage than at the public library, whether to register to vote or to attend your local birding club.

Finally, vanden Heuvel poses the question, Want to defend democracy?  Her answer, Start with your public library. “If your library is under threat, it’s worth defending.” Public libraries—where democracy “upholds the virtues of equality and community”—and where civic engagement is alive and well throughout the year.


1. Klinenberg, Eric. “Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life. New York, New York. Penguin Random House. 2018.

2. Vanden Heuvel, K. (2018, September 18). Want to defend democracy? Start with your public library.Retrieved September 20, 2018, from www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/want-to-defend.

3. “Smart Voting Starts at Your Library”, American Library Association, January 4, 2013.http://www.ala.org/aboutala/governance/officers/past/kranich/smart (Accessed September 23, 2018)

4. Horrigan, J. (2016, September 09). Americans’ attitudes toward public libraries. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/09/09/americans-attitudes-toward-public-libraries/

5. Dewey, J. (n.d.). The Democratic Conception in Education. Retrieved September 23, 2018, from http://www.johndeweyphilosophy.com/books/democracy_and_education/The_Democratic_Conception_in_Education.html

6. West, J. (2017, November). Practical Technology: Civic Outreach. Retrieved September 23, 2018, from http://www.infotoday.com/cilmag/nov17/index.shtml

7. Ibid

8. Ibid

9. Montgomery County Public Libraries Earns National Innovation Award From Urban Libraries Council for ‘Real Change’. (2018). States News Service.

10 Berry, J. N., III. (2017, September 15). A Culture of Opportunity. Library Journal, 18-21.11 Vanden Heuvel, K. (2018, September 18). Want to defend democracy? Start with your public library.Retrieved September 20, 2018, from www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/want-to-defend.

11. Vanden Heuvel, ibid.

Tags: , ,