Amy Koester / email@example.com.Amy is Learning Experiences Manager at Skokie (IL) Public Library. She is currently reading Sisters in Law by Linda Hirshman.
“Oh, I get it,” said the library patron who had been talking with a library staff member; they’d been discussing why the library was sharing resources and facilitating conversation around civic topics. “These are topics worth looking at closely. You need to have good information in order to make up your own mind. If you have bad information, someone else is making up your mind for you.”
This patron, in the course of a fifteen-minute conversation that started with a discussion about how the U.S. Supreme Court works and evolved to explore more general civic information–sharing, got at the crux of the Civic Lab model for civic engagement here at Skokie (IL) Public Library (SPL). Since its inception in summer 2016, the Civic Lab has offered information and thought-provoking activities to support dialogue and engagement on issues that affect our community. At its heart, the Civic Lab—a team of library staff members from a variety of departments, working in a variety of positions—is about connecting community members of all ages with the information and resources they need to first understand issues that they care about and that are impacting the community, and then, with that foundation of understanding based on reputable information, make up their own minds about how they feel about an issue, and whether and how they want to act as a result.
Here at SPL, we broadly define “civic engagement” in the library context as the programs and opportunities that promote and facilitate:
- a deeper, more critical understanding of how civic institutions operate;
- a broader, more empathic knowledge of how issues, policies, and decisions affect lives; and
- an increased awareness of and confidence in one’s ability to take an active role in civic discourse and participate in community decision-making.
The Civic Lab is one initiative under an umbrella of civic engagement work at the library.
The Civic Lab came to be in part due to the volume of conversations about the 2016 general election. Library staff working many different types of service points, and in a range of programs, noticed that community members were having more and more conversations about political candidates, policy issues, and platforms leading up to the primary elections. As a library we strive to support our community by taking what we’re hearing in the library and beyond and integrating those issues and concerns into our services. The Learning Experiences team at the library, which oversees all public programs as well as experiential learning spaces for patrons of all ages, regularly asks how we can infuse what we’re hearing our community cares about into our programs and services. When we continued to hear that civic discourse was on an uptick in the community, and that community members were coming to the library with questions seeking to better understand issues raised in political campaigns and coverage, we saw there was opportunity to do more than offer a handful of standalone programs that would each explore a single issue in the news or campaign coverage. We saw an opportunity to think more broadly, at a larger initiative level, about how we might support community members in understanding and discussing important issues. And so, with brainstorming among the Learning Experiences team, the Civic Lab was born.
STARTING OUT: THE CIVIC LAB BOUTIQUE
This first iteration of the Civic Lab ran from late August until the general election in November 2016, and it was a semi-static installation with a goal of connecting community members to resources, information, and discussion around six core issues we’d observed as being of particular importance to the Skokie community:
- Black Lives Matter
- Climate change
- Income inequality
- Reproductive justice
For each of these six issues, we curated and developed the following elements to be available— some ongoing, some rotating—in a newly cleared corner of our AV department which became the Civic Lab Boutique:
- Microcollections of resources on each topic. These microcollections featured multiple copies of six resources on each topic: two for an adult audience, two for teens, one for middle grade youth, and one picture book. The materials included in these microcollections were selected because they provided critical, credible perspectives on the issues.
- Conversation starters. These open-ended questions were structured to invite discussion and perspective-sharing on the six central issues. For example, conversation starters included “What does income inequality look like in Skokie?” (for the income inequality topic) and “What is your family’s migration story?” (for the immigration topic). Visitors to the Civic Lab Boutique were
- able to engage in live conversation around a table in the space, or to write their thoughts on a postcard they could add to a mailbox in the space.
- Voting prompts. These yes/no questions rotated while the Civic Lab Boutique was live, with each question posted atop a large foam board with “Yes” and “No” sides, and sticky notes available for community members to cast their votes. Voting prompts included “Has the Black Lives Matter movement challenged you to think about racism in Skokie?” and “Should employers be required to provide paid parental leave for their employees?” (We also included related voting prompts for children in our Youth Services Department, with prompts like “Have you ever been told you can’t do something because of your gender?”)
- Curated resource handouts. These handouts, one for each issue and meant to be taken home by visitors to the Civic Lab, included the conversation starters, key definitions relevant to the issue, the resources included in the microcollections, and additional resources for further exploration.
Throughout the several months that the Civic Lab Boutique was up in the library, we learned a handful of key takeaways that we’ve kept with us as the Civic Lab has evolved. First, we learned that community members engaged with the Civic Lab most when there was a library staff member present. While we had curious browsers explore the space throughout the installation, the only times we observed conversation around the issues was when a staff member was around to participate in the discussion. Facilitation appeared to be a significant factor for engagement. Second, we learned that while plenty of the microcollection materials circulated, the curated resource handouts were the most popular takeaway from the space. Whether that was because not every visitor to the Civic Lab was in a position to check out materials, or they wanted to explore further on their own terms and then return, or another reason, we gathered that curated resource handouts are a great passive tool for civic exploration.
THE NEXT ITERATION: CIVIC LAB POP-UPS
While developing the Civic Lab Boutique, we talked abstractly about whether (and how) we’d extend the concept beyond this initial installation. After the 2016 presidential election, we saw the same increase in interest in civic dialogue and participation that communities across the country also experienced. We realized that continuing the Civic Lab wasn’t just something we wanted to try as a library—it was something our community was clamoring for.
Later in November 2016, we evolved the Civic Lab to its second and current iteration: as a pop-up programming–style model. Using what we had learned about the preference for facilitated activities and desire for connection to resources, we developed the model of the Civic Lab that we still use now nearly three years later. Civic Lab pop-ups all involve some permutation of the same core elements:
- a central prompt or question that sets the topic scope of the pop-up;
- supporting visuals, activities, resources, or conversation starters to support exploration of the topic of the pop-up;
- a curated resource handout with credible information on the topic, typically with each resource on the handout including an annotation of one or two sentences to summarize what community members can find using the resource;
- direct staffing/facilitation of the pop-up, with at least one staff member but typically two;
- a sixty to ninety minute pop-up period in a library area chosen because of likelihood of foot traffic, proximity to additional resources, etc.;
- our Civic Lab branded stand-up banner to help identify the pop-up as a Civic Lab appearance;
- some combination of stacking wooden crates to help delineate the pop-up space;
- a rolling whiteboard with dry-erase markers, or sticky notes and writing utensils to facilitate participant sharing; and
- a listing in our online events calendar, which means that Civic Lab pop-ups will appear on the library website homepage on the day of the pop-up.
Throughout the two-and-a-half years we’ve been offering Civic Lab pop-ups, we’ve strived to offer a minimum of one pop-up topic (each appearing at two different times) each month; during some months we’ve featured two or more topics.
As we evolved from the Civic Lab Boutique to the pop-up model, we intentionally refocused on our goals for this type of civic engagement. Now that all of our Civic Lab installations would involve direct staff facilitation, we wanted to ensure that the staff participating in the Civic Lab—a team of eight to ten from multiple library departments and roles—felt confident in what we’re trying to achieve through the initiative. The Civic Lab is about information, and our goal for the Civic Lab is exploring reputable information on a topic, ideally from lots of different vantage points. To that end, we’re going to look to the source of any information shared in a pop-up (regardless of whether it’s shared by a staff member or a community member), and we’re going to ask questions to get at deeper consideration of a topic at hand (rather than just continuing to hold previously held viewpoints without considering others). It’s also a core tenet of the Civic Lab that we are not trying to persuade patrons to come to a certain conclusion on a topic. We’re operating under the premise that people can make the best decisions when informed, and that libraries are information experts, and so our end goal is to support patrons in considering all the information that they need in order to understand a topic and come to their own conclusions.
CIVIC LAB TOPICS
How do we select topics for this current version of the Civic Lab? As we’ve continued to iterate around the Civic Lab since fall 2016, we’ve honed in on four main types of Civic Lab topics that appeal to our community and that we return to as we continue planning.
TYPE 1: Topics in the News
Like many across the country, people in Skokie are keyed into topics that they see being discussed in their news sources of choice. It’s been a natural process for staff involved in the Civic Lab to think about the news they consume through a lens of what might make for a compelling Civic Lab discussion. Similarly, we’re always looking to our community and listening to the topics they care about, which has provided plenty of fodder for Civic Lab pop-ups. Examples of these “topics in the news” pop-ups include:
- “Executive Orders and Immigrants”—a pop-up developed in early 2017 when a series of executive orders was issued enacting travel bans restricting citizens of select Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States; this pop-up was designed to consider this news topic in the context of the 1942 executive order that called for the incarceration of Japanese Americans in the United States.
- “Narratives of Gun Violence”—a pop-up developed alongside a lot of community conversation about the Parkland shooting and March for Our Lives demonstration; this pop-up was focused on connecting community members to resources and perspectives on gun violence beyond the typical and reductive argument that structures gun violence as simply an issue of gun-owners’ rights versus gun control.
- “Talking About Suicide”—a pop-up developed when there was heightened conversation about mental health in Skokie following the deaths by suicide of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, as well as a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report about increases in suicide in the United States; this pop-up was focused on defining terms around mental health to help with de-stigmatization, as well as to connect community members to mental health support resources in the community.
TYPE 2: Basic Civic Literacy
We’ve seen many indicators that community members are looking to increase their knowledge and confidence around understanding how basics of governance work at all levels. To that end, we regularly develop Civic Lab pop-ups around basic civic literacy topics to help support this understanding, including:
- “How Does the Supreme Court Work?”—a pop-up focused on exploring why the United States Supreme Court looks the way it does, how justices come to sit on the court, how the court determines what cases it will hear, and more.
- “What is the EPA?”—a pop-up intended to explore the Environmental Protection Agency, its purview and influence in our country, the reasons for its creation, and the impact of its work.
- “How a Bill Becomes a Law”—a pop-up meant to explore the legislative process and how an idea for a bill becomes a law.
TYPE 3: Timely Topics
Public libraries are often aware of dates and months on the calendar that are designated for the exploration of particular topics, the celebration of cultural groups, and so on. We’ve engaged with community members beyond materials displays in conjunction with these timely topics by developing Civic Lab pop-ups that can facilitate further exploration and conversation:
- “Talking About Taxes”—a pop-up during March (in conjunction with tax season) meant to connect community members to information about how taxes function, different types of taxes, and what tax money funds at different levels of government.
- “Blackness in America”—a pop-up during February (in conjunction with Black History Month) that connects community members to resources exploring a range of perspectives on black experiences and excellence in the United States.
- “Actually, She Did That”—a pop-up during March (in conjunction with Women’s History Month) that explores the lives and contributions of women who did not get credit for their work with a goal of enabling community members of all ages to reflect on gender discrimination.
- “What is Pride Month?”—a pop-up during June that features a live information-gathering activity in which community members and Civic Lab facilitators work together using a range of resources to build out a display that explores the who, what, when, where, why, and how of Pride Month.
TYPE 4: News Literacy
At the core of all Civic Lab pop-ups is a desire to support community members in developing news and information-literacy skills so that they can access, consider, and make informed decisions based on reputable information. We’ve had success popping up around general news literacy topics, including:
- “What is Journalism? (And What Isn’t?)”—a pop-up that explores different types of news coverage, including straight reporting, analysis, and opinion pieces, with a goal of increasing understanding around how to differentiate between news coverage that shares objective facts and coverage that provides more subjective perspectives.
- “Social Media & Viral News”—a pop-up built around resources to help develop deeper understanding around the interplay between social media platforms and viral news sharing, including connections to resources for verifying news found on social media.
Across all four of these types of Civic Lab pop-ups, we have explored topics that are time-specific—most relevant only in conjunction with a particular news story—as well as those that are more evergreen. We have updated and offered again a number of Civic Lab pop-ups on evergreen topics, sometimes as much as two years after we initially developed a topic. For instance, “How the Supreme Court Works” has continued to be a relevant and engaging pop-up on a number of occasions.
DESIGNING CIVIC LAB RESOURCES & ACTIVITIES
As we’ve iterated this Civic Lab pop-up model, we’ve developed some best practices for curating resources and activities that engage community members of all ages in exploring these topics. These best practices speak to strategies for ensuring that anyone is able to explore the topic at hand in a manner that is informative, engaging, and developmentally appropriate.
Avoid an “opposing viewpoints” model. The idea that there are only two sides to an issue, and that they are opposites of one another, is a fallacy. It’s an appealing fallacy, since it feels like it’s easy to understand an issue if we can frame it in the context of an “either/or” argument, but it’s a fallacy nonetheless. Real-world issues are complex and can only be meaningfully understood when considered from a variety of perspectives. For the Civic Lab and other types of civic engagement programming with a goal of building knowledge and awareness among participants, it’s vital that we include a wide range of perspectives in supporting our community to explore an issue. We encourage staff to seek out, verify, and include (if appropriate) resources that go beyond the most usual “pro/con” perspectives and also include perspectives that provide a global, local, expert, experiential, statistical, personal, historical, contemporary, scientific, economic, artistic, policy-focused, and/or legal lens on the issue at hand.
Kids are typically drawn to topics with activities they perceive as fun. For Civic Lab topics around which we want to engage youth community members, we strive to include some type of interactive component as part of the pop-up. This may look like a matching game, as with “Actually, She Did That” in which participants were encouraged to try to match the name and portrait of a woman with her accomplishment. Quizzes and challenges are also appealing activities.
Teens are most engaged when the topic feels personally relevant to them. Whether it’s because a Civic Lab topic is one they’ve touched on in school (or feel like they should have learned in school, but didn’t), or it’s one with which they have a personal interest, teens connect best with Civic Lab pop-ups when they feel a connection or motivation around the topic being explored. Skokie teens have been particularly drawn to topics around social media and general information literacy, and we’ve had teens get really into environmental and science research topics as well.
Adults want to be respected and intellectually stimulated in civic conversations. We’ve found that adults in general, if they feel they have time to spend at the Civic Lab, are really interested in civic conversations so long as they feel respected in the conversation—they don’t want to feel condescended to, but rather as an equal partner in a discussion. They want for their experiences and existing knowledge to be recognized as bringing something valuable to the conversation. To that end, they’re looking for a robust conversation directed by curiosity—they want to bring their own knowledge, but they also want to learn from the knowledge of others. We may hear reports about people being stuck in their information bubbles and arguing held beliefs without room for considering other perspectives, but by and large that hasn’t been our experience with the Civic Lab. Adults who opt into a conversation about a civic topic generally genuinely want to expand their knowledge, and almost always are open to reconsidering their own previously held standpoints on a topic.
Remember that credible information—not any particular viewpoint—is the goal. One of the most common questions we get from both community members and colleagues from the library profession is how we handle controversial topics. Our staff members who are involved in the Civic Lab do a lot of work to make sure that we’re always framing credible information as the core piece of any Civic Lab interaction; our end goal is for participants to walk away equipped with reputable, diverse information on a topic, and from there to feel better equipped to confidently hold an opinion on the topic. It is never our goal to get community members to hold a particular belief—what they personally decide based on what they know and learn is up to them. What we do care about is that Civic Lab participants have an opportunity to recognize and explore that information; that thing library staff have been experts in for our entire existence is the key to meaningful civic engagement.
ACTIVATING STAFF AND INVOLVING THE COMMUNITY
Our Civic Lab team now includes almost a dozen staff members from multiple library departments who hold a variety of roles in the library. And that’s just the core team— we’ve had additional staff opt to participate on a topic-by-topic basis. To support staff interested in contributing to the Civic Lab, we rely on two core lenses for our library services: our customer service lens and a reference lens. From the customer service lens standpoint, we work with staff to recognize that a community member approaching a Civic Lab pop-up is similar to a community member approaching any other service point—we make no assumptions about what they’re coming to do, we seek to make a connection to understand what they’re looking for, and we strive to provide an experience that is engaging and enjoyable. From a reference lens standpoint, we review principles about how to ask questions that seek understanding in order to have conversations on a level playing field. We also review core reference and information literacy concepts like verifying sources, seeking multiple citations in order to verify a piece of information, and similar strategies that allow the Civic Lab to be an experience with information integrity. By and large, these customer service and reference approaches are things that Civic Lab staff members are already thinking about and doing in their work, making application to the Civic Lab model straightforward.
In terms of involving staff in the Civic Lab initiative, whether it’s for a single pop-up or as a member of the core team, we think about activating staff through a number of strategies. First is through their own personal interests and experiences. For an early Civic Lab pop-up about “What’s Happening at Standing Rock,” a library staff member who participated in demonstrations at Standing Rock (he did so on personal time, not affiliated with the library) helped to facilitate the pop-up conversation by adding the perspective of a participant. Another way we connect staff to Civic Lab pop-ups is through topics that emerge in other program contexts. When a standing library book discussion group started have conversations about content creators who had recently been in the news with allegations of sexual assault, the two library staff members leading the discussion opted to parlay that discussion into a Civic Lab, “Separating Art from the Artist.” We’ve also had staff members whose role at the library relates to collection development identify trends and topics in materials coming into the library, which they then share with the Civic Lab team as potential future topics. We’ll regularly have staff from throughout the library sharing resources they’ve enjoyed—books, articles, podcasts, and more—that they think might connect to a Civic Lab topic. While they might not develop a pop-up themselves, their contributions add to the plans for the Civic Lab team.
As the Civic Lab has continued to become a more familiar site around the library, we’ve had community members take notice and, in some cases, wish to replicate the model within their own spheres of work. The school librarian at one of our local middle schools approached the Civic Lab team about modifying the model at her school; she wanted to support her Social Justice Club students in deciding on civic topics for conversation and making resources and conversation starters available in the school library. We were thrilled to share our knowledge and our template for Civic Lab handouts, and these student-led topics have been well received at the school.
We’ve got plans to take Civic Lab–style pop-ups and discussions out into the community this summer with our new book bike, and we’ve been talking about what type of staff support is needed to pop up elsewhere outside of the library. With the type of community adoption signaled by local schools’ interest in the Civic Lab model, we’re hoping to see more of that type of community adoption as the Civic Lab continues to increase in visibility. And, of course, we’re thinking strategically about how the Civic Lab will lead into 2020, which includes both a decennial census and a general election. It’s our hope that the Civic Lab is one of many ways that the library supports our community in being informed, active, and engaged.