ALA day 1: fostering civic engagement, part 1

I did make it to the panel on Fostering Civic Engagement this afternoon, put on by the Fostering Civic Engagement MIG (Member Interest Group–love those acronyms), which was excellent. Basically, it was all about how libraries and librarians can do things to encourage participatory democracy [SDS, of course, did not come up with the idea of participatory democracy, but they’re often given credit for the phrase, and in any case, a little Port Huron is good for you now and then].

Former ALA President Nancy Kranich kicked things off by talking about how different people have defined democracy and how FDR’s definition–that democracy is participation–is her favorite. Libraries, she noted, have an active role to play this kind of democracy: they are sources for information, they are civic spaces, and they are places where citizens can become literate. Rah rah!

Joan Durrance, of the University of Michigan School of Information, then discussed the need to create best practices for fostering civic engagement. “I’m the question lady; I’m not necessarily the answer lady,” she said, as she outlined many of the questions we might need to ask when thinking about these best practices. What are civic engagement information needs? How can/do libraries build community? How do they understand the context of civic engagement and people’s information needs? What differences does library civic engagement make?

Durrance listed some examples of libraries that have tried to answer some of these questions, and then she talked in more detail about the Hartford Public Library and “At the Table-ness.” When researchers interviewed people in the community about the HPL, what they heard over and over again was that the HPL was “at the table.” What did that mean? It means that librarians

  • attend and participate in community activities as part of their library jobs
  • network, network, network with people in the community
  • promote the library as a place for civic discussions

It sounds like the HPL librarians are a little like my grandmother. She’s lived in her town for over 50 years, and she knows–and takes the time to know–everybody. She knows not just the names of the mail carrier and the guy who picks of the recycling; she knows their whole life histories. Whenever she calls a store and speaks to someone on the phone, she asks whom she’s speaking to. She doesn’t get out and about as much as she used to, but when she does, she invariably runs into someone she knows from a political campaign she’s worked on. The result of all this? Well, a couple weeks ago our shower stopped draining properly. It was about 3:30 on a Friday afternoon. My grandmother called the plumber, and at 3:45 someone showed up with a toolbox and a snake, and about an hour later, we had a functioning shower again. That’s kind of what I mean about what being an active community member can get you.

Now, can you imagine a library where they hold weddings, proms, funerals, and the breaking of the fast of Ramadan? Well, the Salt Lake City Public Library is one. Residents think of it as their most trusted and most valued city agency (although snow removal was a clsoe second). Nancy Tressman talked about how they built their new library with the community in mind–and, in fact, quite literarally with the community–set into the library’s foundation are stones engraved with comments submitted by library patrons about the value of the library. “Our answer to how to be ‘at the table’ was to become the table.” For those of us not possessed of the resources to build a new library, though, she noted that becoming the table was something you could try to do even without a snazzy new building. On the whole, it was a very encouraging presentation.

I’ve just looked at the clock, and my time is running short, so I’ll post more about the panel after later. Now it’s off for caffeine and Radical Reference!