TASCHA explores public libraries' role in civic engagement

What role should public libraries play in civic engagement?

That was the question posed to a cross-section of leading thinkers — invitees from public libraries, civic media, technology, collective action, the arts and other fields — at a gathering hosted by the Information School’s Technology & Social Change Group (TASCHA). At a time when society is increasingly divided, libraries remain trusted institutions that seek to serve the public good, but how far should their efforts go? And should librarians be asked to serve as instructors and advocates?

A new TASCHA report documents the ideas shared at the forum by notable participants such as Brian Bannon, Chicago Public Library commissioner; An-Me Chung, a senior fellow with the Mozilla Foundation; Marnie Webb, CEO of Caravan Studios; Diego Merizalde, program coordinator at Biblioteca Nacional de Colombia; and others from the public, private and nonprofit sectors.

Participants at the May 2017 forum shared their experiences with civic engagement – efforts to make a positive difference in the quality of life in their communities. Bannon, for example, spoke about the library’s role in “On the Table,” an annual event at which people gather in their neighborhoods to share their challenges and ideas for solutions. Merizalde highlighted the role of libraries in connecting Colombian society after years of civil war. These and other stories served to highlight opportunities for public libraries to show their value as civic actors, as well as the challenges involved in putting more work on libraries’ plates when most are already strained for resources.

TASCHA’s report notes that public libraries must approach civic engagement differently depending on their location, resources and community expectations, and it suggests possible actions for those that are ready to embrace a larger role. Those ideas include supporting diversity among staff; collaborating with civics organizations; sharing their successes with other libraries; and modifying the academic and professional development curricula for librarians.

The report points to a path forward that strengthens public libraries’ role in civic life. Libraries can take actions that improve people’s web and media literacy skills and increase their participation in the democratic process, and do so without venturing into political advocacy. “Civic engagement is neither pro-right nor pro-left on the political spectrum; it is pro-democracy,” the report states.

The forum, held on the University of Washington campus, was funded by a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant aimed at strengthening the global library field. It was co-hosted by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Innovation Lab.

The report, “Public Libraries as Platforms for Civic Engagement,” is available now on the TASCHA website.