I’ve spent most of my graduate school time thinking about civic engagement and libraries. Nearly all of my papers, including my thesis, have revolved around the concept of civic engagement. I’m not alone in this–Nancy Kranich and many other library rock stars are thinking about it as well. When I attended the Beyond Books summit at MIT last April, the conversation revolved around how libraries and journalists could support on another and their communities via civic engagement.
What I’m realizing is that there are a gazillion definitions of what civic engagement is. Most people see it as a behavior, or set of actions. A lot of the conversations at Beyond Books was about how to “get” people (especially kids) engaged. This feels like elitist do-gooder talk to me. I personally don’t want to “get” anyone to do anything (well, actually, I do, but I nobly attempt to repress this, at least at work. At home it’s “fetch my slippers, lackey!” Or at least I wish it were.)
Trust is the key to real, enduring engagement, because engagement can’t be forced. And trust scares a lot of people, because we don’t recognize a lot of what teens (and adults) do as civic engagement. It’s hard to trust that people will get from following a band to intelligent participatory democracy, but Putnam, Lin, Bordieau, etc. say that one leads to another. How can we be patient and trust this process without being pushy, judgmental, didactic? I heard a lot of questions at the conference that sounded like: “How do we get people to…” (emphasis mine). This may just be a loose language thing, but to me the use of the verbs like “get” implies force or coercion. (from my session notes from Beyond Books)
I’m more interested in facilitating engagement. As in “facility” or ease. I want to make it easy for people to engage, without forcing them to do anything. I want them to trust that I won’t manipulate them “for their own good.” I like how Erlich defines civic engagement as:
Working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes (p. vi).
The knowledge, skills, values and motivation for engagement are things that I can directly affect with library services. I can promote the quality of life in a community and make it easy for others to do so as well. I can also facilitate engagement behaviors and actions when I ask for volunteers, donations, advocacy, etc. In fact, I think public libraries are the gateway drug to civic engagement, or could be, if we as librarians worried less about the stinking books we offer and more about the possibilities of a free institution based on the concept of sharing.
So I get kind of crazy when I hear people talking about revenue and ROI and entrepeneurial librarianship. The whole model of libraries is that it’s not going to make money, but make community. I wrote a letter to the editor of Library Journal (which they didn’t publish, mind) when they printed this lame article called “for love or money.” I said libraries are what we have money FOR, and that talking about how libraries could MAKE money was missing the point entirely.
As an example (or an aside) let me rant about libraries that include “buy this book now” links in their catalog. They are certainly supporting an individualistic need for instant gratification (or a desire to own a great book, which is fine), but may be missing the community welfare aspect of sharing (which sometimes means that you WAIT YOUR FREAKING TURN). Individualism needs to be balanced with the needs of the community. In other words, buy enough copies of the book so your patrons don’t need to buy their own copy. If you don’t have enough money to buy the copies, the solution is not to sell things, but to facilitate engagement so your patrons will work on the behalf of the library to ensure that we have enough funding. We need to remind our patrons and communities why the public library version of “socialism” is far superior for everyone than the individualism that means only well-off people have access to information.
Anyway, it makes me particularly happy to see that CIRCLE came out with a study showing that civic engagement can strengthen the economy. How about love AND money? By building social capital and engaging, people network, gain skills, increase social trust which can lead to investment, etc. This is another way public libraries can economically support their communities: aside from the education, job training, business support, and resume assistance we all do everyday, we can also make it easy for people to engage.
If your library doesn’t already have a volunteer program, make one available. I don’t care about your union rules, just find a way for people to chip in. Can they write reviews, do fundraisers, offer training or lead programs?
If you don’t request donations, start. At our library we have a “wishlist” tree on our front desk every winter, where we have ornaments spelling out what we wish we could offer and someone can donate–magazine subscriptions, videogames, movies, etc.
Ask people to write letters to the editor (my situation the last few weeks was NOT based on this advice, but was accidental. Nevertheless, it was a great advocacy opportunity) and attend city council meetings on your behalf. Most people will be more willing to write letters than to speak up at a meeting.
Like many libraries, HPL does “food for fines” each year. We get many donations of food even from people who have no fines, and the often financially-strapped people with big fines can start the new year with a blank slate and use the library again. Some local librarians are irritated that we would accept their patron’s food donations in lieu of fines, so this year we’ve stopped clearing fines from other libraries. This is dumb. Not only is it a waste of staff time, it misses the points of food for fines: getting food for hungry people, and library materials for poor people. In my opinion, a librarian should not be so concerned about whether they are her poor people, or poor people from the next town over. I could list another 10 reasons why it’s ridiculous to not want fines to be paid this way, but I’ll save that for another post. Let me just say that food for fines is a good way to get people engaged in ensuring that everyone has enough to eat.
Sometimes facilitating engagement is extra work for already over-burdened librarians. But if our missions are something like this:
Our Mission: To enrich the lives of all our community members with free access to programs, materials and services that empower, educate and inspire.
than we should consider ways we can enrich, empower, educate and inspire engagement as part of our day-to-day jobs.
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