November 22, 2017

As Campaigns Crest, Some Libraries Step Up Election Education Efforts

By Raya Kuzyk

  • Election education takes off at libraries in early primary states
  • Caucus training sessions, special displays, catalog listings, web pages
  • Four out of ten voters turn to Internet for election info 

In our September 15 issue, LJ Publisher Ron Shank challenged libraries to make 2008 the “year of election education” by informing the public on election procedure, proposals for reform, and candidates’ backgrounds and positions. Certainly, Barbara Peterson, director of the Council Bluffs Public Library, IA (also VP/president-elect of the Iowa Library Association), speaks for a lot of librarians when she told LJ that she and her staff “just haven’t found the time to do very much” relating to election education.

But many of the libraries we surveyed have been making concerted efforts to educate their patrons—through such means as caucus training sessions, special displays, mock elections, and web site portals. While none of these efforts compare to what traditional news outlets like CNN and the New York Times can offer the inquiring citizen, some are definitely viable contenders. Here, we look to libraries in a handful of states with the earliest caucuses and primaries to see how they’ve been mobilizing voter engagement so far, both from within the library and online.

Our campaign stops

• Iowa (January 3)
• New Hampshire (January 8)
• Michigan (January 15)
• Illinois (February 5)
• New York (February 5)
• Texas (March 4)

Turning out the vote

Attendance figures for political events at the Iowa libraries we surveyed show that people are amenable to getting their election information from libraries. At every one of the “informative meetings representing candidates from both parties”—as director Carolyn Walz describes them—held at Iowa’s small-town Estherville Public Library in recent months, she’s counted at least 20 attendees. “For a community of our size, I feel this is some good cross representation of politically minded individuals preparing themselves for the caucuses,” Walz told LJ.

At this year’s annual legislative coffee, through which Denison Public Library promotes the importance of supporting libraries locally and statewide, the library invited the campaign staff and family members of all viable presidential candidates. With Sen. Christopher Dodd’s (D-CT) wife, Jackie, among others, in attendance, some 50 people turned out for the event, reports director Emily Weaver. Twenty more people showed up for a nonpartisan program called “Caucus with Confidence” that the library hosted the following night. “As a result of that event,” Weaver told LJ, “we had an Obama staffer contact us who’s now going to lead a session here on Spanish-language caucus training.” 

Toeing the party line

Indeed, caucus training is a frontrunner among election-related initiatives at the libraries we surveyed, which have taken various approaches. The Davenport Public Library, IA, has printed (and reprinted, thanks to interest spurred by local news coverage) caucus guides, distributed to more than 1000 citizens thus far.

The Iowa City Public Library (whose catalog offers a Candidates Bookshelf (left) listing books written by or about presidential contenders) recently held an event in association with the Johnson County Democratic and Republican parties called “How To Caucus” that it will air live on the library television station and re-air up until caucus time.

Waging an online campaign

A nationwide study conducted by the digital marketing company iCrossing on people’s election 2008 information-gathering methods showed that 42 percent of voters are learning about candidates and their issues via the Internet. Good thing, then, that several of the libraries we surveyed are making efforts to reach them through their web sites.

• The State Library of Iowa’s site features a page that links to election resources, lists candidates, speaks to their qualifications, posts their web sites and contact information, and educates readers on the workings of caucuses and the electoral college.
 • The West Des Moines Public Library (in addition to featuring a display of books written by or about the current slate of candidates) has posted information on its site (left) to help patrons find their caucusing locations. “We feel this is a big part of our responsibility to the caucus process, to facilitate the provision of information,” director Ray Vignovich told LJ.
• The Dover Public Library’s (NH) site links to three sites with directions on how and where to vote and offers a voters’ guide to the two proposed amendments to the state’s Constitution.
• Among the Bloomingdale Public Library (IL) site’s weekly updated links is “new and newly-discovered Web sites,” including election-related reports by the Pew Research Center.
• The “Election and Voting” page of the Brooklyn Public Library (NY) site bullets general information and links to and gives descriptions of useful sites, e-resources (e.g., for “Associations Unlimited: Try ‘Elections’ or ‘Voter Registration’ in the Subject Descriptor field”), print resources, and FAQs.
• On the Harris County Public Library’s (TX) site, users can find polling locations, see sample ballots, and link to sites maintained by Democratic, Republican, and eight different third parties. The page also recommends movies involving politics, the presidency, and elections as well as election-related books for both children and adults. 

Ann Arbor District Lib. ahead on election blogging

Information Services Coordinator Maeve Clark says the Davenport Public Library, IA, staff is in the process of creating a caucus-focused blog on its home page. Bravo, but Michigan, though its caucus comes days after Iowa’s, is months ahead in this regard: the Ann Arbor District Library’s staff has been blogging (left) on issues relating to politics and elections as far back as August. 

Consider your core constituency

Those libraries not yet electing to educate their communities on political matters might consider this finding from the iCrossing study: of potential voters seeking election information online, 58 percent of 18-to-34 year olds find answers on user-driven content sites like YouTube and Wikipedia. That may leave a space for libraries.

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