February 16, 2018

Engage the Electorate: Ramping up for 2016 | Editorial

Rebecca T. MillerThe 2016 presidential primary activity and election may provide libraries with an unmatched opportunity to show their stuff. As candidates officially jump into the race, voters are already inundated by an unprecedented volume of information and perspectives—not to mention the onslaught of misinformation and distractions. As the pace heats up, potential voters will need help engaging in the process, and voters will need more help than ever sorting out the facts on the real issues and learning what they need to make their own decisions.

The public library’s role in fostering our democracy through cultivating informed voters has been part of the institution’s promise from the very beginning, back in 1852, in Boston. Despite the many transitions in how libraries have delivered on that mission over the years, the fundamental role remains intact and more critical than ever.

In his brilliant new work, Biblotech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google (starred review, LJ 3/15/15, p. 107), John Palfrey reflects on this core contribution libraries make to their communities, large and small. He writes, “Libraries provide access to the skills and knowledge necessary to fulfill our roles as active citizens. Libraries also function as essential equalizing institutions in our society.” (Palfrey will deliver a keynote address at LJ’s virtual event The Digital Shift: Libraries Connecting Communities on October 14; see the call for proposals.)

This ongoing responsibility remains key, and the work to fulfill it can’t be a passive process if we want effectively to enable our patrons to rise above the noise. Today, the opportunity to put the library into the conversation as a resource, wherever that conversation is happening, is unique given all the touch points libraries have with the people in their communities. There’s ongoing engagement in social media, savvy in-person and online outreach, and the many ways libraries can deploy library spaces to share information and foster civil communication.

I’m reminded of cutting-edge approaches such as when Radical Reference (now on hiatus) put librarians in the streets during the protests around the Republican National Convention in New York City in 2004. In 2012, Seattle librarians set a new bar when they brought research skills into an election process by providing fact-checking of a voter’s guide via an Ask a Librarian button. Libraries’ Facebook and Twitter feeds offer continuous opportunity to infuse reliable information into the stream of social media.

Any number of libraries already actively deploy their convening power to stimulate local civic dialog, turning their physical spaces into forums to explore ideas, opinions, and diverse perspectives. This face-to-face programming is vitally important as open civic spaces in our culture get harder to find, and as research shows that social media does not fully serve the same need, owing to the “spiral of silence” that discourages online debate. The library is and should be a place to participate in responsible discussions with a goal to developing deeper understanding and building informed insight—all delivering on the promise of the much-needed third place.

Given the morass of information voters will have to interpret, the national election also calls out the need to update and elevate our information literacy efforts and engage in ever more proactive media literacy training. People of all ages will require assistance in separating for themselves the reliable from the unreliable as they navigate the web and their own in-boxes. This all speaks to the inherent strengths of library work. In the process, patrons will become increasingly politically literate, and all of our civic lives will be enriched.

These are early days in what promises to be an intense and ongoing national debate, and already the hype is high. Now is the time to begin laying the groundwork so people can understand and explore the issues at hand and, regardless of income or other gaps, participate fully in the democratic process.

“Democracies can work only if all citizens have equal access to information and culture that can help them make good choices, whether at the voting booth or in other aspects of public life,” Palfrey also writes. This rings true for elections small and large, and the 2016 presidential race provides a vital opportunity to keep making the difference only a public library can make.


This article was published in Library Journal's May 1, 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller (miller@mediasourceinc.com) is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.