Civic Engagement in Public Libraries

rubin_fullsize_rgbIn Chapter 3 of Foundations of Library and Information Science, Richard Rubin hones in on a number of issues impacting public libraries. All of the issues discussed are current and important, and some are interrelated like Changing Fiscal Realities, Assessing Value, and The Political Climate. While I think these first three issues are the most important considerations for public libraries, Rubin’s discussion of civic engagement piqued my interest. Given that public libraries are affected by the fiscal policies of local governments, a civic society is crucial for the continued success of public libraries.

Civic Engagement:

Because public libraries are dependent on local government decisions, largely through amended tax plans and millage proposals, the lack of civic engagement in various communities has alarmed staunch library defenders. The fear is that if nobody fights for libraries through the traditional political channels – such as through signing petitions and voting – then that would signal the death knell for public libraries.

There was a paper I read in undergrad by Lance Bennett called Changing Citizenship in the Digital Age. The author, Bennett, convincingly showed that younger generations (read Millennials) are no longer interested in traditional forms of civic engagement such as voting or volunteering with their local community organizations. Bennett noted that this lack of interest in politics is due to poor civic education in public schools, as well as politicians’ lassitude when it comes to issues younger people care about. Because of their disenchantment with contemporary politics, young citizens have turned away from public life into social networks.

Bennett discovered that, contrary to widespread opinion, younger citizens actually do care about civic issues, but they are more involved in advocating for social movements than promoting traditional democracy. Incidentally, social networking lends itself well to the formation of social movements. The problem with online social movements, however, or aggregates of young citizens defending a social cause on the Internet, is that this particular channel of “civic” engagement lacks political leverage. In other words, debating social issues on Facebook is not going to change legislation.

Bennett’s call to action is for politicians, educators, and young people to learn how to use social media to build civic and political communities. I think the forum in which civic engagement takes place has moved into the digital realm. The Libraries Transforming Communities (LTC) Initiative mentioned in Rubin’s text seems to be conducive to harnessing public communications online and turning them into something tangible at the civic level, instead of letting those communications disappear in a vacuum.

Also, piggybacking off the idea of encouraging civic engagement in the digital age is Rubin’s section on the purported “Digital Divide.” I was surprised by the statistics suggesting that one-third of the population is digitally illiterate (Rubin, 107). In order for citizens to be more engaged and productive members of today’s society, they need to be able to use computers and the Internet to access information. It seems like now, more than ever, public libraries should serve their communities by offering digital literacy or digital readiness workshops.

References:

Bennett, W. Lance. “Changing Citizenship in the Digital Age.” Civic Life Online: Learning How Digital Media Can Engage Youth. Edited by W. Lance Bennett. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008. 1–24.

Rubin, R. E. (2016). Foundations of Library and Information Science (Fourth ed.). Chicago: Neal-Schuman.

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