Sunday, April 20, 2008



Bowling Alone is a book that was often mentioned during the “Bridging the Divide” Preconference I attended at PLA. This book and the preconference address how people are feeling more and more alienated, removed from dialogue and possibilities; they don’t feel like active members of the community. People are spending less time with people who are different from them and need a public space where they can discuss ideas and reengage in the community.

The speakers, who have all been involved with civic engagement for a number of years, talked about how libraries can help bridge the divide as they are safe, neutral environments in which people from all walks of life are present. They spoke of many roles that libraries can fill in order to help bring people together:

1) The library as a civic space. Libraries can offer space to groups that want to meet and discuss issues.

2) The library as public forum. Libraries can host forums in which members of the community can meet to discuss ideas.

3) The library as a civic information center, a place where people can engage with the government. Donna Lauffer, a presenter from Johnson County Library in Kansas, developed a community series, Community Issues 101, as part of a strategic plan initiative to become more connected with the community. Other handouts from Johnson County Library can be found on PLA’s conference handout page (code #1025), and on the library’s website.

4) The library as a community wide reading club. There is a handout called “Civic Engagement and Libraries Recommended Reading” that can be found both on the PLA handout page and the Johnson County Library website.

5) The library as a partner in public service, working with others to better the community. Betsy McBride, Media and Communications Coordinator for the City of Virginia Beach, Virginia, talked about how the Virginia Beach library worked with the city to create a website and informational pieces, and host community forums on a redevelopment initiative the city was pursuing and wanted more community input on. There are handouts with samples of some of the work done in Virginia Beach on the redevelopment project.

6) The library as enabler of civic literacy, helping people learn how to work together. We discussed how libraries can be a resource for problem solving. When hosting community forums, libraries can give the message that “The library is here because it is important to bring people together.” A deliberative discussion style is recommended for forums because it encourages listening and sharing. An issues map which lists three approaches to the problem being discussed can help encourage discussion and not debate. Guidelines are given to encourage speakers to focus on the approaches, consider all the approaches, look at deliberating and examining the trade-offs among choices, and listening to each other and seeking common ground and understanding. Handouts can be found on “Debate vs. Deliberation” and “Compromise, Consensus and Common Ground (for Action)”, and a sample issues map.

7) The library as a public advocate for engagement. After hearing about the great forums that have been held and could be held by other libraries, the preconference participants asked “What happens with the information you get from the public at these forums?” The speakers said that the information could be put into reports that can be shared with relevant decision makers. They highly recommended that forum attendees who ask “What next?” be steered toward relevant advocacy groups and their legislators. The library is a neutral participant which can’t take sides, but can help people find needed resources to take the next steps. Libraries can also create bibliographies of related resources that may be of interest and encourage further civic engagement. The participants also suggested that publicity for community engagement events could be done with the help of its partners and Friend’s groups.

--Erin Z-R.

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