Beyond Voter Registration Tables: Libraries and Civic Engagement
June 1, 2022
Sarah Rice, Forefront
Civic engagement can be defined as “individual and collective actions designed to identify and address issues of public concern,” which has a broad area of applications, according to the American Psychological Association. Frequently, however, it is discussed purely in association with civic duty and voter engagement. This can bring to mind displays for National Voter Registration Day (September 22, 2022, this year), tables to help people register to vote, and information packets about elections; but it can be so much more. Public concerns can be anything that affects your community, from food insecurity to implicit bias. Some of these programs may be considered community, rather than purely civic, engagement but all of the work discussed is aimed at addressing issues in the community and working together to create a more vibrant, supportive world.
First, though, there are several interesting activities surrounding voter engagement libraries can be involved in. For example, the Chatham Area Public Library has hosted candidate forums in collaboration with the local Chamber of Commerce for years. But, due to the pandemic, those forums went virtual which allowed the library to host events on multiple nights through Facebook Live and saw a vigorous response from the community. Director Amy Byers hopes to continue this format for the next consolidated election and has made the previous videos available to view on the library’s YouTube channel. The Gail Borden Public Library District allows candidates from all parties to use the library as a location for filming. Other libraries may partner with a group like the League of Women Voters to host informational panels in addition to general voter education and registration.
One impactful way libraries have been involved in civic engagement in recent years was the 2020 census. Especially in Illinois, where loss of representation was extremely likely, libraries stepped up to educate, reassure, and assist people with all the issues surrounding the count. RAILS and Forefront were part of a coalition called “IL Count Me in 2020” for Illinois to perform outreach regarding Census 2020. The focus was on helping ensure a fair and accurate count, keeping the public educated about shifts in the census timeline, and countering misinformation and other challenges such as the potential citizenship question. The funders collaborative associated with the coalition awarded grants to numerous organizations performing census work. One of these was the Gail Borden Public Library.
Denise Raleigh, Public Relations and Development Division Chief for Gail Borden, shared information about their efforts. The library had been involved in promoting the 2010 census as well, so already had experience in the area. Their kickoff event had around 350 people in attendance and unveiled an item called the world’s largest census tablet which showcased the number of languages spoken by residents in the area. The event helped involve people from different cultural communities and foster a sense of ownership over participating in the census work. Other related efforts involved partnering with organizations already trusted by hard to count communities to reinforce the message that the troubling citizenship question was not being asked and would not be on the forms. The community has reason to be proud of their efforts. Elgin went from 8th to 7th largest city in the state after the 2020 census.
Partnerships, like the ones among organizations for census work, tie into a broader message about engagement and being part of the community. Gail Borden’s involvement in the census work led to a contact who worked with the library in setting up an area for a pandemic team from the Illinois Public Health Association to work. The team provided resources about COVID-19 best practices, a vaccine clinic, and information about rental assistance opportunities. The library also has a staff person on a committee exploring community relations with the police department. Denise recommended exploring non-traditional ways to assist the community and mentioned that connecting with a variety of groups means they will bring program ideas to you when they need space and support.
In addition to census work and pandemic responses, social justice and racial equity have been issues around which libraries have created programming. In June 2020 the Schaumburg Township District Library created an anti-racism guide that asked patrons to “get inspired to take actions for the greater good.” Additionally, they hosted the travelling Bias Inside Us Exhibit and created programs to help viewers recognize the impact and influence implicit bias has on everyone. They also began a racial justice quarterly book discussion and celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day with conversation starter cards. Patrons could register for a pack online or ask for a physical set via drive-through. The cards dealt with many topics mentioned in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and contained starting ideas appropriate for all ages to facilitate learning about civil rights with family.
The Fox Valley River Public Library District also performed census work, including promoting census job opportunities to their patrons. However, a more ambitious project has been their 1619 discussion series. Starting with the 1619 Project itself, the program is hosted by the library, but the library staff do not moderate or take any leadership role in the discussion. Instead, the community group follows three rules: Be respectful, don’t dominate the conversation, and commit to learning rather than debate, in order to initiate dialogue about topics such as the criminal justice system and inequalities. Future topics and media are to be based on group feedback. Jason Katsion, Adult & Teen Services Manager, says the talks have seen a great response from a diverse group of patrons. The library has also partnered with nonprofit Alianza to provide drop-in immigration help, DACA renewal assistance, and citizenship programs. The strong attendance at these sessions prompted presentations on other library services since many participants had not previously been regular library users.
Finally, a conversation with Deirdre Brennan, Executive Director of RAILS, demonstrated how consortia and other supporting organizations can support and encourage the activities of other libraries. Their EDI initiative has materials for libraries looking to become more diverse, networking opportunities, and recordings of many trainings. In the area of community partnerships, the Explore More Illinois program encourages libraries to recommend museums and other cultural institutions for the system of free passes available to patrons. And, in a reinforcement of Raleigh’s statements about local government involvement, Brennan mentioned the importance of the Advocacy Committee’s work for libraries and the importance of projects like being involved in textbook approval committees.
So, from voter registration tables to inviting in community experts on immigration and disease to creating virtual opportunities for patrons to learn about anything from political candidates to civil rights libraries are continuing to engage their communities in evolving and novel ways. In closing, civic and community engagement is a core purpose of libraries in not just providing information to the public but also aiding in understanding and critiquing the issues confronting them. As the trustees for the Boston Public Library said in 1852, “For it has been rightly judged that, under political, social, and religious institutions like ours, it is of paramount importance that the means of general information should be so diffused that the largest possible number of persons should be induced to read and understand questions going down to the very foundations of the social order, and which we, as a people, are constantly required to decide, and do decide, either ignorantly or wisely.”
References & Resources:
- American Psychological Association definition of “civic engagement:” https://www.apa.org/education-career/undergrad/civic-engagement
- Forefront’s IL Count Me in 2020 initiative to drive a complete count in the 2020 census: http://ilcountmein2020.org
- Schaumburg Township District Library’s anti-racism resources: https://www.schaumburglibrary.org/about/news/anti-racism-resources
- The Smithsonian’s “The Bias Inside Us” initiative: https://biasinsideus.si.edu/homepage
- Alianza Hispanoamericana, which partnered with the Fox River Valley Public Library District: https://www.alianzanfp.org/
- Reaching Across Illinois Library System’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion resources: https://www.railslibraries.info/issues/183804