Libraries as Civic Spaces

Article excerpt

Civil society "needs a habitation; it must become a real place that offers the abstract idea of a public voice, a palpable geography somewhere other than in the twin atlases of government and markets."

Benjamin Barber, Jihad vs. McWorld (Random House, 1995)

Over the past decades, the United States has experienced a decline in voter turnout and in attendance at political rallies, fewer people are engaging in politics, and there is reduced involvement with civic organizations. While countries throughout Eastern Europe, and elsewhere seek to establish democratic institutions, here at home there is a deepening cynicism about public affairs. Concern about our civic disengagement has sparked a renewed interest in reinvigorating civil society and encouraging more opportunities to participate in our American democracy.

Librarians can be key players

Who is better equipped to face the challenge of strengthening citizen action and civil society in our communities than libraries? A democracy needs safe gathering places where community members can share interests and concerns. Information is essential to civic participation and the development of civil society. Effective citizen action is possible only when citizens know how to gain access to information of all kinds and have the skills to become responsible, informed participants in our democracy.

We librarians can be key players who help prepare citizens for lifelong civic participation and membership in civil society. Our libraries provide both the information and the community forum opportunities for dialogue that the public needs to make decisions about common concerns. Libraries offer citizens the real and virtual civic spaces where they can speak freely, share similar interests and concerns, and pursue what they believe is in their and the public's interest. Ultimately, free discourse among informed citizens assures civil society; and civil society provides the social capital necessary to achieve sovereignty of the people, by the people, and for the people.

This is why one of the focuses of my presidency is to encourage libraries to rekindle civic spirit and participation by engaging the public in discussions about our democratic values. …