Magazine article American Libraries

This Election, Offer Voters Facts, Not Campaign Rhetoric

Magazine article American Libraries

This Election, Offer Voters Facts, Not Campaign Rhetoric

Article excerpt

PROJECT VOTE SMART PROVIDES A FREE ANTIDOTE TO CAMPAIGN SNIPE AND HYPE

Attack ads on TV. Manipulative opinion polls. Endless analysis of campaign strategies. Election season sound and fury, signifying very little--in other words, politics as usual. How are the poor voters to defend themselves? Head for the library, of course.

This year, patrons of more than 2,000 public and academic libraries have a potent antidote to campaign hype and snipe, thanks to a partnership between the libraries and a nonpartisan political information resource called Project Vote Smart. A vast library in its own right, the project tracks all presidential, congressional, gubernatorial, and legislative candidates across the country, providing citizens with millions of facts on their voting records, backgrounds, campaign finance data, special interests, campaign issue positions, and contact information.

It's a simple and mutually rewarding arrangement. First of all, it's all free. Project Vote Smart provides unbiased, accurate, well-documented information voters need to make wise decisions, while the libraries provide visibility and access. Project Vote Smart furnishes unlimited free copies for patrons of the Voter's Self Defense Manual and two reference copies per library branch of the more comprehensive Reporter's Source Book and Vote Smart Web YellowPages, as well as information on how to access the Vote Smart Web site (www.vote-smart.org) and toll-free Voter's Research Hotline at 888-VOTE SMART (888-868-3762). Participating libraries agree to display the materials (PVS also provides a 3-by-5-foot banner for each branch library) and to help the project publicize the display in local media.

"It's a perfect partnership because libraries and Project Vote Smart share many of the same goals and values," said Adelaide Elm, a project board member with an MLS from the University of Arizona library school. "Both are committed to providing information to the public in an open, unbiased way. I think it's safe to say we share the conviction that access to trustworthy information is fundamental to preserving democracy."

That sentiment was affirmed eloquently by reference librarian Sue Berescik, explaining why the East Hampton (Ct.) Public Library joined the partnership: "In many ways, the public library is the last truly democratic institution--we serve everyone--and in a small town, the library and the grocery store are the town squares."

In fact, many libraries told Project Vote Smart they signed on because they believe it is the library's civic duty to provide useful voter information. As Sallie Brodie, head of adult services at Cromaine District Library in Hartland, Michigan, put it, "We are the one institution in our community that everyone looks to for information." Citing part of her library's mission as "building a sense of community," Paula Moore, public services coordinator at Arlington Heights (Ill.) Memorial Library, explained, "Providing election information to help voters make informed decisions is one way we can fulfill that aspect of our mission."

Bypassing the media

Libraries that have joined the partnership also acknowledge the lack of substantive information provided in the news media's election coverage. As Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, points out in her book Dirty Politics (Oxford University Press, 1992), decades of research show that "political news reports concentrate not on policy discussion or...performance... but on the strategy, gameplan, and the horse race of campaigns."

"The general media have simply stopped covering genuine political topics in any consistent and intelligent way and provide hardly any information that could help us decide who to vote for," said Lawrence Clayton, reference librarian at Lake Villa (Ill.) District Library. "The major newspapers scarcely ever tabulate congressional votes (even I, at 41, can remember when this was a weekly feature of many city dailies), rarely quote elected officials at any length, and generally ignore their opponents altogether. …

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