September 15 marks the United Nations International Day of Democracy. This is an opportunity for libraries to reflect on their current practices and roles in supporting transparency, the rule of law, civic participation and accountability – particularly in times of crisis.
The link between democracy, access to information and libraries has long been apparent to many information professionals around the world. Libraries’ mission to ensure equitable access to information, knowledge and skills-building opportunities, a commitment to intellectual freedom and an open and welcoming gathering place – all these traits equip libraries with the potential to be a unique tool for democracy, empowering communities and informed decision-making.
Seeing this unique potential, libraries’ role in supporting democracy is sometimes directly codified into law or policy. As Rydbeck and Johnston (2020) point out, Library Acts in Sweden and Hungary both say that promoting democracy is a part of public libraries’ social mission.
In parallel, new evidence and data continue to shed more light on how libraries’ role in supporting democracy can play out in practice – and magnitude of the impacts.
For example, a recent survey in Audunson et al (2019) offers insights on the proportion of library users in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Germany, Switzerland and Hungary who reported often or sometimes finding citizenship-relevant information in the library. This includes information on rights and duties (between 40 and 58), keeping updated (between 48 and 61), information on specific issues (between 44 and 56) and information for making decisions (between 39 and 55).
Much like traditional library services, targeted programs and other initiatives can also support political discourse and engagement. Focusing on libraries’ role in supporting public discussion and debate, Johnston and Audunson (2019), for example, explore how programs like library-based language cafes and conversation circles in Norway can assist with political integration of immigrants. One of the study’s findings was that nearly half of the volunteers and approximately a fifth of program participants reported learning about local or national political and civic issues in the process (as high as two-thirds of all participants in one of the locations – different libraries selected different topics for discussions during the programs).
These and more recent findings on libraries’ role in supporting democracy across Europe can be found in the ‘Archives, Libraries, Museums as Public Sphere Institutions in the Digital Age” project – see e.g. the “Libraries, Archives and Museums as Democratic Spaces in a Digital Age” volume (2020, edited by Ragnar et al).
Democracy in 2020
Such efforts are important as ever in 2020, which saw increasing challenges to democratic processes and values. Arranging safe and secure elections, addressing the increasing misinformation and disinformation concerns, protecting minority rights and vulnerable groups, upholding the human rights to freedom of assembly and association during the pandemic, ensuring access to and free flow of information – these are among the pressing challenges to ensuring and defending fundamental democratic values today.
What does this mean for library efforts to support democracy and civic engagement? What sort of activities can make the difference for democracy?
Supporting access to information: equitable access to quality information remains crucial to the democratic process – and especially during the pandemic, it saves lives.
Supporting skills-building: media and information literacy can increasingly be seen as crucial democracy issues, especially in the face of rapid digitisation and misinformation concerns. Informed and empowered people are at the very heart of democracy – and libraries continue to help their communities develop these skills.
Supporting engagement: where possible and appropriate, libraries are actively encouraging people’s participation in the electoral processes and governance – in the US, for example, public libraries’ experiences with supporting voter engagement range from assistance with voter registration to organising forums or debates, and beyond.
Social distancing and the ‘new normal’: even with library buildings closed, libraries can continue supporting and powering democracy. In the summer of 2020, for example, Auckland Libraries hosted a series of webinars on democracy in New Zealand – exploring both historic and modern perspectives ahead of the General Elections in September.
Where and when circumstances permit the use of library buildings for these initiatives, libraries could continue exploring hybrid approaches to promoting democracy and civic engagement. For example, a 2018 Technology & Social Change Group at the University of Washington and Annenberg Innovation Lab report mentions Biblioteca Nacional de Colombia’s project with Historypin which engaged the public in recording the history of municipalities. The project combined physical and online components, and had a significant impact in amplifying the voices of minority populations and changing the national discussions on ethnic diversity.
The versatility of roles: finally, at a time when supporting and promoting citizen engagement and building trust is crucial, it is worth for libraries to remember just how many shapes their support for democracy and good governance can take.
A recent overview of library roles in Open Government plans and strategies, for example, has shown the different ways libraries can help: supporting inclusive and responsive public service delivery, helping design or implement citizen engagement initiatives, supporting Open Government Data regions, and more. Drawing on such experiences and adapting to the new circumstances, libraries continue to support democracy in 2020 and beyond.