Libraries of all types support the civic life of their communities through activities that fulfill their missions — teaching information literacy, providing community gathering spaces, fostering access to information, connecting people with each other, and more. Public libraries, in particular, have had a long history of supporting and promoting civic engagement in their communities.1 Libraries are often recognized as “a great place to bring democracy to life”2 and as “foundational to democracy.” Library staff are experts who can help “revitalize community and strengthen democracy”3 by teaching people the information literacy skills necessary to develop their “civic capacity.”4

How do libraries intentionally support and promote civic engagement and civic literacy among their communities, not just as a byproduct of their missions? The Librarian of Congress told a 1940 meeting of the American Library Association that librarians must “become active and not passive agents of the democratic process.”5 Nancy Kranich, a scholar on libraries’ role in democracy, responded to that call, noting that “with renewed interest in promoting deliberative democracy around the country, libraries are poised to grasp this cause” of being active agents of the democratic process.6 Moving beyond how libraries are poised to support democracy, this column explores how library workers and libraries in Virginia are actually supporting democracy, on the ground. Focusing on the “tangible impact” of the “philosophical ties between libraries and democracy”7 may be especially important at this time, when the national political discourse is centering on “democratic values and their future, information integrity, disinformation, and political lies.”8 Additionally, our communities may welcome their libraries focusing on civic engagement, considering that half of the public are paying more attention to politics now than before the 2016 presidential election9 and that partisan divides over political values have widened dramatically in recent years.10

Libraries have generally made a reputation of not participating in politics, which can hinder our community outreach work, restrict our civic engagement efforts, and reduce our perceived value among policymakers and the public

While our users are starting to pay more attention to politics, some people are insisting on the social and political ‘neutrality’ of libraries, and therefore not meaningfully engaging in some of the conversations taking place in our communities. Though library neutrality has been a topic of debate in our profession,11 libraries have generally made a reputation of not participating in politics, which can hinder our community outreach work, restrict our civic engagement efforts, and reduce our perceived value among policymakers and the public. The construct of library neutrality implies that libraries should engage only with “apolitical” community issues.12 Additionally, a ‘neutrality’ stance does not encourage libraries or library workers “to seek out and attempt to ameliorate conditions within local communities,”13 which conflicts with the aspect of civic engagement related to “questioning social injustices and seeking ways to empower community members and encourage change.”14 Libraries that strive to remain or appear neutral may ignore “the specific concerns of marginalized groups,”15 instead often addressing the concerns of “racial, social, and political majorities,”16 while simultaneously limiting their civic engagement work to “apolitical” issues.

By choosing to give the impression of neutrality, libraries may also be allowing others in the political realm to make decisions for us, without our input. Jaeger et al., made this point, arguing, “This neutrality stance, combined with a paucity of research demonstrating the contributions of libraries to democracy, frequently places libraries in the position of having major political and policy decisions happen to them, their voice basically unheard and ignored.”17 If libraries continue to perpetuate this narrative of neutrality, we create a space for dominant voices, which may conflict with our profession’s values, to monopolize democratic discourse without considering our own voice as people and as an institution -- in essence, making our profession invisible and without agency. By remaining neutral, we strip our ability to act on our own behalf and for the benefit of the most vulnerable members of our community. However, by choosing to actively involve ourselves in the civic life of our communities, libraries can fulfill our “moral responsibility to address the needs of communities,”18 demonstrate our value to policymakers and the public, and honor our profession’s core values19 -- including democracy, diversity, social responsibility, and the public good.

It is in this context that we wanted to explore examples of library staff promoting civic engagement and serving as agents in the democratic process via their work in libraries in Virginia. We chose to focus on the efforts of our colleagues locally, within the Commonwealth. We began with a survey e-mailed to the communications directors (or similar staff) of all academic libraries in Virginia.20 Academic libraries have a unique opportunity to engage their campus and surrounding community in civic learning.21 In a recent editorial, Marianne Ryan and Geoffrey Swindells argue that “by lending their spaces, services, and expertise, [academic libraries] can become vital partners in this [civic learning] effort, demonstrating value to the campus community and beyond.”22 In our 2017 survey, the most common activity to promote civic engagement that academic libraries reported was offering space for non-library groups to facilitate dialogues on issues of public civic interest. Other popular academic library actions included featuring civic engagement themes on social media, offering civic learning opportunities, and showcasing book displays related to civic engagement. Building on this survey, we wanted to take a closer look at some of the civic engagement activities that libraries of all types in Virginia are pursuing. We shared a link to a survey via the Virginia Library Association e-mail list in May 2018 and received eight stories of civic engagement work in Virginia libraries, all from public libraries, except for the two stories we are sharing from our own experience at the Libraries at James Madison University. We have summarized the stories and grouped them into some of the categories that Nancy Kranich has used to document civic initiatives in U.S. libraries over the past decade.23 We hope that by sharing these stories of library workers supporting the civic literacy and civic participation of the people in their communities, this column might offer ideas or insight to other library workers seeking inspiration in this area.

The Library as Civic Space

“Libraries abet social capital by providing a space, or commons, where citizens can turn to solve personal and community problems.”24

Figure 1: Valentines Day-themed Postcards to Representatives program at JMU Libraries. Photo by JMU University Marketing and Communication. (Used with permission.)

The library serving as a civic space was a common theme in all of the stories we received of civic engagement initiatives at libraries across Virginia. Libraries provide a natural space for all members of their communities to engage with information, meet and gather together, and ideally learn from one another. It makes sense for libraries to intentionally foster that and to create spaces for these interactions to happen in a meaningful way. As we see in the following examples, activities enlivening these civic spaces range from events and workshops to community reading initiatives. At the James Madison University (JMU) Libraries, we have used our spaces to host programs related to the theme of civic engagement including formal events, such as panel discussions.25 But we have also encouraged civic engagement in more informal and fun ways in our spaces, mainly in our busy lobbies, some of the highest-traffic campus commons. Like many libraries, we support voter registration efforts, including allowing DukesVote, JMU’s non-partisan, student-led civic engagement initiative to host tables in our lobbies. Because civic engagement extends beyond simply voting, we have also organized postcard writing programs in our lobbies, in which we provide stationery for students (and any member of the community) to easily contact their elected representatives about issues they care about. We provide all the materials and mail the postcards to create a low-stakes, low-effort activity that gets students thinking about community problems and actions they can take to solve them. These programs may even increase students’ awareness as to who their representatives are, because we provide a sign identifying the elected officials who represent the local area and instructions for looking up representatives if participants vote elsewhere. At the two Valentine’s Day-themed events in 2017 and 2018, students wrote more than 125 postcards to elected representatives. The local television station covered the most recent postcard writing program, so our message of civic participation extended beyond our immediate campus, to the surrounding community.26 These types of events are fun to plan, take little effort on our part once implemented, and reinforce the library’s value as a community and civic space.

The Library as Enabler of Civic Literacy

“Children and adults alike must learn a broad range of 21st century literacy skills if they are to become smart seekers, recipients, and creators of content, as well as effective citizens.”27

Beyond providing civic space for community members and groups, library workers can expand on our information literacy expertise to also facilitate civic literacy in our communities. Ryan and Swindells encourage this, saying “the library should not merely provide access to information, but instead equip its users to engage with others, building confidence and competency in democratic practice and gaining from different perspectives in the process.”28 The Fairfax County Public Library (FCPL) did just that in 2017 when they partnered with the George Mason University School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution to provide a series of workshops on media literacy and dialogue skills. These workshops covered a range of media literacy topics, such as web searching, source evaluation, fact checking, and so on. Many of these are skills that library workers already teach every day. But this initiative went beyond these standard skills to also teach dialogue skills, like effective listening, cross-cultural communication, and dealing with emotions. The workshops contextualized information literacy and media literacy within a civic engagement frame, teaching skills that could be used in interpersonal situations and would have broader effects on the community. On average, series attendance was 17 people per session, a number that FCPL considers successful for adult programs, especially a program that required no budget other than staff time and incidental photocopying expenses. Participant feedback was positive and indicated that the series was timely, informative, and interesting. Christine Jones from FCPL explained, “The workshops provide the community practical tools to increase media literacy and civil communication with the ultimate goal of decreasing political polarization.”

At the Williamsburg Regional Library (WRL), a community-based education program called “Constitutional Conversations” was created to educate adults and teens about their civic rights and duties. This series, held from 2010 through 2017, combined a lecture with a “community conversation experience” to inspire people to become active participants in the democratic process. From 2010 through 2014, the core years for this program, average attendance was 40 adults and 18 teens per month. There was no dedicated budget for this popular program – the WRL provided space, technical support, and advertising, while the William & Mary Law School invited students and faculty members to serve as speakers and facilitators. Janet Crowther from WRL explained, “Instruction in the history and development of our fundamental constitutional rights is an indispensable foundation for effective civics training for all Americans.” This type of library-based civic literacy instruction places the civic learning activity in a civic space where the community members can engage with each other and the speakers.

Figure 2: Constitutional Jeopardy at JMU Libraries. Photo by Kristen Shuyler.

At JMU Libraries, we have also engaged with topics related to the Constitution as an aspect of civic literacy. In 2017 we developed a Jeopardy-style game focused on the U.S. Constitution. We played it with students, staff, and faculty in the lobbies of our two largest campus libraries to celebrate Constitution Day. With categories such as Supreme Court Decisions, Advocating Equality, and Constitutional Conflicts, the game was an interactive way to teach library visitors about the U.S. Constitution and related topics. It was also a relatively easy and inexpensive process to build and teach the game, with staff time, in-house printing, and cookies representing the only costs. After writing the questions with help from JMU’s liaison librarian to political science, Howard Carrier, we created the game by printing the answer-question pairs on letter-size paper and taping those papers to large whiteboards. Teaching the game was fairly simple, as most players had some knowledge of how to play Jeopardy from exposure to the television show. Beyond being an interactive way to increase our community’s civic knowledge, developing and hosting “Constitutional Jeopardy” is also an effective way to help JMU fulfill a federal requirement. Since 2005, public and private educational institutions that receive federal funds have been required to hold an educational program on the U.S. Constitution on September 17 each year.29 Because the federal legislation delineating this requirement is quite general, schools can do almost anything to celebrate the day,30 including offering library-led civic literacy programs such as this game. Political science and history classes should not be the only places where students increase their civic literacy -- other learning venues, especially libraries, should also impart the civic literacy and civic skills that our campuses and communities need.

The Library as Public Forum and Conversation Catalyst

“Many school, public, and academic libraries host public programs that facilitate the type of discourse that offers citizens a chance to frame issues of common concern, deliberate about choices for solving problems, create deeper understanding about others’ opinions, connect citizens across the spectrum of thought, and recommend appropriate action that reflects legitimate guidance from the whole community”31

Functioning as a public forum or conversation catalyst was by far the most common initiative taken on by Virginia public libraries engaging in the civic realm. Seven of the eight libraries we spoke with hold community conversations on civic topics, including civil rights, affordable housing, immigration, and more. For example, the Central Rappahannock Regional Library offers “Community Conversations,” a series that explores issues of local relevance, such as food and hunger, civility, affordable housing, and public safety. Each session features a panel of four to five local leaders or experts to share brief information on the topic, followed by dialogue with the audience. This series grew out of the local neighborhood watch program in an effort to build consensus, solve problems, share resources, and foster relationships among residents and community leaders.

The library-hosted conversations shared with us were often focused around topics already at the forefront of community concerns, such as race and racism

The library-hosted conversations shared with us were often focused around topics already at the forefront of community concerns. For example, the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library (JMRL) in Charlottesville has held several events related to race and racism, including two film showings of I’m Not Racist...Am I? followed by facilitated discussions, both of which attracted more than 100 participants. Hayley Tompkins from JMRL told us, “Since the Charlottesville demonstrations in Lee/Emancipation Park in August 2017, discussions on race have become even more pertinent to our communities, and this was a way to talk about racism in a very real way that created dialogue and allowed for reflection on our own prejudices and biases.”

The use of films and other media is a popular method for libraries to prompt conversations as part of their public programs. The Hampton Public Library partnered with the local Citizens’ Unity Commission to host “Movie Talks,” in which community members discuss topics of diversity, unity, and inclusion after viewing a movie, such as Marshall, that relates to these themes. According to Rita Scrivener from Hampton Public Library, 67% of the 91 adult participants in fiscal year 2018 indicated that “Movie Talks” was “helpful for processing and sharing thoughts in relation to diverse topics.” The James L. Hamner Public Library hosted “Connections: Books and Music,” an event that combined a musical performance and a related book. Both the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library (JMRL) and the Pittsylvania County Public Library (PCPL) have hosted film and discussion series centered on a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) public program that includes films such as The Abolitionists, Slavery by Another Name, Freedom Riders, and Freedom Summer.32 Both libraries received NEH grants that provided the funds and licenses to show these documentaries. At PCPL, civic groups and a church provided support for the refreshments for the program. Lisa Tuite from PCPL explained that this “community support… is a positive sign of the community coming together to continue this open conversation.” She added, “the series is seen by participants as a safe space for thoughtful and open discussion of sensitive topics on race and culture.” Similarly, Hayley Tompkins from JMRL noted that at their film and discussion series, “the community really came together to talk about some difficult topics in a productive way.”

The Library as Community-Wide Reading Club

“For many years, school, public, and academic libraries have hosted community-wide ‘one-book’ reading initiatives.”33

The concept of “the library as a community-wide reading club”34 aligns well with the work that library staff are already pursuing. We are already experts in mobilizing the masses to read -- just ask a children’s librarian about summer reading programs. Facilitating ‘one-book’ initiatives is a great option for bringing the community together around common topics of interest or concern. The Henrico County Public Library (HCPL) holds a community reading program, “All Henrico Reads,” that encourages discussion about a book and culminates with an author talk. For 2018, they selected The Distance Between Us, a memoir by Reyna Grande on her experience as a Mexican immigrant. After the author talk, they saw a desire within the community to keep the conversation going, so they formed a panel of local immigrants and people who work with immigrant populations. Attendees were able to hear personal stories of immigrants and refugees, learn about the initiatives of community support organizations, and engage in a meaningful way. Patty Conway from HCPL explained, “Average attendance at ‘All Henrico Reads’ is about 800 people. We also host tie-in events in our libraries before and after the main author event, which have been well-attended. We view that as a positive indicator of community engagement.”

Figures 3-4: “All Henrico Reads” event featuring author Reyna Grande, hosted by Henrico County Public Library. Photos by Anthony Pollack. (Used with permission.)

The James L. Hamner Public Library (JHPL) also selects books that are related to the music and theme for their series, “Connections: Books and Music.” Jill Hames from JHPL explained, “Leading up to the performance, the community is invited to read the book. At the performance, after the musician finishes, the library leads a discussion” on the theme related to the book and music. Some past themes include social justice, forgiveness, and courage. Hames said that up to 12 people attended each program and added, “The depth of the discussion is led by the participants and often, ideas are presented that there is not time to fully explore. The library ends by encouraging participants to continue the discussion with their own civic groups.” The library also provides other resources so that participants feel empowered and prepared to take the conversation back to their parts of the community.

The Library as Partner in Public Service

“Numerous national and community-based organizations look to public libraries as partners in civic activities.”35

Several of the libraries we spoke with partnered with their local universities and other organizations to bring civic programming to their communities. Partnering can not only help library workers ‘do more with less,’ but ensures that more voices are in the room when planning events for the community. Local universities can be excellent partners for public libraries, especially for finding experts in civic topics and for providing community service learning opportunities for students. The Williamsburg Regional Library partnered with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and law students from the Institute of Bill of Rights Law (part of the William & Mary Law School) to create “Constitutional Conversations,” their program on civic rights and duties. The Fairfax County Public Library partnered with the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at their local university, George Mason University, for their workshops on civic literacy. The Pittsylvania County Public Library sought out an expert from Averett University to facilitate their series on civil rights, also supported by local community groups. The Jefferson-Madison Regional Library partnered with experts from the University of Virginia, the local NAACP chapter, and trained facilitators from Beloved Community Cville for some of their conversations about civil rights, race, and related topics.

Partnerships with other organizations not only strengthen ties between community institutions, they also allow for more engaging programming

These types of partnerships not only strengthen ties between community institutions, they also allow for more engaging programming. Lisa Tuite from Pittsylvania County Public Library stressed the importance of having a skilled moderator and support from local organizations in the success of their program, which attracts 40 to 50 people each month. She explained that the expertise of their series moderator was essential to the success of the program, saying, “His scholarship and unbiased presentation of history, and his choice of presentation materials, have set the tone for the discussions, which have been forthright and open. We have also been fortunate to have the buy-in and support of respected local organizations for the series.”

From Examples to Action

As we have seen, libraries in Virginia are actively engaging “community members in democratic discourse and community renewal” and organizing other ways to support the civic life of their communities. But these are just a small sample of the many library-sponsored civic engagement initiatives in Virginia in recent years. There is always more work to be done to support our communities, especially in the important area of civic engagement, and all types of libraries can find ways to engage. If your library is interested in pursuing civic programming, advice from the library staff who shared these stories of civic engagement may be helpful as you begin this work. The most common piece of advice has to do with planning. Just like offering any workshop or event, planning civic engagement programming takes ample time and the efforts of a committed group of individuals. Jill Hames estimated that planning each “Connections: Books and Music” event took three to five hours, but some programs require more planning time. “Team members need to meet monthly to discuss and prepare for the sessions plus additional individual prep time for research,” recommended Christine Jones from Fairfax County Public Library. Planning ahead is necessary when pulling together diverse panels, because it can be challenging to reach people due to varying schedules and responsibilities, as Henrico County Public Library found. It also requires time to find enough panelists.

Engaging with the community and participating in existing local events was another tip shared by our survey respondents. Are there events happening in your area that the library could better support? Rita Scrivener from Hampton Public Library attended other local events and discovered that the original host of “Movie Talks” wanted a location change. She told us, “Find out if they are happy with their current venue, and if not, if your location could work. That's what happened to me: the library was a good alternative to the venue where ‘Movie Talks’ was originally held.” Getting involved with events and discussions in the community is important for not only finding partners, but it helps ensure that the library is accurately responding to community needs and reflecting people’s experiences, especially experiences of racism, discrimination, or oppression. Hayley Tompkins from JMRL stressed this point, saying, “It is important to get buy-in with the communities that experience racism regularly. Without their input and without their voices in the discussions, it falls flat and does not have the impact on the communities that experience racism directly.”

How will you and your library support civic engagement within your community in the next week, the next month, and the next year?

Once the civic engagement concept is developed and the program is being planned, it is important to think about the way the community will experience the program. Is it a dialogue that will need a skilled facilitator to ensure participants have equitable time to share their thoughts? Several libraries noted how crucial and beneficial it was to find a talented moderator. Will participants be broken into small groups and engage with prepared activities? Fairfax County Public Library staff spent time doing research to structure what their small groups would work on during their workshops. What are the learning or community outcomes for the program? Think about what participants will take away with them, and how they will become more civically engaged following the library program. Jill Hames from James L. Hamner Public Library offered this advice about ensuring that the conversation extends beyond the program: “Always end with a call to action. Without an action prompt, the discussion is theoretical and there is little motivation for individuals to create the change that will improve our communities.”

Taking her advice, we would like to conclude with our own prompt and ask you: how will you and your library support civic engagement within your community in the next week, the next month, and the next year?

Kristen S. Shuyler (, Assistant Professor, Director of Outreach and Partnerships, James Madison University Libraries.

Liz Chenevey (, Assistant Professor, Psychology Librarian, James Madison University Libraries.

Received: August 14, 2018
Accepted: September 25, 2018
Published: December 13, 2018

© Authors: Kristen S. Shuyler and Liz Chenevey. This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License (, which permits copy and redistribution in any medium or format, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source.


1 Nancy Kranich, “Libraries and Civic Engagement,” in Library and Book Trade Almanac, ed. Dave Bogart and Betty J. Turock (Medford, NJ: Information Today, 2012), 79,; Maureen Barry, Laura A. Lowe, and Sarah Twill, “Academic Librarians’ Attitudes about Civic-Mindedness and Service Learning.” The Library Quarterly 87, no. 1 (January 2017): 3,; Marianne Ryan and Geoffrey Swindells, “Democratic Practice: Libraries and Education for Citizenship,” portal: Libraries and the Academy 18, no 4. (forthcoming): 627.

2 Adam Davis, “Libraries and Democratic Life: Promoting Civic Engagement,” Programming Librarian (blog), January 11, 2012,

3 Paul T. Jaeger, Ursula Gorham, John Carlo Bertot, and Lindsay C. Sarin, “Democracy, Neutrality, and Value Demonstration in the Age of Austerity,” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy 32, no. 4 (2013): 368.

4 Kranich, “Libraries and Civic Engagement,” 87.

5 TArchibald MacLeish, “The Librarian and the Democratic Process,” ALA Bulletin 34, no. 6 (1940): 388,

6 Kranich, “Libraries and Civic Engagement,” 89.

7 Jaeger et al., “Democracy, Neutrality, and Value Demonstration,” 377.

8 FJohn Buschman, “Column: The Politics of Academic Librarianship: Academic Libraries, November 8, 2016 and Democracy,” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 43, no. 6 (2017): 549,

9 Pew Research Center, Political Typology Reveals Deep Fissures on the Right and Left (Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, 2017), 17.

10 Pew Research Center, The Partisan Divide on Political Values Grows Even Wider (Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center, 2017), 8.

11 Video and summaries of a recent debate on the topic (held at the 2018 midwinter meeting of the American Library Association) are available at

12 Amelia N. Gibson, Renate L. Chancellor, Nicole A. Cooke, Sarah Park Dahlen, Shari A. Lee, and Yasmeen L. Shorish, “Libraries on the Frontlines: Neutrality and Social Justice,” Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal 36, no. 8 (2017): 752,

13 Gibson et al., 752.

14 Shelissa Newball, “How Student Affairs Professionals Can Encourage Civic Engagement,” Campus Activities Programming 44, no. 8 (2012): 15-16.

15 Gibson et al., “Libraries on the Frontlines,” 754.

16 Gibson et al., 754.

17 Jaeger et al., “Democracy, Neutrality, and Value Demonstration,” 372.

18 Gibson et al., “Libraries on the Frontlines,” 761.

19 “Core Values of Librarianship.” Advocacy, Legislation & Issues, American Library Association, updated June 29, 2004,

20 Shuyler, Kristen, Liz Chenevey, and Ryan Winfree. “Promoting Civic Engagement Through Academic Library Outreach Programs” (poster presented at the Virginia Library Association Annual Conference, Williamsburg, VA, October 2017).

21 Ryan and Swindells, 627.

22 Ibid.

23 Nancy Kranich. “Civic Partnerships: The Role of Libraries in Promoting Civic Engagement,” Resource Sharing & Information Networks 18, no. 1-2 (2005): 89-103.; Kranich, “Libraries and Civic Engagement,” 75-96.

24 Kranich, “Civic Partnerships,” 95.

25 See, for example, the 2016-17 events at

26 See, for example, these tweets: and

27 Kranich, “Libraries and Civic Engagement,” 80.

28 Ryan and Swindells, 625.

29 Cathy Carpenter, “Celebrating Constitution Day: An Opportunity to Expand Our Role and Increase our Value to the Campus and the Community,” College & Research Library News 69, no. 5 (2008): 266.

30 Carpenter, “Celebrating Constitution Day,” 266.

31 Kranich, “Libraries and Civic Engagement,” 80-81.

32 Information about this NEH program is at

33 Kranich, “Libraries and Civic Engagement,” 81.

34 Ibid.

35 Kranich, “Libraries and Civic Engagement,” 82.

36 Kranich, “Libraries and Civic Engagement,” 89.