Champion of Libraries and Democracy


An Interview with Nancy Kranich, Rutgers University School of Communication and Information

By: Rebecca Hill

Nancy Kranich

The Jeffersonian notion of an informed citizenry is essential to a democracy.  But what makes a “informed citizenry?” How is an informed citizenry created? Where do libraries fit in today’s democracy?  I talked to Nancy Kranich, Rutgers’s University School of Communication and Information and former ALA President, and here are her thoughts on a library’s role in a democracy.  

You have talked about how communities need libraries to reclaim their vital role as the cornerstone of democracy.  What do you mean by this?

NK:  For years, libraries have been called the cornerstone of democracy, although not much was written about what it meant for years. Library literature leading up to the 21st century continuously talks about how libraries are essential to an informed citizenry and how that informed citizenry is vital to democracy building.  But 21st-century writers and researchers are now saying that an informed citizenry alone is not enough, something called monitorial democracy.  Monitorial democracy, a phrase coined by Michael Schudson, is where citizens only pay attention when things are going wrong. It’s not a strong democracy; it’s a thin democracy. But in a strong democracy, people participate in the dialogue about the choices they must make. The good news for today is that the public is waking up to the recognition that they cannot leave this all to our elected officials.  They need to be involved. But because we have far more information than ever before, access is not a problem anymore. It’s not that we aren’t informed. It’s that we aren’t engaged, and we can only have an informed citizenry if they are informed and engaged.

How can libraries make this difference?

NK:  Libraries have always been a forum for ideas, a place for people to come and speak.  I think that this is where libraries can make a difference. The public not only wants a chance to hear the issues but also the opportunity to deliberate with their fellow citizens on what those issues mean.  Libraries that have taken on these more engaged and active roles for their public have made significant inroads in helping the public and people in their communities to better understand each other and bridge those gaps in the community.

How can libraries engage the public and encourage a more active role in a democracy?

NK:  When you have a chance to sit down with others face to face who might not agree with you in a safe place like a library, you feel free to express what you believe in and why you believe in it.  Then we start to understand each other, and even if we don’t agree, we become more empathetic and recognize that people have different views and beliefs because of their different experiences. Once we have a better sense of this, we begin to find common ground together.  In my experience in leading these types of dialogues, people come out feeling more comfortable with other people. They may change their minds. But they also find that people who agree with them, do so for different reasons. Plus, they may see that people who disagree with them are coming from the same place but have come to a different conclusion. So, when people start to look at the whole picture, pros, cons, costs, consequences, and trade-offs, they are more willing to view these issues and can see that the most challenging problems such as poverty, cannot be solved by waving a wand.

Does a library’s increased participation in engagement lead to greater engagement by the community?

NK:  Absolutely.  I have done a lot of this work over the last five years, and we have been overwhelmed with the response from librarians wanting to be trained for this work.  With our current political climate, librarians recognize that this role is critical because there is a great engagement void in our communities. Who will step up to bring us together?  Libraries. Libraries have hosted these types of dialogues since back in the 1920s.

Do you think that people recognize the role of libraries in a democracy?

NK:  Recently, I went to a town hall meeting in my community.  I went on behalf of my local library. There, I heard community members say that they found it impossible to know what was going on in the local community since they no longer had a local newspaper, so they look to the library to learn this information.  That said to me that people are yearning for these opportunities, so they look to libraries to provide them

At Rutgers, I have also been training people on holding dialogues in their communities, and I often ask the question of what the library’s role is within these dialogues.  Some people have said that engagement is the role of a library, whereas others have said they weren’t sure. But it reinforced to me that we are missing the boat. That engagement is a crucial role and it’s what libraries should do.  It’s about starting with your community, determining what it wants to be and what it’s aspirations and concerns are. Then doing the training.

You’ve often talked about moving libraries from a “transactional” role to a more “relational” role-where do most libraries stand in terms of these two aspects?

NK:  Libraries no longer need to be transactional anymore.  Most of our world is electronic already, and places like Google have taken up the role that we used to play.  You don’t have to go to the library anymore for answers. But people are still overwhelmed and bewildered by the amount of information they are receiving daily. They still need help navigating, understanding, and even interpreting fake news.  They need mediators for information.

Are most librarians prepared for moving into a more relational and engagement-oriented role?

NK:  Though this idea has been around for the last fifty years, it is an evolving concept.  Our profession is just now recognizing how vital these engagement components are to our work. The challenge today is that libraries must prove their value more than ever. They can’t take anything for granted anymore.  The things that we take for granted in our lives are up for grabs, and there are a lot of grabbers out there. Libraries must strengthen their relationships with the public so the public will continue to support them.

Are we doing a good job at articulating who we are and what we can be as libraries?

NK:  I think that it is hard for librarians to articulate what they do.  People especially the political elites still have this image of a librarian as someone who checks out books. They still see libraries as a book warehouse.  So, people bring these preconceptions with them. So, if your library still has this preconception now in our electronic age; it’s a problem. Sure, some people have discovered that we are part of the electronic age, but it has not always been an easy translation to those making policy.  This is one of the major disconnects in our community. We can be doing an excellent job in certain parts of our communities, but in the parts where policymakers and so-called political elites exist, we may not be doing such a great job.

Do we then have to be better advocates for libraries?

NK:  There is a difference between engagement and advocacy, and though they don’t have to be opposite of each other, they are not the same.  With advocacy, you push your perspective. Engagement encompasses more listening and getting involved and aligned with your community’s aspirations and concerns.  You need a different set of skills for each.

But do librarians need to be both, advocate and engager?

NK:  Yes.  But to be a good advocate, you need to have good relationships. You don’t just start talking.  You must have good relations with the media. You need an active board and administration that supports what you are advocating.  You need to build credibility through good relationships. We still need to be strong advocates and must support our library by making sure that our library is aligned with our community.

Do libraries need to be advocates for information too?

NK:  One of our major thrusts for the last twenty-five years has been information literacy.  It started in the 1980s. It is the core of what we do. The problem is, I think that we can’t do information advocacy alone as there are too few of us and too big of a problem.  We need to be a part of a national coalition with journalists, media personnel, and others. We need to broaden the movement to be a more unified voice. I am a great proponent of this because this is a crucial role for libraries, and it fits well within the emerging role of libraries as a civic institution.  We are not just bringing people together in libraries, but we are also giving them skills to come together as citizens of a democracy, doing what democracy needs-dialogue and deliberation.

Will we see an updated version of your 2001 book of essays, Libraries, and Democracy: The Cornerstone of Liberty?

NK:  Never in our history have we needed libraries to play a stronger role in democracy as we do now.  We have always thought that we were essential to our democracy, but currently, we are one of the only hopes for sustaining the kind of democratic participation that is essential if we are to continue to have a democracy in the 21st century.  So, though the book is dated now, I believe that it has good fundamentals. I would like to cover the engagement and participatory role of libraries within a democracy-that’s where I have spent my last twenty years of work.  So, I think that it would be great to include that stuff in a new edition that I’m more than ready to take on.

Rebecca Hill

Rebecca Hill is a freelance writer who writes on libraries, literacy, science education and other topics for a variety of online and national magazines. Currently she writes a science education column for VOYA magazine.  She holds a MLS from Indiana University Purdue University and JD from Valparaiso University. Her interest in intellectual freedom has been peaked by the increase in technology via artificial intelligence and social media. Currently she serves on the Indiana Library Federation Board of Directors and the Purdue University Libraries Dean’s Council. She is also on the Library Board of Trustees for her local library. A long time advocate of libraries, reading, writing and all things words are her passion.

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