ALA day 1: fostering civic engagement, part 2

Here’s part 1 of this report.

We all know that the most common question at the reference desk is “Where is the bathroom?” But what’s the most common question if you’re serving as a librarian on the street? The next presentation at Fostering Civic Engagement had the answer.
Jenna Freedman talked about Radical Reference: “serving activist communities and independent journalists online and in the street,” as her handout put it. RadRef started as a response to the 2004 Republican National Convention. As you may remember, not everyone was happy about the event, and many protesters were coming to town. The earliest RadRef members saw a role for themselves in the midst of the mayhem–they could be roving, on-the-street librarians. Ten or twenty RadRef volunteers went out on the streets, armed with ready reference kits that included maps, phone numbers for legal and medical aid, and a very detailed schedule of events, useful for answering that most frequent question, “What event is this?” They also carried cell phones, which allowed them to call in to other volunteers based at home, who provided back up support. They also set up a website and an AIM account so that people could post questions that way.

Nearly a year later, the group is going strong, with over 150 volunteers still answering questions on the web site and at events. There are local Radical Reference collectives in Austin, Boston, NYC, San Diego, and San Francisco who work on local projects–the Boston group put together the Alternative Guide to Boston for ALA Midwinter 2005. Additionally, they’ve been providing reference and information services, including workshops on fact-checking and how to file a FOIA [Freedom of Information Act request], for independent journalists across the country, most recently at the Allied Media Conference in Bowling Green, Ohio. Sometimes, as Jenna pointed out, these workshops are a simple as teaching people about the resources available in your local library–like databases that mean you can get older articles from the New York Times for free.

She also talked a bit about the nifty open-source technologies that RadRef uses, and about a library school education summit being planned for New York this fall. Watch this space for more on the latter.

Finally, Jenna addressed some of the problems and challenges Radical Reference has faced, including accountability, quality control, collaborating in a virtual environment, decision-making in a large group, and working with the many working styles and ideologies that Radical Reference volunteers bring with them. If any of this sounds at all interesting, you should think about getting involved. Good times, great company, fascinating questions, and a chance to exercise your reference skills in a variety of ways.

Next up was Debbie Abilock, editor of Knowledge Quest, the magazine of the American Association of School Librarians. Her presentation consisted of a list of questions and ideas of ways that schools and school libraries could foster civic engagement. Here are just a few of them:

  • How are students engaged in and involved with the governance of the school? How are students making decisions–and more importantly, can they make decisions, and are those decisions about issues more substantive that what colors to use for prom decorations?
  • What role do parents play in the school? Are they engaged in more than bake sales and car pools?
  • How transparent are faculty meetings, board meetings, and administrative decisions?
  • How are students part of the planning process for libraries and other areas in the school?
  • Do students have the ability to contribute to or suggest assignments?

Her point overall was that you can’t have civic engagement without engagement–you can’t teach students that they live in a democracy and expect them to believe it or care about it if you don’t let them exercise some democratic rights of their own, in their own sphere. Amen, sister! I say. And I got to tell her my great story about my grade school and the Pledge of Allegiance. (Short version: we got to vote on whether or not we’d say the Pledge. We voted no, except on special occasions, and then only if you wanted to say it.)

Cathy Carpenter, the last speaker, talked about her experience organizing a voter registration drive in the library at Georgia Tech in the fall of 2004. The last-minute effort garnered 500 new voters in 3 weeks. The best reason to have a voter registration drive at the library? Well, there are lots, but here’s my favorite: very few young people affiliate themselves with any political party, and thus they are less likely to register to vote at partisan events or tables. What better place to have a non-partisan voter registration effort than at the library, where, at least in theory, there’s a little bit of every point of view?

Finally, there was a small amount of time for questions and comments. Here are the ones I jotted down:

  • Use your library trustees/board members as links to the community.
  • The Things They Carried is a great one book, one community title, as it is, among other things, attractive to the young male reader. It worked well in Philadelphia.
  • Libraries can do outreach to organizations, not just individuals.
  • Check out the September Project.

One thought on “ALA day 1: fostering civic engagement, part 2”

  1. I was in the audience of this session, and share your enthusiasm for the inspiring stories told by the panelists. In particular, I was impressed by Nancy Tessman, the director of the Salt Lake City Library. Her story of asking community members to write what they want from their local library directly on boulders that became part of the actual foundation for the library was magical. She’s a gem, and it’s obvious her library is as well.

    blog: the september project


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