The Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life hosted a seminar on Nov. 1 called “Can Libraries Save Democracy?” as part of their Civic Life Lunch series. The event featured Tamara King, chief equity officer and engagement officer for Richland Library in South Carolina, and Kelly Linehan, director of the Waltham Public Library, and was moderated by Dorothy Meaney, director of Tisch Library.
King’s role at the Richland Library includes engaging the community in efforts to reach underserved and marginalized populations with Richland Library’s resources.
Linehan spearheaded the Watch Read Listen community story program and the Play Imagine Experience, an immersive educational play space for children.
Meaney began the discussion by asking the speakers the question posed by the title of the seminar: “Can libraries save democracy?”
King said that libraries alone cannot save democracy but can provide valuable resources to help the country take steps toward a more democratic society.
“I definitely think we continue to have a role to play when we talk about the information marketplace, in making sure that people have access to information that is factual, unbiased and able to inform how they live their lives and who they vote for,” King said.
Linehan emphasized the importance of ensuring that people feel comfortable seeking out information from libraries.
“We’re in a really unique position to give people access to this information … who may not feel comfortable using our services or may not know about the public library as we know it,” Linehan said.
Meaney then asked King and Linehan about barriers that libraries may face when working towards their goals of improving access to their communities.
King discussed Richland Library’s large staff of social workers and explained that they have received backlash for expanding their resources.
“They think that we should just do books, or we should just do storytime, or we should just do the business of what traditionally they believe a library should be doing,” King said.
King also spoke about the struggle libraries face with making their programs interesting for children and young adults.
“If you can’t even get them in the door or you can’t even engage with them about a fun book they need to read. Sometimes it’s hard to do that part too,” King said.
King then explained the positive results Richland Library saw after its recent campaign announcing its reopening after the initial COVID-19 pandemic.
“We just did a campaign in our library, a welcome-back campaign, to let people know that our doors were still open,” King said. “We did commercials, we had staff singing on those commercials, we did a social media campaign. … We made a significant investment in making sure that this worked, and we saw a significant increase in the amount of people … that started coming back into our buildings.”
Linehan discussed a program at the Waltham Public Library that helped to bring people through their doors.
“[Real Talk is] a youth conversation forum led by the teams, and it’s a year-long curriculum that covers a lot of things,” Linehan said. “It does cover some media literacy … [as well as] broader topics like safety, sexuality, gender … [and] evaluating that information and making decisions moving forward from that.”
Meaney asked what programs Linehan and King have put in place to counter the idea that libraries are solely quiet spaces for self-education. In response, Linehan talked about Waltham Public Library’s Watch Read Listen program and its accessibility.
“We did Hamilton. … You can read it in many, many languages; you can listen to the soundtrack; you can get the DVD of Hamilton,” Linehan said. “The idea is you don’t have to be able to read at all, and you don’t actually have to speak English to participate in the stories.”
King described the Let’s Talk Race team at Richland Library that worked to promote discussions about everything from women’s rights to social justice.
“We were holding facilitated conversations, we’re calling them ‘circles of dialogue,’ where people will sit in a circle [with] a trained facilitator who would lead conversations and ask really bold questions … and help people really talk about them in a meaningful way,” King said.
Meaney then opened up the discussion for questions from the crowd. A member of the audience asked the speakers about banned books and how their libraries have handled this topic.
King described the openness that her library’s team embodies as it engages in conversation about intellectual freedom.
“We’re always talking about it with our team, so they understand who we are and what we represent,” King said. “I think we’ve constantly been sticking to the Freedom to Read [statement] as a guide for us, as well as the Library Bill of Rights. And these are things that we don’t waver upon.”
Linehan reiterated King’s point by further detailing her perspective that people have the freedom to choose whether or not they want to read a book presented on the library’s shelves.
“I do think that, if you don’t like a book, you don’t have to read it,” Linehan said. “We’ll fight the censorship battle all you want. People need access to information.”