Interview with Nancy Kranich on Libraries and Democracy

“Libraries are… essential to the functioning of a democratic society…libraries are the great symbols of the freedom of the mind.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt

As part of the Civic Agency initiative, we are launching a special “We the People” interview series. In this series, we will interview interesting people with different perspectives to offer on the “We the People” phase of our work in ADP. This is the second of many interviews that will be included in this series.

Nancy Kranich served as President of the American Library Association in 2000-2001, focusing on the role of libraries in democracies. A tireless champion of the public’s information rights, Nancy has led the library community’s efforts to promote civic engagement, open access, and free expression. I first met Nancy at our Civic Agency Institute. She spoke passionately about the role of libraries in developing student civic agency. Nancy is a great ally and thinker in the “We the People” movement. Here’s what she had to say about libraries and democracy. 

Cecilia M. Orphan (CMO): What kind of impact can libraries have on democracy? Historically, what impact have American libraries had on democracy?

Nancy Kranich (NK): An informed public constitutes the very foundation of a democracy; after all, democracies are about discourse – discourse among the people. If a free society is to survive, it must ensure the preservation of its records and provide free and open access to this information to all its citizens. It must ensure that citizens have the skills necessary to participate in the democratic process. It must allow unfettered dialogue and guarantee freedom of expression. All of this is done in our libraries, the cornerstone of democracy in our communities.

Benjamin Franklin founded the first public lending library in the 1730’s. His novel idea of sharing information resources was a radical one. In the rest of the civilized world libraries were the property of the ruling classes and religion. The first significant tax-supported public libraries were organized in the mid-19th century, conceived as supplements to the public schools as well as “civilizing agents and objects of civic pride in a raw new country.” (Molz and Dain 1999, p. 3). Early on, their offerings included unrestricted access not only to shelves, but also to lectures and exhibits. Sidney Ditzion (1947, p. 74) noted that late nineteenth century public libraries continued “the educational process where the schools left off and by conducting a people’s university, a wholesome capable citizenry would be fully schooled in the conduct of a democratic life.” By the 1920’s, Learned (1924) popularized the idea of libraries as informal education centers, followed by an American Library Association (ALA) report establishing a Board on Library and Adult Education. (Keith 2007, p, 244). During World War II, President Roosevelt (1942) equated libraries and democracy, heralding their role in creating an informed citizenry.

After the war, librarians joined civic groups, politicians, and educators to rejuvenate the democratic spirit in the country. The New York Public Library, describing itself as “an institution of education for democratic living” (“Library Bill of Rights” 1948, p. 285), led a nationwide program of discussions about the meaning of the American democratic tradition and actions on issues of local concern. These programs were described by Ruth Rutzen, Chair of ALA’s Adult Education Board, as ideal opportunities for libraries to assume a leadership role in their communities, proclaiming, “Let us all make our libraries active community centers for the spread of reliable information on all sides of this vital issue and for the encouragement of free discussion and action” (Preer 2008, p. 3). In 1952, ALA joined a national effort to increase voter turnout by distributing election information and organizing discussion groups and other activities in public libraries. The Ad Council created a campaign slogan, “Listen, Read, Look, Talk, Argue, Think and Vote” that was well suited to libraries (Preer 2008, p. 12).  As civic programs evolved in libraries, “the group setting offered an experience of democracy as well as a consideration of it” (Preer 2001, p. 151). Just as important, libraries defined themselves as community spaces where citizens were encouraged to discuss important matters.

Repositioning libraries as informal civic learning agents fits the theory and practice of community inquiry conceived a century ago by John Dewey (1916). Dewey believed that people need the opportunity to share ideas through multiple media in order to understand and solve everyday problems together. To this formulation, libraries bring their role as boundary spanners. Whether face-to-face or virtual, libraries build learning communities that bring people with mutual interests together to exchange information and learn about and solve problems of common concern.

Librarian of Congress Archibald Macleish (1940, p. 388) once avowed that “Librarians must become active not passive agents of the democratic process.” With renewed interest in promoting civic literacy and deliberative democracy around the country, libraries are poised to grasp this cause, build civic space, and reclaim their traditional role. As Dewey once wrote, “democracy needs to be reborn in each generation and education is its midwife” (1916, p. 22). If libraries are to fulfill their civic mission in the information age, they must find active ways to engage community members in democratic discourse and community renewal. For, as Putnam has stated parsimoniously, “Citizenship is not a spectator sport” (2000, p. 342)


CMO: How might a university use its academic library to support and promote civic engagement on campus?

NK: While academic libraries are well recognized for their role in promoting access to a diversity of ideas and serving as depositories for government, community and other useful information, many are well-positioned to extend that civic role by facilitating the exchange and sharing of ideas. Numerous academic libraries sponsor talks and lectures in their newly renovated interactive auditoriums. For example, the Rutgers University Libraries recently hosted a leading expert on water resources who explored the intersection of water, gender, security, environment and human rights. Preceding the lecture, students presented poster sessions that represented different perspectives about the topic. Examples of exciting civic programs undertaken by academic libraries include events convened as part of the September Project like one held at the William Madison Randall Library at UNC Wilmington, which partnered with a local non-profit to demonstrate the transformative power of sustainable and appropriate technologies to alleviate poverty.

Academic libraries ensure an informed citizenry and promote civic literacy. Many present thoughtful, engaging, and enlightening programs about problems facing democracy–programs that encourage more active citizenship. These libraries also help students learn how to identify, evaluate, and utilize information essential for the critical thinking necessary to make choices essential to a self-governing society. Beyond serving individuals, academic libraries also provide real and virtual spaces where faculty and students can gather together to solve pressing problems. In short, academic libraries can play a critical role in kindling civic spirit by providing not only information, but also expanded opportunities for dialogue and deliberation as a practice ground for democracy.

Some academic librarians have assumed more of a role in developing the civic capacity of students so they can revitalize communities and strengthen democracy. For example, Kansas State University Libraries help students learn about complex public issues and practice deliberative democracy. Others provide safe spaces, or commons, where students can discuss issues in a non-confrontational, nonpartisan, deliberative manner. Creating civic space through a formal process of deliberation reinforces the academic library’s essential position as the intellectual heart of the campus.

Extending library programming into the realm of deliberation offers students and faculty a chance to learn together, frame issues of common concern, deliberate about choices for solving problems, deepen understanding about other’s opinions, and connect across the spectrum of thought. Since the founding of the Kettering Foundation’s National Issues Forums in the 1980’s, libraries have hosted and some have even convened these and other types of forums like Study Circles, Choices, and Conversation Cafés so they can involve citizens in participatory democracy. Librarians can also teach the theory and scholarship behind public politics, as well as the methods of convening and moderating deliberative discussions. Another role librarians can assume is to guide the research and participatory action of students seeking to frame their own issues for deliberative forums.  Following a model developed at Franklin Pierce College by Joni Doherty of the New England Center for Civic Life, they can partner with faculty to help students use deliberative dialogue to address diversity, build community, learn techniques to deal with public issues, and develop civic leadership skills.

Academic libraries may also engage their communities in civic dialogue by reading a single book across the campus. Similar to the One Book/One Community reading clubs launched by the Seattle Public Library, this idea has caught fire in cities from Rochester, New York, to Greensboro, North Carolina, and is beginning to take hold on campuses as well. For example, the University of North Carolina recommends that entering freshmen read a select list of books for discussion once they arrive on campus and the University of Chicago assigns common readings, then convenes to discuss impressions and ideas. Other institutions offer students shared reading experiences from such sources as the Project on Civic Reflection; Civically Engaged Reader, a diverse collection of short provocative articles designed to inspire contemplation about the central questions of civic life. Such collective, reflective reading experiences are ideal tools for academic librarians to engage their campus communities in an enriching, provocative exchange of ideas.

CMO: How does your work with libraries, deliberation and democracy relate to the We the People project?

My work with libraries and civic engagement dovetails nicely with the We the People project. Libraries can play a range of roles to empower citizens as civic agents, facilitating interaction between citizens and government officials in order to shape public policy and deepen the national discourse. Libraries provide safe spaces for public dialogue. They disseminate information to the public so they can participate in the processes of governance. They provide access to government information so that the public can monitor the work of its elected officials and benefit from the data collected and disseminated by public policy makers, as well as interact with e-government services and engage with e-democracy opportunities. They serve as gathering places for the community to share interests and concerns.

Libraries also provide opportunities for citizens to develop the skills needed to gain access to information of all kinds and to put information to effective use.  Young people 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. Teaching students how to find, evaluate and use information effectively is an essential 21st century skill embraced by today’s libraries. Some go further to help students learn the civic literacy skills they need to tackle the problems facing their communities. Milner defines civic literacy as “the knowledge and ability of citizens to make sense of their world and to act as competent citizens” (Milner, 2002, p. 3). The Partnership for 21st Century Skills considers civic literacy,

  • Participating effectively in civic life through knowing how to stay informed and understanding governmental processes;
  • Exercising the rights and obligations of citizenship at local, state, national and global levels; and
  • Understanding the local and global implications of civic decisions.

Urban Agenda/Civic Literacy Project at Wayne State University describes the elements of civic literacy to include citizen thought as developed through opinions and knowledge and citizen action that depends upon deliberation and participation. The organization goes on to describe the requisites for democratic participation ranging from evaluation, dialogue and persuasion, to organizing, planning and institutionalizing action. All of these civic literacy competencies need addressing at the university level. Libraries are the natural partners in building this knowledge and skill set for tomorrow’s citizens.

CMO: Please briefly describe the American Library Association’s Presidential Initiative on libraries as cornerstones of democracy.

NK: As President of the American Library Association (ALA) in 2000-2001, I led a campaign to articulate and communicate the importance of libraries and librarians to our democratic society. Working together at the national, state, and local level, we advocated for open access for all children, young adults, and adults; fair use, privacy and intellectual freedom rights; and narrowing the growing gap between the information rich and the information poor. We promoted information literacy community partnerships and the convening of public forums in libraries about issues of concern to our democracy. We also promoted democracy in emerging democracies in Eastern Europe by helping improve libraries and access to information. A tip sheet: “Smart voting starts @your library” is still used to inform voters. At the end of my presidential year, ALA published, Libraries and Democracy: The Cornerstone of Liberty (2001).

Since that time, I have worked with ALA to expand our efforts to involve libraries with deliberative democracy, launching a membership initiative group to foster civic engagement, a blog, and a training program. During 2010, we established the ALA Center for Public Life in conjunction with the Kettering Foundation. The Center trains librarians to convene and moderate deliberative forums and frame issues of local and national concern. During the first year, ALA formed an advisory committee and began training moderators to convene and conduct local deliberative forums on an issue framed by members: privacy. The Center serves as a hub of a network of active mentors capable of strengthening and expanding their work locally, statewide and nationally, and partnering with other forum conveners throughout the country. Unlike similar centers that exist around the country, ALA provides training to members of a single profession—librarianship, in different locations around the country and documents the growing involvement of libraries with deliberation and other forms of civic engagement. For many years, ALA has worked with libraries to encourage public deliberation, hosting moderator training sessions and other programs related to community building and engagement.

Citations: Dewey, John. (1916). Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. New York: Macmillan.

Ditzion, Sidney. (1947). Arsenals of a Democratic Culture: A Social History of the American Public Library Movement in New England and the Middle States from 1850-1900. Chicago: American Library Association.

Keith, William. (2007). Democracy as Discussion: Civic Education and the American Forum Movement. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007.

Learned, William. (1924). The American Public Library and the Diffusion of Knowledge. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1924.

“Library Bill of Rights.” (1948). ALA Bulletin, July-August, 42: 285.

Macleish, Archibald. (1940). “The Librarian and the Democratic Process.”ALA Bulletin, June, 34: 385-388; 421-22.

Molz, Redmond Kathleen and Phyllis Dain (1999) Civic Space/Cyberspace: The American Public Library in the Digital Age, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Preer, Jean. (2001. “Exploring the American Idea at the New York Public Library.” American Studies, Fall, 42 (3), 135-154.

Preer, Jean. (2008). “Promoting Citizenship: How Librarians Helped Get Out the Vote in the 1952 Election.” Libraries and the Cultural Record, 43 (1), 1-28.

Putnam, Robert. (2000). Bowling Alone, New York: Simon and Schuster.

Roosevelt, Franklin Delano. (1942). “A Message to the Sixty-fourth Annual Conference of the American Library Association, Milwaukee, June 26, 1942.”ALA Bulletin 36, July: 422.

Milner, Henry (2002) Civic Literacy: How Informed Citizens Make Democracy Work, Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

Question: How might you use the academic library on your campus to support democracy?

3 Responses to “Interview with Nancy Kranich on Libraries and Democracy”


  1. 1 ruth urell January 27, 2011 at 11:07 PM

    Great research, nice bibliography – thank you for making such a coherent, clear, articulate for the important role of public libraries in a democractic society

  2. 2 Larry Gould January 28, 2011 at 11:44 PM

    Cecilia,

    Good stuff. We’re moving in this direction at FHSU.


  1. 1 State of the Student Union: Reclaiming Student Unions as Civic Spaces « Trackback on May 17, 2011 at 1:33 PM

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