Libraries are Centers of Social Consciousness and Community Involvement

by Moya K. Mason

Introduction: The Ideology Behind Libraries

One fundamental aim of libraries has been to formulate a philosophy of intellectual freedom, and to provide free access to all kinds of information. Libraries attempt to meet the needs of a diverse and complex group of users who have a variety of special interests and demands that must be met. Deeply woven into the profession is a commitment to the ideal of individual choice - an underlying belief that no one should limit the flow of information. Libraries are supposed to be service organizations, with a legacy of social consciousness and community involvement. The branch libraries should be as diverse as the people in the neighborhoods for which they serve, and continually reach into the surrounding community. As J. Ingrid Lesley states:

Throughout its history, the public library has been the place to learn, study, and read, and the community center for special groups. Good librarians have always asked the same questions: Who lives in the community? What are their needs? How do we best meet them? Should the library be reaching out to others in the community? (Lesley 1991,25).

An Overview of Library Programs: A Few Ways Libraries are Helping Create Community

Since the 1980s, the Canadian Library Association (CLA) has had a set of guidelines to promote multi-culturalism in libraries. They were developed to help libraries provide "fair and equitable multi-language and multicultural services" for the diverse Canadian population (Skrzszewski 1990,21). The province of Ontario, with its steady stream of immigrants, has had a multi-cultural policy in place since 1977. Metro Toronto libraries have responded to the needs in their neighborhoods by improving their responsiveness to the immigrant community, and have committed to establishing well-developed programs (Skrzszewski 1990,23). In the United States, over one million legal immigrants enter the country each year. They need help to overcome their insecurities and feelings of alienation. Many have the additional burden of a language barrier and lack the finances to get training. Libraries are safe havens for their empowerment; act as vehicles for learning a new culture; and are important places to obtain information about services, such as ESL courses (Lesley 1991,27-31). Libraries that are truly committed to cultural diversity provide books and newspapers in the first languages of their immigrant user groups, and will reach out to a variety of ethnic communities, garnering support from library boards and staff members (Skrzszewski 1990,24).

There are many fine examples of libraries serving their communities and implementing changes on its behalf. One is the San Jose Public Library system, which is struggling to administer services to a huge influx of Hispanics and Asians. James Fish is the director and has overseen the creation of a forty-nine-point plan called Commitment to the Community that focuses on "putting philosophy into action" (Fish 1994,37). His staff have organized workshops on sign language in a variety of languages, have been encouraged to participate in community events such as the Vietnamese Tet Festival, and have worked in outreach programs to help people living in surrounding neighborhoods (Fish 1994,36).

The Queens Borough Public Library offers programs in job placement, American culture, how to get Green cards, and a comprehensive project called Coping Skills Program (Lesley 1991,31). One of their most popular ventures is The New Americans Project that offers instruction in English, with seventy-five classes being taught in the system's sixty-two libraries (Lesley 1991,31). Another project that has operated since the early 1980s is One With One, based in Massachusetts. In conjunction with the public libraries, it has volunteers helping new immigrants develop English proficiency, and to use library resources to learn about health and child care, career opportunities, and problem solving in a new country (Van Duyne 1992,42-44).

Libraries Helping the Homeless and Latchkey Kids

Libraries are also important centers in our society for the homeless. Who said, there but for the grace of God go I? There are many reasons why people become homeless, and becoming educated about them is important for librarians. Everyday public libraries deal with homeless people, who are in desperate need for information. Librarians must provide compassionate service to them. Obviously, they must establish guidelines to serve homeless people, but with tolerance and understanding, workable solutions can be found. It is in society's best interest to empower the homeless and bring them into the community. Some libraries are creating outreach programs with community shelters. The New York Public Library set up a depository of books for children living in a homeless shelter, and provided volunteers from the staff one morning a week for a storytelling program (Silver 1996,4).

Milwaukee Public Libraries have established a peer tutoring service for the homeless. It also sponsors cultural events that are open to everyone, and encourage the homeless to attend (Silver 1996,4). In Elmsford, New York, libraries help with the collection of food for the homeless and assist social service agencies (Silver 1996,4). San Diego, Memphis, and North Carolina libraries have referral desks for street people; Portland and Milwaukee have set up reading rooms in shelters; and in 1995, the Haverhill, Massachusetts library system released plans for an enlarged library, with inclusion of a winter garden and reading lounges for the homeless (Silver 1996,3-4). Even without addresses, the San Francisco Public Library got around the bureaucracy and registered homeless people so they could vote. The Chicago Public Library exhibited the poetry of former homeless women and men to help establish them in their literary careers (Lesley 1991,33-34).

An estimated five million children are left home alone every day. Many libraries are trying their best to attract children of all ages to their after school programs. For example, the South Hollis after school program offers recreational activities, homework help, and storytelling programs. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, the public library provides a bus service that picks kids up from school so they can participate in library programs. In conjunction with the Boys and Girls Clubs, the Fort Erie Public Library in Ontario sponsors a service for latchkey kids. They have a bus, prepare snacks, help them with their information needs, and take them on field trips to historical sites (Dowd 1992,2). One of the most exemplary projects is called SPLASH (Seattle Public Library's After School Happenings), which is financed by the city. Besides offering the usual activities, they are dedicated to the promotion of self-esteem, creativity, and a lifelong love for reading and knowledge. Instruction in making doll house furniture, gardening, and specialized programs for keeping teenagers off the streets are some of the after school activities, as are assistance with homework, storytimes, and sing-alongs (Dowd 1992,2). The Los Angeles Public Library has a program called Grandparents and Books (GAB) that teams latchkey kids up with older adults, who help them with homework and work with the librarians to provide enriched learning activities. Nebraska's Charles E. Washington library also links retired seniors with children in its after school program. Activities such as 4-H, crafts, baking, and reading are some of the projects undertaken.

Libraries as Communities

Libraries have an integral role to play in the establishment of communities that can help to improve the quality of their patrons' lives in many ways. They also have a role to play in the development of increased sensitivity and tolerance by providing gay and lesbian materials, feminist literature, and an array of community-based materials and services. All of these activities do their share in bringing about a sense of community throughout towns and cities, create relationships among people, and help to develop a deeper value for knowledge and the value of human life. What would replace these types of services, if libraries became virtual communities of information? Who would help people from diverse backgrounds in our communities become fully-participating citizens, if brick and mortar libraries ceased to exist? Many librarians are setting good examples for how we can all play a part in helping each other make a better quality of life for marginalized members of our society.

Even though you may like to be physically isolated, while "linked to a worldwide collection of like-minded ... souls" (Rheingold 1992), that is not possibile for everyone, nor would it be healthy for society to have globally-connected individuals partitioned away in their rooms, rarely venturing out. The webs of personal relationships that make up virtual communities, "are in part, a response to the hunger for community that has followed the disintegration of traditional communities around the world" (Rheingold 1992), but do you really believe that the advocation of virtual encounters for everything from personal relationships to seeking library information, is such a good idea when considered over time? It is the same thing as the dropping out of society movement of the 1960s, except the computer-mediated version is "essentially ephemeral" (Lockard 1997,225), since these are people you never have to meet if you don't want to, unless it is in structured and supervised digital enclaves. By using computer-mediated communications to try to recreate the great good places in our society again, is simply a romanticization of a past that never really existed. It is one thing if a few people want to get together and discuss any number of things on an online community, but quite another to say or hope that this is the bright new future to look forward to. As Vincent Mosco writes, "a world of information haves and have-nots is far more likely than a global village or a world of virtual communities" (Mosco 1996).

The only radical utopia that libraries and their staff can envision is one that helps to develop neighborhoods and communities, and encourage those who live in them to be educated, knowledgeable, and tolerant. Can we equate empty streets with soulless societies, just as easily as we can say that "empty libraries are those that do not respond to changes in the population" (Lesley 1991,28), and those who have forgotten Andrew Carnegie's vision of public libraries providing services to all sectors of society, including immigrants and those experiencing economic difficulties? Would you say that the promised land that Bill Gates trumpets in his book, The Road Ahead, could turn out to be a mirage? Or would you agree with the following observation?

The computer enthusiast, alone in front of the screen is less the new model of human participation in community and more its sad caricature. Community, they insist, requires social interaction, a genuine coming together of people in physical contact to exchange ideas and feelings, to debate and plan, to make use of all the senses with all of their nuances. At best, community in cyberspace is one small tool, one extension of the senses to build social networks (Mosco 1996).


The only realistic way to look at the concept of virtual communities and what they can do for society, is as a tool to help with the advancement of the world as we know it, beginning at the local level. There is nothing wrong with having an interest in international communities, or universal access, but developing the local into the best it can be, must be the first priority. In other words, it is possible that the Internet can provide the gateways that "can develop virtual communities that help geographic communities work better" (Graham 1994), just as virtualized/digitized library services can help provide access to information, while increasing community awareness of sources. I'm not saying that there is not a desire in each of us to communicate with like-minded people, no matter where they live, especially since computers breakdown the distances between us. We all want to have our voices heard by someone, anyone at times. Still, it is worrisome that face-to-face interaction is becoming something we used to do in the past, while we spend countless hours with our computers, without tactile encounters and without hearing human words and laughter. We'll give J. McClellan the last word:

Rather than providing a replacement for the crumbling public realm, virtual communities are actually contributing to its decline. They're another thing keeping people indoors and off the streets. Just as TV produces couch potatoes, so on-line culture creates mouse potatoes, people who hide from real life and spend their time living in cyberspace (McClellan 1994).

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Fernback, Jan and Brad Thompson. Virtual Communities: Abort, Retry, Failure? Annual Convention of the International Communication Association, Albuquerque, NM, May 25-29, 1995.

Fish, James. Responding to Cultural Diversity: A Library in Transition. Wilson Library Bulletin, Vol. 66, No. 6, February 1992, pp. 34-37.

Graham, Garth. Freenets and the Politics of Community in Electronic Networks. Government Information in Canada, Vol. 1, No. 1.6, 1994.

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McClellan, J. Netsurfers. The Observer, February 13, 1994.

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Rheingold, Howard. 1996. A Slice of My Life in My Virtual Community. In High Noon on the Electronic Frontier: Conceptual Issues in Cyberspace, ed. Peter Ludlow, pp. 413-436. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Silver, Judi. Libraries and the Homeless: Caregivers or Enforcers. The Katharine Sharp Review, Vol. 2, pp. 7-14, Winter 1996.

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Stoll, Clifford. 1995. Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway. New York: Doubleday.

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