We're creating new sparks in democracy through libraries and micro-grants

By Naomi Perks, SFU Centre for Dialogue
December 07, 2019

In 2018, British Columbians took out approximately 53 million items from the library, including both physical books and magazines and online content - nearly 1 million more times than in 2017. In 2018, a total of 1.74 million people attended over 76,000 programs held by libraries across the province. The incredible thing about the public library is that it’s all free. In fact, the public library is one of the few places in society where you can enter with no expectation of a financial transaction — a free and democratic space.

BC libraries at a glance:

  • 53 million physical items borrowed
  • 9.5 million digital checkouts
  • 76, 267 programs offered through the libraries
  • 1.74 million program attendees [total population of BC 4.65 million (2016 census)]
  • 173,085 children reached by the BC Library Association's Summer Reading Club
  • 3,634 computers available for public use

Libraries are one of the core pieces of our democracy. We want to fuel their strengths. This fall, SFU’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue’s Strengthening Canadian Democracy Initiative launched the Democracy Spark Grant for public libraries. The Centre is inviting public libraries across British Columbia to apply for funding to support programming exploring the role of libraries in strengthening democracy, evaluating their impact, and sharing best practices with their peers.

“Sometimes a small action or idea can ripple out into something with a large impact”, says Kevin Millslip, Executive Director, BC Libraries Coop. He continues by suggesting that these micro-grants “can lead to a strengthening of our connections to one other, to our communities, and ultimately to the broader concept of Democracy itself."

The Initiative is offering 15 grants of $1,000 (you can learn more about the project here) to public libraries in B.C. to include programming around democratic engagement in these three areas:

  • climate change
  • social isolation
  • local solutions

The Democracy Spark Grants include an evaluation process that will help determine the impact this project has on creating belonging among local communities as well as commitment to democracy.

Libraries are democratic spaces

The library is quietly one of the places that is saving democracy.

- Tony Marx, President of the New York Public Library in Quartz, October 2018

Libraries attract people from all walks of life: new Canadians, young children, people living with poverty and homelessness, seniors and everyone in between. According to Robin Prest, Program Director at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, “by harnessing the ability of public libraries to reach such diverse audiences, the Democracy Spark Grant can impact people who may not usually attend other civic-focused events.”

The role of public libraries has shifted significantly over the years. Of course, they still have stacks of physical books, but they also have a wealth of resources online and are a place where citizens can engage with and explore new (and old) technologies. Public libraries also offer services and programming for everyone on a collection of diverse topics, like learning about the opioid crisis and getting Naloxone kits, resources for new Canadians, learning to knit, or job hunting skills.

Libraries have reinvented themselves, and one of the things that is so striking about them is that the local staff has the capacity and agency to develop programming that works for the community that they’re in. The library can lend tools and it can lend clothes to people who need better clothes for a job interview. It can do programming and all kinds of languages.

Eric Klinenberg, author of Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life

Democracy means “the people”

One of the core principles of the Strengthening Canadian Democracy Initiative is to get all Canadians talking about democracy and democratic values - in other words, to foster a commitment to democratic values. We found in the 2019 national survey that the vast majority of Canadians support our democratic system, but the question still remains: do Canadians feel like they are important actors in our democracy? The partnership with the BC Libraries Cooperative is one undertaking by the Initiative to encourage everyone to participate and see their role in democracy in the everyday.

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.

- Nancy Kranich, Rutgers University School of Communication and Information, in an interview with The Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association

If individuals don’t feel connected to one another, democracy simply can’t survive. By offering the Democracy Spark Grants, public libraries have increased opportunity to create communities of belonging and encourage citizens to connect and engage with each other. We’ve learned in our research that building social connections is a core foundation in strengthening democracy.

What next?

We couldn’t be more thrilled that discussions around the role of libraries in a strong democracy will continue throughout the next decade, starting with the 2020 BC Library Conference theme: Libraries, Democracy, and Action. At the conference, librarians and library staff will look at the role of libraries in building strong social infrastructure and how libraries play a critical role in linking communities to essential thinking and action in areas such as reconciliation, inclusion, diversity, intellectual freedom, creative and critical thinking, and social responsibility.

Democracy Spark Grants applications will be reviewed and will be selected in December 2019. Programming at the public libraries will begin in 2020 and participating libraries will have a special session at the 2020 BC library conference.

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.

- Nancy Kranich, Rutgers University School of Communication and Information, in an interview with The Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association