Public Libraries and Democracy: The Library's Effect on Civic Engagement
Type of Degreedissertation
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The modern public library is an agency that has grown out of the uniquely American democratic experience. Moreover, many in the profession tout these organizations as bastions of democracy. The key arguments contend that libraries: provide universal access to information (the currency of democracy), support First Amendment rights via stringent non-censorship policies, and provide a meaningful civic space for community members to interact with one another. Further, evidence for these claims comes in the way of the historical accounts, current guiding principles of the library profession, as well as Supreme Court case law that has established the public library as a public forum. However, questions still remain as to whether or not these agencies have any direct impact on the fundamental element of democracy—participation. During 2012 and 2013 a two-phase study was undertaken to investigate public libraries and civic engagement. The first phase involved an organizational analysis of Alabama public libraries that exposed variations and, more importantly, a range of library civicness. Findings show that the civicness of a library is closely associated with several factors that define the socioeconomic status of the communities they serve. In effect, as library scholars often posit, public libraries truly are a reflection of those communities that create them. The second phase of this research utilized a library user survey geared at the transition of this research to the individual level of analysis. Findings from this phase confirm findings from the first phase, as well as provide an additional nuanced understanding of the public library’s impact on users’ via a model of library-augmented civic engagement (LACE).