Libraries Create Social Capital

A unique, if fleeting, opportunity to carve out a new library mission

The tide of the 21st century carried Americans into ever-deeper engagement in the life of their communities. The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 sharply accelerated that movement. "There is a new spirit here, and it's one of warmth, solidarity, humanity, and determination that we have not witnessed before," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor observed during a visit to New York City. "The free exchange of ideas and information and the opportunity for people to connect with each other lie at the heart of a civil society," said Paul LeClerc, the president of the New York Public Library (NYPL), right after the attack. "These values are reaffirmed every day through the collections, services, and programs provided at libraries across America," he added. Libraries in New York and around the country provided comfort, fellowship, news, and resources during this difficult period. School, public, and academic libraries stayed open to provide shelter for displaced and lonely residents needing help and the solace of others. Internet and phone banks were set up to connect with family and friends and to view news updates. Library web sites linked citizens to disaster and recovery information, charitable organizations, and helpful resources to calm children and adults alike. Americans need such safe gathering places now more than ever. They need places where people of all ages can share interests and concerns, find information essential to civic participation, and connect with fellow citizens. Libraries and librarians have a unique, if fleeting, opportunity to carve out a new mission as creators of social capital for their communities. Instead of seeing their efforts as "library" building, our traditional approach, librarians are beginning to refocus their vision to the perspective that we are creating "social capital." We still have to learn how to articulate the importance of that role and what it means to the community.

What is "social capital"?

The term social capital was coined by social scientist James Coleman. It is defined by Miklos Marschall, former executive director of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, as the "values and social networks that enable coordination and cooperation within society…the relationship between people and organizations, which form the glue that strengthens civil society." Harvard professor Robert Putnam has popularized the concept of social capital and its importance to revitalizing communities and civil society. "For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century a powerful tide bore Americans into ever deeper engagement in the life of their communities, but a few decades ago—silently, without warning—that tide reversed and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current. Without at first noticing, we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities over the last third of the century," Putnam wrote in his best seller, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (S. & S., 2000). He describes how Americans have stopped voting, curtailed their work with political parties and service organizations, and attended fewer community meetings and political events over the last 30 years. As the featured speaker at my President's Program at the 2001 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference, Putnam captivated a full house of librarians who share his concerns about the erosion of community social capital. However, Putnam was taken aback when he discovered the extraordinary level of social capital resident in the room. His picture of America left out a key community institution, one whose history paralleled the findings of his research. The library is an institution rich in social capital and poised to usher in a new era of civic awareness and community revival. Like Putnam, however, public officials and citizens often overlook this key community asset. The associations and activities described by Alexis de Tocqueville (Democracy in America) in 1835 still integrate and strengthen civil society in America. They have ensured more than two centuries' of citizen participation in our democratic system. By the late 20th century, however, civil society declined as civic engagement diminished and social capital eroded.

New models for democracy

Social scientists such as Benjamin Barber and Harry Boyte have proposed new models to invigorate a weakened democracy and encourage more active citizen involvement. They propose the creation of free spaces or commons for public discourse and deliberation. These models have inspired a new cadre of librarians who see libraries as such places. Former ALA president Sarah Long designated "community building" as the theme of her term, and as ALA president, I focused on civil society and democracy. Many others advocate that libraries broaden their role in rekindling civil society, engaging citizens and thus renewing communities. Books by Kathleen de la Peña McCook (A Place at the Table: Participating in Community Building, ALA, 2000) and Ronald McCabe (Civic Librarianship: Renewing the Social Mission of the Public Library, Scarecrow Pr., 2001) focus on the issues that relate libraries and librarians to social capital.

The information commons

Citizens need a civic commons where they can speak freely, share concerns, and pursue their interests and what they see as community interests. The resulting discourse among informed citizens assures civil society, the social capital necessary to sovereignty. Libraries provide that real and virtual community commons. They are the place where people can find differing opinions on controversial public questions and can experience dissent from current orthodoxies. It is from librarians that citizens learn how to find, evaluate, and use the information essential for making decisions that affect the way we live, learn, work, and govern ourselves. Libraries prepare citizens for a lifetime of civic participation and support them throughout. In other words, libraries build social capital as they encourage civic engagement. Today, libraries throughout the country deliver a vast array of innovative, creative programs that bring citizens together and break down the barriers of age, ethnicity, culture, economic status, language, and geography. They help create the values and social networks that enable the coordination and cooperation that strengthens civil society. They host communitywide reading opportunities and develop job training programs. They convene groups to debate local issues and teach civic skills. They build community information literacy partnerships and coordinate local literacy training. They create digital neighborhood directories and develop community information services, networks, and portals. They offer information and education to voters and even serve as polling places. Libraries collaborate on projects with local museums, schools, and public broadcasting stations.

A 21st-century boosterism

All these efforts benefit individual citizens. The challenge for librarians is to extend their reach well beyond simply educating and informing individual citizens to efforts aimed consciously at increasing social capital for the whole community and society. They must work to boost civic engagement in their communities and make sure the people know about that work. All types of libraries and librarians have work to do to build social capital. College and university librarians can work with Campus Compact, which promotes community service to strengthen student citizenship skills and values, encourages collaborative partnerships between campuses and communities, and assists faculty with integrating public and community engagement into teaching and research. School librarians can participate in civic education projects, including First Amendment Schools (FAS) grants, which help teach students the rights and responsibilities of citizenship that frame civic life in our democracy. Public librarians can partner with a long list of civic organizations to develop civil society programs. They can also reach out to local community foundations that raise and convert financial capital to social capital through grants that bring people together. The primary way libraries build social capital is by providing that public space where citizens can work together on personal and community problems. The commons anchors neighborhoods, downtown districts, schools, and campuses and links with other public facilities like cafés, museums, and student activity centers. Beyond that, a library can create these commons in cyberspace as well as in public buildings. Libraries can tap electronic networks to host online forums, using successful models that ensure a safe and balanced interchange of ideas online.

Proof of library impact

Faced with terrorism, rapid social change, and profound cultural differences, libraries have more opportunity than ever to increase social capital. Americans have a renewed need to connect and rebuild trust. Librarians have the place and the resources to enable the connection. They can provide unique community information services. Libraries can foster greater reciprocity among diverse cultural groups. They can encourage greater tolerance through knowledge and understanding. They can harness new technologies to link citizens together. Libraries provide a traditionally trustworthy setting and institution for this important work. The challenge for librarians is to gain the skills necessary to be effective, active facilitators and collaborators. After they build the networks and the trust, librarians will have to assess their ongoing impact and that of the institution on solving community problems. They will have to immerse themselves in the civic life sprouting around them. They will have to initiate and expand partnerships that help connect citizens and bridge differences. Most important, librarians must demonstrate and articulate to officials and the public just how libraries make a difference. They need to prove how libraries contribute to the social capital required to engage citizens in the life of their communities.
Author Information
Nancy Kranich is Immediate Past President of the American Library Association and formerly served as Associate Dean of Libraries, New York University. She is the editor of Libraries & Democracy: The Cornerstones of Liberty (American Library Assn., 2001)
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