Democracy in Action

Dear Colleagues:

Over the past three decades, we have seen a decline in voter turnout, smaller attendance at political rallies, fewer people engaging in politics in government and a reduced involvement in civic organizations. And as countries overseas seek to establish democratic institutions, we seem to have experienced a deepening cynicism about public affairs in the United States. Fortunately, this cynicism has sparked a renewed interest in civic involvement and reinvigorating American democracy.

So how can we meet the challenge of strengthening and maintaining a vigorous democracy? A good part of the answer lies at our very doorstep —the library.

The library provides a civic space where the public can find all sorts of voting information, speak freely, share similar interests and concerns and pursue what they believe is in their interest. The library is the one institution whose sole function is to provide for the free exchange of information and ideas. As such, the library is one of the few places where citizenship can come to life. As librarians, we have a unique opportunity to share our knowledge, expertise and commitment to creating an informed citizenry by making the library a central player in the electoral process.

Libraries are also at the center of many of today 's most challenging public policy issues. Intellectual freedom, the digital divide, copyright, privacy, filtering and telecommunications are just a few. The election season provides us with a wonderful opportunity to educate the public, candidates and the media about these issues and to gather support.

This tipsheet from the American Library Association provides ideas for how your library can be an electoral resource for your community and how libraries can use the election season to promote their own issues. It also includes a broad list of suggested resources for information on the upcoming elections and American democracy and great examples of what some libraries in different parts of the country are doing to facilitate the electoral process.

We hope that you will share this information with your colleagues and encourage library users to take advantage of all the important resources your library has to offer to ensure broad public participation during this upcoming election season and in future elections. You can find an downloadable version of this tipsheet that you are welcome to reproduce and distribute at [insert address here].

Libraries are the cornerstone of democracy. I urge you to take an active role in promoting more citizen participation in the electoral process in your community. Please send comments, suggestions and additional sites and anecdotes to the ALA Public Information Office. Thank you for your support. I look forward to working with you on these and other important issues during the year ahead.

Nancy C. Kranich
President 2000—2001
American Library Association

Democracy in action.

In March 2000, the Democratic Party of the state of Arizona pioneered a new frontier in America' s oldest ritual. Over four days, members of the party cast ballots for their party 's presidential candidate, many of them doing so via the Internet. Total voter turnout increased from 13,000 in the 1996 primary to 89,000 in 2000, where 40% of voters cast Internet ballots. And while many experienced the novelty of voting from their own homes, a significant number utilized one of America 's oldest institutions —the public library.

A thriving democracy requires an informed citizenry. America 's libraries stand at the heart of our democracy as they are among the few public spaces left in civic life that stand outside of the marketplace. Libraries exist to ensure the free flow of information for all people. They provide the resources the public needs to be well informed and to participate fully and actively in every aspect of our society. In doing so, libraries play critical role in revitalizing civic spirit. Librarians, long dedicated to the free exchange of opinions and ideas, have a unique opportunity to put this spirit into action.

One of the best ways that librarians can help to keep this spirit alive is by encouraging public participation in the electoral process. Libraries are the ideal place for people to get the information they need to make wise decisions about issues and events affecting their lives. Libraries are the perfect forums for town hall meetings, candidate debates, lectures and presentations where local citizens can actively engage in open and vigorous dialogue on all issues that are important to them.

For years, the public has registered to vote at our nation's libraries. Users can gather information and monitor the work of both elected and appointed officials through reports housed in library depositories of government information. Libraries provide voter guides and other relevant information about elections and referenda. They also provide a venue for authors who write about political issues.

Libraries provide information in a variety of formats, from books and magazines to videos, audio recordings and electronic resources, that inform the public about the political process. They provide deadlines for voter registration and the location of polling places, political speeches, statistics, media coverage, political party information and more.

Libraries offer their communities new opportunities to revitalize civic discourse by utilizing new technology such as the Internet to promote and deliberate on issues and challenges facing them. Librarians link citizens to all sorts of quality electoral information in print and online. No doubt, future electoral efforts will include online polling and voting throughout the country, building upon the success of the Arizona experience. Libraries will be key to bridging the electoral digital divide and encouraging broad participation by citizens in determining their political futures.

"Libraries have always been places where everyone in a community can find common ground, so it is logical that libraries would be places where people without computers could come to vote."—GladysAnn Wells, Arizona State Librarian