At the crossroads of journalists and librarians, we find community engagement

I’ve been at an inspiring workshop the last day and a half. Beyond Books, sponsored by Journalism That Matters and RJI, among others, brought together librarians, journalists and activists. You can see the program, the session recaps and a list of attendees online.

The basic idea is that these groups of people share a common mission of improving their communities through information. Say all you want about journalistic cynicism and profit-chasing. I believe most of the journalists I’ve had the pleasure to work with would say they got into the news biz because they feel like it’s a way of making the world a better place, whether they’re doing that by improving democracy or building connections through storytelling.

Which brings us to the guiding question for the group:

What’s possible for our communities and democracy when journalists and librarian
What’s possible for our communities and democracy when journalists and librarians work together?

It was with great delight that I sat in a room at MIT in Cambridge, Mass., to talk about what we have in common and how we might work together.

Here’s some of what we have in common:

— The belief that actionable knowledge is necessary for an empowered democracy.
— The belief that critical thinking skills and are foundationally important.
— A desire to elevate the quality and diversity of community discourse.
— A role to play in helping people find quality information.

Many librarians have journalistic hearts, I learned. Take Christi Farrar. As part of her duties as a social media librarian, she shares links to news stories she thinks are credible and relevant. She also creates Twitter lists of community organizations and other libraries. And then there’s Shannon Crawford Barniskis, who at a tiny library in Wisconson, in a town without a dedicated newspaper, started a blog around street closures to help fill timely information needs, asking the community members to contribute. Her library has also called citizens individually =— like on the phone — with safety messages (and has hosted sleepovers and cooking classes).

What we can both take advantage of:

— A community’s timely thirst for knowledge. Information needs ebb and flow. Information providers need to get more savvy about how to meet the needs of the moment. Marla Crockett with the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation said research shows that public forums produce a thirst for more information. What if a library and newspaper collaborated around getting that information ready to hand people as they were leaving. (If anyone has a source for research on this, I’d love to see it.) This idea made me think of the New York Times Lesson Plans blog.

— A community’s need for training. Libraries have long offered classes in things like computer and research skills, and around topics like finding a job or understanding health care. Some newsrooms are getting on board. I spent time this week (and will soon write about) the folks at the Register-Citizen in Torrington, Conn. Their new space has a community classroom built in, and on Tuesday night I attended a free genealogy class. Is there room for collaboration here? Media literacy? Our skills and your skills? Our space and your space? Can we get together?

— Access to and a desire to share a community’s history and build a sense of community identity. It’s mind-boggling to think of how much information exists about the places we live. Both groups of people have an interest, it seems, in making that information findable and relevant. I’d love to brainstorm around community archive projects.

— The fact that many people want to share knowledge, including their own expertise. Linda Fantin of the Public Insight Network says people sometimes choose to participate as a source for journalists because thy feel like it’s part of their civic duty to contribute what they know. That’s powerful stuff.

What is engagement?

I was excited to be able to take a few minutes and share what I've learned about engagement in journalism. (Warning: I talk with my hands.)

When librarian Nancy Picchi started listing what engagement can mean for librarians, though, my jaw dropped at just how similar the list was the ones I’ve made this year. She began with metrics, and how funders of libraries (whether that’s government or grant-givers) want to see numbers. How many people come through the door? (I had no idea we were all counted when we walk in.) How many people participate in programs? (And you know I care about metrics. Wanna care with me?)

But that’s not the only type of engagement. Nancy is trying to build long-term relationships, sometimes personal ones. It matters in an increasingly impersonal world, she said, to remember peoples’ names and tastes, and to build connections in the community. How can librarians map the connections they’ve built?

Nancy also talked about what the organization is giving back to the people who give something themselves. Journalists talk about this in a general community sense a lot. In this case, Nancy was talking about volunteers, who should be empowered to contribute in creative ways and should feel a sense of investment. They also need to be publically recognized for their contributions.

Another form of community engagement is telling untold stories, and building bridges. Jack Brighton talked about the success of a community film series in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., that brought visibility to parts of the community (like the 240 refugees from the Congo who came for a related screening) and made conversations possible. The discussion happening around that movie and that community is certainly newsworthy.

Other tidbits

— In one session, we talked about how we’ve become a culture of telling, not a culture of asking. People want information handed to them, and they often don’t even know what they’re really looking for. We need to teach people (starting with kids) to ask good questions and refine their basic inquiries. (I’m absolutely going to start sending my kids to the library with specific questions on their minds.)

— A smart student has done some work for me about participatory museums, and how museums create and foster community. We heard Wednesday night from Laurie Norton Moffatt at the Norman Rockwell Museum about community conversations she held inspired by “The Four Freedoms.” Fascinating stuff.

— We talked about gaming, and engaging people with information that’s fun. Lots of libraries use gaming tactics with kids (solve a mystery, go on a scavenger hunt, uncover the truth). And check out this awesomeness from the New York Public Library.

— Personal branding is not a topic I expected to come up, but it did. Apparently some libraries are building pages for individual librarians to curate resources or share their personalities. (Sorry, I didn’t get any specific examples for this one.) And, back to the idea of remember peoples’ names, relationships matter. So does listening. A quote brought up today (that I can’t find a credible original source for) is: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

— We also heard from David Weinberger about how the very nature of knowledge is changing. (My favorite example was changing punctuation: Old puncutation — like “,” and “.” — told us where to stop. New punctuation — the underlined words in a link — tell us where to get more.) Knowledge is now inclusive. Instead of eliminating some knowledge (like deciding which books NOT to buy) we’re merely filtering. Knowledge is now networked: always unfinished, unsettled and in debate.

I now want to be a librarian. I have an enthusiasm problem, I realize. I get so caught up in new ideas and projects that I imagine
myself diving into them full-time. I’m sticking with community journalism for now, however. I’ll have to settle for making friends at my public library, and seeing what crazy ideas we can drum up when I’m back in my community newsroom post-fellowship.

I’ll close with these words from Jackie Rafferty, director of the Paul Pratt Memorial Library. This is a paraphrase, but this is basically what she said:

People need and are using libraries more than ever. But funding is getting cut, and accessibility is a big problem. Information gaps are widening. But empowered, engaged citizens make for a strong democracy, and our democracy is in danger of eroding. It’s an economic issue, and a sociological one. Wee need to speak up, to be more yang than yin. Instead of being passive receptacles and places where people use facilities, let’s bring people together. And through skilled facilitation, help them work through problems.


This was originally posted on the blog of the Reynolds Journalism Institute, where I am a 2010-2011 fellow.


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