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Civics At The Milton Public Library: Home

A resource guide to improve civic literacy


Welcome to Civics at the Milton Public Library

We have created this guide to help our users explore the basics of our democracy, citizenship and representative government, as well as how to participate in the digital age. You will find:

  • reading lists for adults, teens, and children, all connecting to the OCLN catalog
  • information about civic and data literacy, and interactive, non-partisan websites to educate and engage
  • resources to connect with local and state government, including voter registration, and the 2020 Census

You can access these topics by going to the tabs at the top of the this guide.  

The role of libraries in civic literacy and engagement

“There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the Earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.”

–Andrew Carnegie

Libraries are established guardians of diverse perspectives of information, created to protect and preserve information access and exchange in this new policy environment, facilitating and fueling deliberative democracy. As Candace Morgan states in the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Manual (2010), “A democratic society operates best when information flows freely and is freely available, and it is the library’s unique responsibility to provide open, unfettered, and confidential access to that information. With information available and accessible, individuals have the tools necessary for self-improvement and participation in the political process.” Libraries have informed local citizens ever since Benjamin Franklin founded the first public lending library, The Library Company, in 1731. His novel but radical idea of sharing information resources departed from the rest of the civilized world, where libraries were the property of the ruling classes and religion.

By the 1920s, the idea of libraries as informal education centers that advanced democratic ideals took hold.  After the troops returned from World War II, the New York Public Library launched a nationwide program of discussions about the meaning of the American democratic tradition and actions on issues of local concern. During World War II, President Roosevelt equated libraries and democracy, heralding their role in creating an informed citizenry.

As communities become more distributed and less based on geographic proximity, the library is helping those who might otherwise have no other access to online communities participate in an active way in our society. Overall, 33 percent of users (25.5 million people) used their public library’s computer and Internet resources to learn about social or political issues or to participate in community life. Of these users, 40 percent indicated they had undertaken activities in this area for a relative, friend, colleague, or someone else in the past year. Through their efforts, librarians have upheld the most sacred ideals of intellectual freedom, providing resources, services, facilities and enlightenment for all people, representing diverse points of view and safeguarding them from censorship. As stated in the preamble to the American Library Association’s (ALA) Code of Ethics, “In a political system grounded in an informed citizenry, we are members of a profession explicitly committed to intellectual freedom and the freedom of access to information. We have a special obligation to ensure the free flow of information and ideas to present and future generations.”

If Americans are waking up to their civic responsibilities, how can libraries be part of it? The library has long been a catalyst for democracy, protecting intellectual freedom and open access to information. Will libraries go beyond the mere distribution of information and, instead, become active civic agents? Rutgers University professor Nancy Kranich has long written on the role of libraries in civic discourse. For her, having a full-fledged democracy means that citizens must participate beyond just sending money to their favorite cause and candidate. That is why libraries are at a critical point, she says. “I think that the librarian community definitely understands that we are at a critical point in our nation’s history,” said Kranich. What’s important, she adds, is that they must pivot to “recognize that they can play a key role in instilling the values and skills that young people need.” This role of civic agency is begging to be defined—and then expanded into action—by local libraries and librarians.

The sole act of publishing data alone does not result in community change. Librarian of Congress Archibald Macleish (1940, p. 388) once avowed that “librarians must become active, not passive, agents of the democratic process.” As Dewey once wrote, “democracy needs to be reborn in each generation and education is its midwife” (1916, p. 22). If libraries are to fulfill their civic mission in the information age, they must find active ways to engage community members in democratic discourse and community renewal. For, as Robert Putnam has stated parsimoniously, “Citizenship is not a spectator sport.” Focusing solely on informing citizens is insufficient to equip them to participate in our 21st century democracy. In short, a strong democracy needs libraries to go beyond providing access to information to delivering informal learning opportunities and spaces for citizens to engage in the civic life of their communities.

Thomas Jefferson’s conviction that a healthy democracy depends on an informed citizenry helped articulate the relationship between citizens and self-governance since the early days of the republic.  Libraries, colleges and schools were founded to create and sustain an informed populace. For generations, the idea of an informed citizenry has served as a guidepost for librarians, validating their essential role in promoting political, economic and social prosperity and in building the capacity for current and future citizens to participate effectively in the processes of democracy. They have fulfilled this role by amassing diverse collections so that the people can make up their own minds about the issues of the day. They have served as repositories of public documents so that the public can monitor the actions of the government. And they have taught young people the skills necessary so they can find and use information effectively. But, as Richard Brown (1996) suggests, the Jeffersonian definition, meaning and purpose of an informed citizenry, so taken for granted during the course of American history, has changed over time, as more and more information has become readily available to all. The problem is no longer the lack of information, but rather an absence of engagement.

About the Author

Hello! My name is Marieme Barry, and I was the 2019 Summer Intern at the Milton Public Library. I'm a native Bostonian, currently living in Dorchester. I'm an alum of Milton Academy, and I'm a freshman at Fordham University (Rose Hill) studying international political economy on a pre-law track. After completing a high school summer course in constitutional law at Columbia University, I found my passion for civic education and advocacy. As a member of the Harvard Kennedy School's 2019 Youth Leadership Conference, a delegate for the YMCA's Youth and Government program, and a political news and opinion writer throughout my time in school, I have gathered inspiration for the project you are seeing today. This project was presented in September of 2019 at the Library of Congress, as part of the Public Library Association's Inclusive Internship Initiative. Learn more about the internship here.