How can libraries make communities more knowledgeable?

Libraries of all types are taking on new roles and responsibilities. Through robust programming agendas, they’re at the center of community-building efforts all across the US. As part of the National Impact of Library Public Programs Assessment (NILPPA), Knology sat down with advisors from across the library sector to discuss the impacts libraries aim to have on the communities they serve. During these discussions, we also brainstormed ways to track these impacts across various domains of community life. Two important ideas emerged from our conversations:

  • Impact Domains
    Specific areas where library programs can make meaningful differences in people’s lives. We defined nine of these. Libraries can help create: (1) connected communities; (2) knowledgeable communities; (3) creative communities; (4) civically engaged communities; (5) healthy communities; (6) economically vital communities; (7) welcoming communities; (8) joyful communities; (9) caring communities.
  • Indicators
    Ways of measuring the real-world impact of library programming. These Indicators allow us to determine whether or not programs are having their intended effects.

In this series of blog posts, we’d like to talk about each of these impact domains individually, and talk about how libraries are contributing to each of them. In this post, we focus on knowledgeable communities.

What are Knowledgeable Communities?

We consider two factors to be essential for a knowledgeable community; libraries have long contributed to both. The first is access to reliable information on a wide range of topics — the bread and butter of libraries. However, making information available is not in and of itself sufficient for community members to be knowledgeable on the issues that affect them. The community also needs high levels of information literacy: that is, the critical thinking skills and norms needed to identify reliable information sources and make evidence-based decisions. Helping patrons acquire these skills is an area libraries worldwide have increasingly focused on in recent years (see the references listed below for more on this).

Example: Data Navigators 2.0 at Providence Public Library

Information isn’t limited to text. Local, state, and national government agencies are increasingly providing access to datasets on a wide variety of topics, from public health to education to the economy. These data can help individuals understand how policy decisions affect their community and reveal inequities — but not without analysis and interpretation.

To this end, Providence Public Library offers 10-week courses for adults and teens on the basics of data analysis and visualization, working with civic datasets. The library participates in the Rhode Island Department of Education’s Advanced Coursework Initiative, allowing high school students to earn credit for participating in the teen program. Meanwhile, adults who complete their course and want to take their learning further or apply it to help local nonprofits can join the Rhode Island Tableau User Group, also hosted at the library. By learning to analyze data themselves and translating it into visuals, participants in the program inform not only themselves but the wider community about issues affecting them.

Read more about the program here or on the library’s website here.

How Can You Make Your Community More Knowledgeable?

Providence Public Library’s data literacy program is made possible by funding for staff training and software licenses, but there are many ways libraries can contribute to the goal of knowledgeable communities. Libraries already offer access to a wide range of information through their collections, along with free Internet access (and the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom is committed to keeping these resources available). Programming can contribute further. For example:

  • Media literacy programming (see ALA’s resources for a head start)
  • Classes on doing research with the library’s databases
  • Programs that challenge censorship, like Banned Books Week
  • Opportunities for citizen journalism

Let’s Put it To Work!

We’re interested in learning more about how you think libraries can create more knowledgeable communities. How do programs at your library make your community more knowledgeable? What partnerships do you have that help you meet this goal? And how else might libraries ensure their communities have both information access and information literacy?

Let us know what you think. You can either comment below or email programminglibrarian@ala.org. And for more information on this topic, please consult the literature cited below.

References & Additional Resources

Buschman, J. (2019). Good news, bad news, and fake news: going beyond political literacy to democracy and libraries. Journal of Documentation, 75(1), 213-228.

Dag Hammarskjöld Library (2020, August 13). The contribution of libraries to the fight against misinformation [panel discussion]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hyBMnVZhcMU

Dar, M. (2021, March 15). To tell the truth: Public libraries in the fight against misinformation, disinformation. Library Journal. https://www.libraryjournal.com/story/To-Tell-the-Truth-Public-Libraries-in-the-Fight-Against-Misinformation-Disinformation

Hoyer, J., Holt, K., Voiklis, J., Attaway, B., & Joy Norlander, R. (2022). Redesigning Program Assessment for Teaching with Primary Sources: Understanding the Impacts of Our Work. The American Archivist, 85(2), 443–479. https://doi.org/10.17723/2327-9702-85.2.443

Revez, J., & Corujo, L. (2021). Librarians against fake news: A systematic literature review of library practices (Jan. 2018–Sept. 2020). The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 47(2), 102304.

Rosenfeldt, D. (2008). Libraries Building Communities: the vital contributi-on of Victoria’s public libraries–A report on a major research project of the Library Board of Victoria and the Victorian public library network. Management, Marketing and Promotion of Library Services Based on Statistics, Analyses and Evaluation, 120, 451.

Funding

These materials were produced for National Impact of Library Public Programs Assessment (NILPPA), a project funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The authors are solely responsible for the content on this page.

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