How Libraries Can Grow Voters
Authors: Ruby Belle Booth, Elizabeth Sullivan
The CIRCLE Growing Voters framework calls upon many community institutions to support young people in their electoral participation. One such institution is libraries, which have already played a critical and pioneering role in giving young people opportunities to become informed and engaged voters. Libraries can—and some already— provide information about voter registration, opportunities for young people to learn critical media literacy skills, and free spaces where teens can connect with issues and with older community members through artistic expression and discourse.
Our research suggests that this work can help grow voters, and that there are opportunities for libraries to broaden and expand their impact.
Data Shows Libraries Can Have an Impact
The CIRCLE Growing Voters report highlights several major inequities in youth engagement. It includes data from a survey of teens (ages 14-17) that underscores the vast disparities in where they learn about elections and voting. Schools and teens’ personal networks can both be great sources of civic learning, but many teens are only exposed to opportunities to learn about elections and voting in one of these—or in neither. That means there’s a need for both educational institutions and other community institutions to further support youth in their civic development, especially in order to reach a wider diversity of young people.
Libraries are uniquely positioned at the intersection of education and community, making them suited to provide civic education within both settings. Both school libraries and community libraries can step in to support this work. In schools, libraries can offer a space for young people to explore their interests and an opportunity to create another pathway to civic learning outside of the classroom. Libraries outside of schools serve as trusted institutions for out-of-school learning and as community gathering spaces.
Libraries as Civic Institutions and Political Homes
Libraries can often provide resources to all community members, especially those who may face barriers to accessing other institutions. They usually have robust online and offline resource-sharing infrastructure that can be used to easily share information about elections. They can also serve as physical spaces for community members to come together for events like voter registration drives, candidate forms and debates, or a speaker series. Libraries can also serve as a convener, bring together other stakeholders across a community, including schools, election administrators, and other community organizations. All of that can support the CIRCLE Growing Voters model of an “ecosystem” approach to supporting young people’s civic development, which requires connected efforts and institutions throughout a community to show up for young people.
CIRCLE Growing Voters
Released in 2022, the CIRCLE Growing Voters report introduces a new framework to transform how communities and institutions prepare youth for democracy. It includes major recommendations for organizations across sectors to do this work more equitably and effectively.
The King County Library system in Washington state has done this by working with other community institutions to provide opportunities for election learning at the library. In collaboration with the Urban League in Seattle, it hosted drop-in events called Future Voter Hubs to provide resources and support voter engagement. That included providing registration forms, voting guides, and sample ballots, as well as having volunteers available to answer any questions from community members. By working together, both organizations are able to leverage their expertise and audiences to maximize benefits across the community. Many libraries already serve as polling places or ballot drop-off sites, making such educational programs even more relevant and impactful.
Existing library programs for young people, especially teens, can also serve as free, accessible spaces where youth can connect with issues and older community members. These connections can be forged and strengthened through a range of activities, including artistic expression, media creation, and political discourse. Leveraging existing children’s and teen programming and connecting young people’s interests with voting and other forms of civic engagement can help to start election learning early. For instance, at Brighton Memorial Library in Rochester, NY, reference librarian Katie Cree sees a new popular Dungeons & Dragons group for teens as a first step in bolstering media creation and civic programming for young people. For future events centered around civic engagement, she hopes to leverage her access to teens through this group, as well as connections to local schools, to increase attendance and expand access.
Librarians as Civic Educators
Librarians also have an opportunity to support young patrons’ curiosity about politics and elections, and to connect their interests to avenues for engagement. As a knowledge and resource broker, they can help youth access information—books, online resources, community knowledge—that can show how their passions or concerns are linked to social and political issues. For instance, a young person interested in nature and animals can be prompted to consider issues in their community related to conservation, land stewardship, and climate change. Helping youth, especially those who aren’t yet old enough to vote, understand potential connections between the things they love and community action can contribute to their civic development and prepare them to connect issues to elections down the line.
If young library patrons start expressing interest in the political system or in community issues, librarians can also connect them directly to nonpartisan opportunities to become involved in local politics and elections such as youth poll worker programs, youth advisory boards, and other intergenerational or youth-led community improvement efforts.
Library programs can be especially powerful when teens have the opportunity to explore their own interests and to shape activities based on what appeals to them. Erica Schimmel, a Teen Outreach Librarian with Arapahoe Libraries in Colorado, used CIRCLE’s media creation toolkit in a session with their Teen Advisory Board (TAB); rather than selecting which lesson plan they would use ahead of time, she gave teens the opportunity to identify what would be most interesting to them. They selected a lesson plan on making memes and, according to Schimmel, expressed excitement at being able to use their voice in this way, since they often felt like as teenagers their opinions “don’t count as much.” By allowing teens to take the lead, not only in the content but also in the format of the activity, the librarians maximized its impact by making it more relevant and engaging.
We acknowledge that increases in book bans and the politicization of libraries in recent years presents challenges to librarians wanting to step into the role of civic educator. Librarians can look to resources for 501c3 nonprofits and K-12 educators for guidance in how to approach nonpartisan education about elections and voting and how to handle controversial issue discussion in teen programs. For the Arapahoe Libraries TAB, having activities be teen-led helps the librarian maintain a position of neutrality while still facilitating information on civic issues. Additionally, the meme-making activity created an opportunity for conversations about controversial political issues and allowed for librarians to support skill development on how to approach those discussions respectfully.
Libraries and Media Literacy
The meme-making workshop also exemplifies how libraries can teach critical media literacy skills that are increasingly important to be engaged and informed citizens. Media creation can serve as a pathway to media literacy learning and to civic engagement while promoting benefits to young people such as skill development, confidence, and knowledge-building. CIRCLE research has shown that young people want opportunities to learn and practice media literacy and creation skills, but do not always have the opportunities to do so in school.
Programs and lessons found in CIRCLE’s media creation toolkit, like the meme-making activity used by Schimmel in Colorado, provide valuable opportunities to teach teens critical skills such as how to evaluate online sources, analyze information, and take steps to recognize and prevent the spread of false or misleading information online.
Libraries can also provide resources and technologies that make opportunities for civic engagement and media creation more accessible. Access to digital infrastructure like broadband internet or Wi-Fi is not evenly distributed; in particular, young people in rural communities are less likely to have easy access. Likewise, not every young person has consistent access to a smartphone, laptop, or computer either at home or at school. As such, libraries can play an important role in reducing barriers that limit teens' ability to be civically engaged online by providing resources like computers and consistent internet access to make and share content. Libraries can also provide other equipment necessary for media creation that teens otherwise might not have access to. For example, two teens in Marshfield, MA, were able to create a video series about a local issue they cared about because the Ventress Memorial Library was able to provide them with cameras.