Some studies show that young Americans aren’t as politically involved as previous generations, but the Longview Public Library wants to change that.
The library on Monday will officially unveil its new Civic Engagement Corner, located in a second-floor alcove where patrons can find books and resources on government, history, politics, ethics and character-building.
“Civic engagement is something that libraries have always done, but we didn’t have a focused area in our library. So we thought, ‘Why not make something?’ ” Adult Services Librarian Elizabeth Partridge said Tuesday. “This is the beginning of what I hope leads to a broader community discussion about what we want in our community and how we want to participate.”
The effort comes at a time when younger generations are often seen as less civically and politically engaged than previous generations.
A 2016 study published in the Journal of Democracy found that public opinion on the importance of living in a democracy has dropped dramatically over the decades. When asked to rank how “essential” it is to live in a democracy, 72 percent people born before World War II chose the highest value. Only about 30 percent of millennials, who were born after 1980, chose the highest value.
The study, authored by Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk, also found that in 1990, 53 percent of young Americans and 63 percent of older Americans reported being “fairly” or “very” interested in politics. By 2010, the percentage dropped to 41 percent for young people but rose to 67 percent for older citizens, widening the generational gap to 26 percentage points.
“What we find is deeply concerning,” Foa and Mounk wrote in the study. Citizens in North American and Western European democracies have become more critical of their political leaders and “more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system, less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy, and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives.”
Partridge said she hopes the new civic corner will show people the power and importance of their own participation.
The book shelf on the second floor near the staircase provides mostly nonpartisan books, magazines and other writings, Partridge said. It also has pamphlets about local volunteer opportunities, community forums and running for elected office. There are books and resources for all ages to encourage engagement at every level, she said.
In addition, the library plans to host community forums where people can come together and discuss national issues such as immigration and civil rights, as well as local topics such as the upcoming City Council elections. The discussions would be moderated to avoid “soapboxing” and one side dominating others, she said.
“It’s a place where a person can say ‘I want to talk about this. Here’s what I’m feeling. How do you feel about it?’ ” Partridge said. “The idea is to bring together the community to actually get to know each other instead of going off assumptions about each other.”
Library Director Chris Skaugset said the civics center is meant to be a neutral place where people can learn more about engagement.
“Libraries have always been the center of civic discourse for a community, so this is a natural extension of what libraries have always done,” he said. “It’s our community so we need to be involved in it.”
The forums will likely kick off with a free Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau presentation at 6 p.m. on May 20 titled “Is truth really dead in America?” from Washington State University Civics Professor and Director of the School of Politics Steven Stehr.
Partridge said she eventually wants to expand the civics corner with more reading materials and more spaces for people to express their opinions. And she’d like to create a traveling civic corner that could set up in schools, parks or malls.
The civic center will also be an important part of the library’s planning for a centennial celebration next year of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, Partridge said. Those who want to be a part of the planning can reach out through the Civic Engagement Corner.
“We all live here. We have our own interests but we all want what’s best for everyone. This (center) is a chance to invite everyone to be a part of our community,” Partridge said.