By Steve Zalusky
Libraries are central to civic engagement, something that is especially apparent during the inevitable election cycle. On Feb. 1, the voting cycle in the American Presidential election officially began with the Iowa caucuses, as Republican and Democrat voters flocked to have the first word on the candidates.
Libraries not only served as caucus sites. They also provided valuable information to voters, both on the day of the vote as well as in advance of it. The public library in Decorah, Iowa, created a large poster and placed it at the front desk, informing people about their precincts, as well as locations where Republicans and Democrats can caucus.
“We try and provide information on both sides. It’s not one or the other,” said the library’s director, Lorraine Borowski. Providing the information about voting, including precinct maps, at the library is important.There have been people who have called and said, ‘I don’t know where I’m going to vote at.’” In addition, the library is providing space for one caucusing group in its public meeting room."
And on Jan. 13, as part of the library's Current Affairs series, Dr. Carly Hayden Foster, a member of Luther College’s political science department, led a wide-ranging discussion of the caucuses, focusing on candidates, campaigns, media, gender and resources for the public. Foster is currently teaching a special topics course at Luther College on “Gender, Politics, and the Iowa Caucuses.”
Of Foster’s appearance, Borowski said, “We thought that was an important thing, to provide that type of information. They talked a lot about where you could go online, like on RealClearPolitics,” which is full of information about both parties. “She showed how you can go in and check the polls and see where people are at. There is a fact-finding section in RealClearPolitics.”
During the 2012 election season, the Decorah library participated in the News Know-how project, sponsored by the American Library Association (ALA) and supported by the Open Society Foundations to involve high school students in news literacy education. Using public libraries as their “newsroom,” students learned to distinguish facts from opinions; how to check the source and validity of news and information and how to identify propaganda and misinformation.
Among the other libraries providing valuable information about the caucuses is the Iowa City Library. Maeve Clark of Adult Services provided information on the library’s website regarding “How and Where to Caucus.” It explains the caucus process in the 99 counties charged with issuing the “call” to caucus. It also explains the difference between the two parties in the way they caucus. Links are provided to the state’s Republican and Democrat party websites, as well as the Johnson County Auditor.
Another library providing valuable information to voters in advance of the caucus was the Des Moines Public Library. On Jan. 19 at the Central Library, Des Moines Register political reporter Jason Noble gave a short overview of how the caucuses work, how Iowa became the first state in the nation to hold a presidential nominating contest and how voters can participate at their local precinct.
As the election season proceeds, the need to keep up with the barrage of information from both parties will grow more urgent. A good place for voters who want to be informed to start their quest is the local library.