Building Social Capital in Public Libraries

A trendy issue in library and information science literature focuses on the relationship between the library and the community it serves. This renewed focus on community is closely related with the principles of social capital and recognizing the value of the library. Considering that most public libraries face increasingly tightened budgets in the current economic downturn, now is the time to carefully assess the opportunities libraries have to serve and strengthen their communities and the individuals that live there. This type of analysis is imperative in order to continue receiving public funding and support (Johnson & Griffis 2009) This report will address issues of social capital but focus on several different types of services public libraries could provide to increase social capital in their communities in the following ways: literacy services, building community partnerships, and including those who lack social capital in library planning

I. Defining Social Capital: There is no singular definition for concepts of social capital. However, the most effective approach is to intertwine definitions to gain a comprehensive framework. In an abstract sense, social capital is created by a network of interactions, facilitated by community engagement and participation. As Putnam describes, this kind of engagement “foster[s] sturdy norms of generalized reciprocity and encourage the emergence of social trust.” (Putnam 2000) In this sense, people create their own social capital by participating in organised groups in their communities such as unions, political groups, or other types of social groups. (Johnson & Griffis 2009) Another way to approach social capital is its absence, which is associated with exclusion or isolation in a community. Those who are included in their communities tend to have more resources (i.e. money) at their disposal, more connections and ultimately more influence. (Johnson & Griffis 2009) The major benefit of producing greater amounts of social capital is that it facilitates economic progress and social cohesion if more people have equitable access to services and opportunities in their communities.
From an LIS perspective, libraries have the capacity to help in the generation of social capital by providing open and equitable access to information, information on other types of community events and services and a space where ideas can be freely exchanged. In this vein, libraries also have the potential to provide opportunities for volunteer work, which contributes to the concepts of reciprocity and trust described above. Determining which groups experience a dearth in social capital are prime targets for the library to reach out and offer inclusion through library programs or providing links to other services. The rest of this report will focus on which factors or skills generate social capital and how the library can facilitate its growth to the broadest population.

II. Literacy Services: A fundamental skill for an individual to confidently engage with and participate in their community, is literacy. The philosophy of public libraries espouses democracy and providing information to community members freely and openly. In order to encourage an informed citizenry, which is arguably a cornerstone of a democracy, patrons must have basic information skills. (Hillenbrand 2005) Libraries are in a position to reach out and facilitate literacy programming to help those who struggle with reading, for example, recent immigrants. Ultimately, libraries and librarians can help this group to become informed on issues in their communities or other types of political issues that affect their lives. The goal of literacy programming is to help those who cannot confidently express themselves, better engage with the wider community, and by extension, increase their social capital/influence. (Hillenbrand 2005) In this vein, the library also has potential to provide space where members of a community can meet, and ultimately include more voices to participate in addressing problems of their neighbourhoods. (Hillenbrand 2005)

III. Building Community Partnerships to Extend Public Services to Patrons: Another effective way public libraries can facilitate the growth of social capital is through researching local organisations. The benefit of this practice is that the library that could provide links for support or services to community members who may need assistance in finding them. (Drueke 2006) Interestingly, as Robert Putnam (2000) writes in his book Bowling Alone, fewer adults are involved in community groups such as social clubs or other organisations. An essential feature of social capital is that members of a community are able to meet with one another in public. The library, therefore, is a logical place for people to meet, and get information on local associations that may interest them. Where as the library formerly maintained these community links in paper records, we can now compile easily searchable databases embedded in library websites. For example, with enough research, libraries can connect their patrons to child care centres, services or activities for seniors, local legal aid offices, and other types of government outlet.
The most important feature is that there is the access to this information, another hallmark of social capital. (Drueke 2006) Taking inventory of these local organisations helps users find groups that may interest them. The value of this practice is that it essentially fulfils Putnam’s goals of connecting people with membership in organised groups, creating a sense of involvement, connectivity, and efficacy within their community; ultimately, these ingredients are necessary to create social capital. (Drueke 2006)

IV: Undertake Community Analysis and Collaborate with Underserved Users to Create Tailored Programming: Interestingly, those who lack social capital are usually socially excluded. Individuals and groups who are socially excluded have many different conditions that impede them from effectively participating in their communities including: poverty, homelessness, unemployment, and being of certain minority backgrounds. (DeFaveri 2008) As a result, those afflicted by social exclusion tend to be suspicious and/or resentful of government-related services (public libraries included), and other social institutions. (Working Together 2008) Thus, formally taking the initiative to analyse segments of a population who may be underserved, and include them in library planning. It then becomes crucial to welcome them into the library, and by extension, increase their social capital by giving them a sense of efficacy and meaning in the larger community. Creating a Community Development Librarian (CDL) position is an effective way for librarians to reach out to the under-served and understand their barriers and/or non-use of the library. (Working Together 2008) This type of collaboration is key in order to design services tailored to bring the underserved into the library and encourage them to use its information resources, thereby generating social capital.

V. Conclusions: Social capital is a complex sociological construct that can be best defined as one’s ability to be involved and participate in his or her community at a civic level. The creation of social capital cannot be without discussing its absence for an individual or group of people. Public libraries should be at the forefront of the movement to draw in community members to be more participatory in their neighbourhoods to have a voice in the direction of political issues that affect them. As a hallmark of democracy, libraries can facilitate the creation of social capital by through literacy services, building community partnerships, and taking the initiative to reach out and collaborate with members of the community who may be under-served. These services and activities will create social capital and make the library a place where all may feel welcome. The ultimate goal is to allow all community members to feel confident in shaping the continuing development and cohesion of their communities.