Is your library card your civic passport?

Diagram showing networked individual

If libraries are some of the best examples of civic space which we have then is your library card a potential route to democratic participation?

I spent last Saturday with the Association of Senior Childrens and Educational librarians at their annual conference. I was speaking about libraries as digital civic spaces and I wanted to capture some of the thinking that went into the preparation as it links to the panel I was on on digital democracy a few weeks ago and other stuff I am working on.

I think the case for libraries as civic space is uncontested. They represent the opportunity to interact with a huge range of people within your community and in most cases meet the criteria which I use when defining civic spaces with the possible exception of #5:

  1. Public-ness – in the sense of being a public sense which is open and accessible to anyone
  2. Coproduction – participants are able to influence and shape the space
  3. Identity – we know who people are while protecting their privacy
  4. Information – civic spaces need to be open and information rich with participants having level access to information
  5. Self-defined – place and topic to be defined by participants and not by government


The ‘most cases’ is interesting – one of the observations from a session on libraries and homelessness was that as many libraries become part of community hubs they risk becoming less accessible – less ‘public’ – to people who may have reason to fear coming into contact with the state in the form of the police or other agencies. The theme of inclusion of all kinds ran through the discussion at the conference and I think is worth highlighting as so many councils are redesigning their community spaces – service hubs are not necessarily civic spaces.

The thought experiment I want to explore though is whether or not we could consider library membership to be a participation passport in the way I have outlined it in the context of NHS Citizen. The idea of the participation passport was to create an identity container which allows the user control of how they present themselves but also links them to a physical identity and some degree of accountability. I have argued here why I think identity online is a hugely important issue for digital democratic design and why some kind of solution which is more than simply a way of verifying transactions are needed.

I also like the elegance of this – I’ve been looking at a number of customer access strategies for councils recently and there is a clear need for a solution around the transnational identity question which can persist between interactions with the service provider but I wonder if we can think more ambitiously by considering a social as well as transactional identity model.

There are further benefits around the ambitions that many public sector organisations have around greater levels of coproduction of services. Rather than graciously allowing the community to pick up services that can no longer be supported coproduction should be approached by first understanding what a community can and wants to do. Building this approach outwards from a civic space like a library which is already seen as a community asset is perhaps a better starting point than from within the more formal transnational space of public services and has the added benefit of bringing together limited resources together.

Creating a more coproductive model without considering how it will interact with democratic decision making creates tensions and risks alienating the active citizens who offer the most to civil society.

The relationship between community and democratic participation is rich and complex and I think a vital part of how we create a more networked and participative democratic model for the future. Civic spaces are a central part of this and I looking at libraries through this lens provides a useful way of thinking about how they can best serve the changing nature of public services in the UK. I am going to be testing these ideas and looking for councils who may be interested in exploring how the model of the library card as participation passport could work.

The conference coincided with the horrific events in Paris last week – I can’t help but think how this underlines the importance of finding places and ways for people with diverse and sometimes conflicting views together and talk constructively, or at least respectfully, online and in person.

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