Building Community, Restoring Trust: Library Conversations Across Divides

Posted by Jeremy Hay on November 12, 2018 at 9:00 AM

In 2016, after the bitterly fought presidential election, Eve Pearlman and I founded Spaceship Media, a journalism organization with a mission to reduce polarization, build community and restore trust in media. We believe our new partnership with the venerable Birmingham Public Libraries will be a signpost on the road to the success of this mission — which, in our vision, involves collaborating with many more libraries around this nation.

Through our partnership, the Birmingham library supports a national online conversation that Spaceship Media created: The Many: A Conversation Across Divides. The hundreds of women in The Many, from across the country and the political spectrum, are engaged in a passionate but civil ongoing dialogue across their differences, seeking less to change each other’s minds than to gain understanding and, where possible, find common ground. The library delivers research to this conversation on topics ranging from immigration to the Supreme Court. We held a live event at the library on September 23, 2018 to bring women from The Many together with the public at-large.

In this way, the 132-year-old library engages directly with the challenges of this terribly divided age, and extends its own range and impact in the Internet era. The partnership leverages the trust the public has in libraries as civic institutions and helps meet the information needs of participants in The Many, which is held in a closed Facebook group that we moderate.

Our collaboration joins two institutions with a strong and natural affinity, but scant experience working together; it moves toward our mutual goal of informing the public with accurate, contextualized information in support of our democracy.

“Libraries and journalists are just beginning to explore these kinds of ideas and ways they can share their resources and provide services to their communities,” said Laurie Putnam, a communications consultant and lecturer at California’s San Jose State University School of Information.

“These are allied professions. They are both fundamentally democratic. Their missions and skill sets are complementary,” Putnam said. “They share an interest in creating opportunities for people to become more informed about the world and engaged with their communities, learning not just from documents but also from one another.”

Sandi Lee is deputy director of the Birmingham library, one of the largest library systems in the southeastern United States. She told me The Many echoed the spirit of other library programs designed to foster public discussions about current topics, and as an online venture it made for a new front in that endeavor.

“We knew we wanted to contribute to the knowledge base for these discussions. With the abundance of rhetoric around ‘fake news,’ we knew we could provide what libraries have always provided, and that is good information from reliable sources,” Lee said.

The 400-plus women in The Many — divided roughly in thirds between Republicans, Democrats and Independents — initiate conversations daily about subjects in the news or ongoing issues. The topics are often contentious: race relations, immigration policy, the special prosecutor’s investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 election, or motherhood and feminism. When participants request relevant information, or moderators decide it is needed, Lee is alerted and the wheels of the library’s research department go into gear.

What emerges are FactStacks, our term for the list of facts and accompanying sources that we provide to conversation participants — information stripped of the traditional news article narrative.

“The preparation of the FactStacks has allowed our librarians do what they do best and that is research. We get to use our expertise in reference work to create a set of facts that are credible and resource-based,” said Lee.

Recent FactStacks produced by the Birmingham Central Library research staff have covered topics including drug trafficking and illegal immigration, special prosecutors, and the U.S. economy during Obama’s presidency.

“With FactStacks, we have unbiased professionals researching, summarizing, and presenting legitimate information so that we can all be starting our conversations from a shared base of factual information,” said Jessica Simons of Michigan, who identifies herself as an Independent. “These have really helped me to understand complex current events, especially in cases where there is significant controversy or misrepresentation taking place across popular news sources.”

In its partnership with The Many, Birmingham’s library is not only supporting journalism at a time when the news industry is under extreme economic duress, but also asserting itself in a particularly polarized era, said Putnam.

“Many journalism organizations no longer have dedicated librarian-researchers, so when librarians can contribute their expertise to projects like The Many, it’s a win-win-win for the journalists, the librarians, and the community as a whole,” she said. “In the case of The Many, the win is a big one. We’re not just talking about Alabama. We’re talking about supporting the conversations that can begin to heal a country.”

The Many is now taking a hiatus following the 2018 midterm elections. To join future activities of The Many, sign up here, and sign up for Talking About Talking, a new Spaceship Media conversation about how to talk about our differences, here.


Jeremy Hay is co-founder and co-CEO of Spaceship Media and a 2015 John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University.

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