« Open Thread: Texas Forums Discussion #1 | Main | Extreme Democracy on Attendr »

June 25, 2007

Libraries and Extreme Democracy

This is an excerpt from a proposal on how 2.0 technology could be applied to deliberative forums. It was developed as part of an American Library Association Workshop on Library 2.0 in May 2006. The implementation of this far exceeded the capacity of the class, but this proposal is still relevant and is an example of existing organizational structures could support extreme democracy, facilitating both the in-person and online interaction and consensus-building.

Project Proposal for Group 5
How Can 2.0 Technology be Used to Facilitate Collaboration Around the Framing of Library Issues?

“Every one of us leads a life with conflict. It is everywhere: from organizations that are divided about their strategy and roles to local communities that are divided by race, economics, religion, or politics.”


Libraries are places where people can come together to discuss issues – as are associations. Unfortunately, there are too few opportunities for communities and association members to struggle through complex issues that are often framed in ways that divide us. Can ALA and libraries use 2.0 technologies to frame issues (association issues, library issues, social issues, public policy issues, community issues) in a way that will encourage open deliberation and create common ground?

Three of the project team members have been involved with the National Issues Forums Institute, a network of citizens and organizations (including a growing number of libraries) across the country with affiliates around the world. NIFI grew out of the Kettering Foundation’s research agenda, “What does it take to make democracy work as it should?” One component of the answer has been to develop town hall discussion guides (frameworks) that encourage thoughtful deliberation of “hot” issues that the media and policy-makers often cast in divisive language. But the lack of civil discourse is not just limited to public issues in the world “out there.” Within associations and organizations, there are tough decisions to be made or at least issues that are difficult to discuss. Association committees can appear, often with good cause, secretive and exclusive. With e-mail as the primary tool, communication is “closed and controlled” and there is no shared record of the conversation, much less a public record.

In its twenty-five year history of researching practices in deliberative democracy, the Kettering Foundation and National Issues Forums Institute have developed effective practices for framing issues in public terms that reflect people’s deeply held values, hopes, and concerns. Framing for deliberative dialogue is the process of identifying various perspectives on complex and potentially divisive issues in a way that does not reinforce typical divisions (e.g., left vs. right), authentically reflects the concerns of the people involved or affected by the issue, and promotes deliberation that can lead to a shared understanding of the problem, common ground and the ability to work together.

Hundreds of individuals and organizations across the country conduct workshops, and convene, moderate and report on forums on topics such as “Life and Death Decisions”, “Democracy’s Challenge: Reclaiming the Public’s Role,” “Americans’ Role in the World,” and “Health Care”. Many of these workshops and forums are taking place in libraries in California, New Jersey, Ohio, Missouri, New York, and Pennsylvania, just to name a few.

Recently libraries have taken their role as civic centers to heart and have worked with their communities to frame local issues for public deliberation. From Education Reform in Johnson County Kansas to Redevelopment in Virginia Beach to Global Warming in Ohio (o.k. so some of the issues are not confined to the local community!) librarians are facilitating community problem solving through civil discourse and in some cases, serving as catalytic change agents for the good of the community.

Statement of Need

ALA is an association with diverse membership and needs. Together, members develop standards, positions, and best practices for librarianship. They also shape the future of the organization and their profession. Even though members share many common values, our perspectives and opinions often differ. Sometimes when we come together to make choices, we struggle to gain consensus on how to approach to and solve a problem. And when we do agree, our colleagues may criticize our process for reaching conclusions as well as the outcome we recommend. The result: a win/lose proposition that undermines our ability to concert as an organization. Instead of marching together toward a perceived goal when approaching contentious issues, we frequently enter into rancorous debate that can result in alienation, tension, and disillusionment. How can we find a better way to encourage open participation and free expression that fosters deliberative and civil dialogue, and enhances ALA's ability to make sound choices that affect our collective futures? And how can we apply this learning to the libraries and communities in which we live? In short, how can we use new technologies to develop different ways to frame and discuss issues so we can find common ground rather than foster conflict?

While a number of individuals and organizations have made great strides in framing issues for deliberation, barriers exist that can possibly be addressed by 2.0 technologies. First, most organizations, communities and libraries do not have the resources or expertise of organizations like of the Kettering Foundation and NIFI. Face-to-face meetings of the issue framing team, focus groups and individual interviews, analysis of soft data and other typical issue framing activities can be costly, time-consuming, and labor intensive. This is particularly true when tackling an issue that impacts a large dispersed community, such as an association like ALA.

Second, 2.0 technologies can help address the gap in expertise by creating a learning community of experienced issue framers partnered with new practitioners. Technology can help overcome some of the impediments to the deliberative democracy movement. Third, social networking software can increase participation in Association efforts and decrease the time it takes to convene in-person dialogue. Fourth, we can consider how to use these technologies to foster civil dialogue about issues once we have a more participatory framing process.


A number of clients will benefit from our project. We will focus on the process knowing that this project may support teams of issue framers throughout the country and abroad. The applications we develop and the lessons we learn will be useful to members of ALA and librarians and library workers throughout the country, as well as people in the NIFI network unfamiliar with 2.0 possibilities for their work. Members of the team represent different ALA constituents along with organizations in their own communities that will benefit from this project. Some examples include a public library in Kansas, Texas Forums--an initiative of the LBJ Presidential Library, the ALA Literacy Committee, Pennsylvania public forums, the ALA membership, and participants in the ALA Fostering Community Engagement Membership Initiative Group.

External Possibilities:
How does ALA attract younger librarians who function in a 2.0 environment and include them in framing important association issues as well as encourage their involvement with a the growing number of libraries involved in framing public issues?

How can libraries, members of the NIFI network and other practitioners of deliberative dialogue use 2.0 technologies to name, frame, and discuss issues?

Internal Opportunities:
How does ALA apply a different process to framing issues before they are weighted and then involve 2.0 librarians in the actual framing process? How does ALA encourage those who are not 2.0 librarians to be part of the framing as well as subsequent discussions of issues?

How can libraries use 2.0 technologies to help communities
frame local issues?

Overview of the Project

For our project, we will determine potential uses of 2.0 technologies to accomplish the steps in framing an issue for deliberative dialogue. We will conduct experiments using a mock issue and evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of those various technologies in framing the issue.

Description of Issue Framing Process

The steps to framing an issue for deliberation are:

1. Select an issue based on certain characteristics that distinguish an issue from a simple topic
2. Identify fundamental concerns people have about the issue based on interviews, surveys and other instruments
3. List the concerns
4. Group these concerns according to the underlying value
5. Find the common thread that knits these groups together which may lead to a redefined definition of what is really at issue for people
6. Write a summary of the framework – the overview of the issue
7. Develop 3-4 approaches about what might be done according to the underlying values identified in the clustering exercise
8. Test the framework in a forum
9. Revise the framework as needed

We have customized this framing process to reflect how librarians might frame issues within their own association.

For each step, we will suggest and test different technologies such as blogging, podcasts, wikis, tagging, synchronous text and audio chat, asynchronous threaded discussions just to name a few.

Description of the Proposed Research Process

The steps we will take to achieve this project are:

1. Identify the technologies that would be useful to the various steps in the framing process and the benefits and drawbacks of each
2. Conduct some mini experiments with the different technologies to test our assumptions about the advantages and disadvantages
3. Determine a mock issue (perhaps an issue that has already been framed so that we can test the results of doing a framing in 2.0 vs. the traditional results)
4. Invite experienced colleagues to join us in our mock framing (while these colleagues are easily recruited, this may prove to be unreasonable with our time frame)
5. Walk through a mock framing
6. Write an evaluation and make recommendations for future research and experimentation

Advantages of this Process

In an online campfire chat, we determined the following benefits of applying 2.0 technologies to issue framing:

• Facilitate communication
• Lead to more effective communication
• Enable framing that will involve people from across the country in a low cost manner
• Keep a record of the framing process
• Include more people in naming and framing an issue than is possible with face-to-face framing sessions
• Create more transparency around the framing process
• Foster more engagement and participation
• Provide an opportunity for more sustained participation
• Allow multitasking
• Create a process that is person to person and does not depend on one leader
• Benefit busy librarians – they can drop in when it’s convenient
• Build relationships
• Participate virtually, from anywhere
• Allow openness
• Create a learning community
• Allow more informed discussion by including resources available to all participants with quick access to those resources
• Allow synchronous as well as asynchronous dialogue
• Observe a process that went into developing a framework for discussion
-- demonstrate a trustworthy process for framing issues
• Provide a central repository for information about the framing process
• Offer people who are framing other issues a view of how it has been done
• Contribute to a learning network
• Encourage brainstorming and participation beyond the strict boundaries of ALA or library users for communities
• Level the playing field for everyone
• Create a safe space
• Engage young people who are comfortable with these technologies – they can become the experts guiding the process and participate in a different way
• Teach a useful technique for collaborative problem solving as well as using the technology

Posted by Taylor Willingham at June 25, 2007 4:26 PM


Post a comment

Remember Me?

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry: