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Alameda County Library, CA
Innovation SummaryOver 830 people crowded seven branches of Alameda County Library with their friends and neighbors to watch the four 2012 Presidential Debates. We partnered with the League of Women Voters and Alameda County Registrar of Voters to present DebateWatch, live televised and facilitated public viewings of the Presidential Debates.
Like much of California and the rest of the nation, Alameda County has a history of low voter turnout. We decided that the 2012 presidential debates, in keeping with our library’s role as a resource and vehicle for civic engagement, offered us an excellent opportunity to further that mission. We decided to present live public viewings of the presidential debates, including an opportunity for our communities to interact and share their views on the debates. But more than that, our challenge was to intentionally reach out and target historically marginalized, low-income, immigrant, and older adult audiences and engage them in the electoral process. Another significant challenge was to maintain the library’s position in the community as non-partisan, and unbiased, while providing both a venue and forum that would foster public dialogue. And, given the nature of presenting live debates in a public setting with no way to “pause or rewind,” an experience that none of our partners had previously dealt with, we also faced issues related to technology, backup streaming, security, and the importance of well-trained moderators.
With the exception of some academic institutions and rural libraries where the Republican Primary debates were viewed, we found very few public libraries who had done this. Our findings were also confirmed in our initial contact with the Commission on Presidential Debates, which offers tips and guidelines to schools, libraries, and other organizations for hosting a DebateWatch. After speaking with them and becoming an official Voter Education Partner, we then contacted our county’s Registrar of Voters (ROV) and local League of Women Voters (LWV) chapters throughout our service areas. By meeting with staff from the ROV and LWV and explaining the role of the library and communicating our goals, we were able to gain the commitment from them, both of whom must maintain a unbiased, nonpartisan stance on candidates. With them as our official co-sponsors, we were then able to add community partners that included groups such as the County Board of Supervisors, city councils, American Association of University Women, school districts, colleges and others. In turn, our cosponsors and community partners helped publicize the programs to their constituents and members. For example the LWV featured the events on their homepage, and sent the information to their members. The library’s Literacy Program publicized the programs to their students, and some literacy staff brought their students as part of “civics” literacy. In addition, several public school teachers offered extra credit to students who attended the programs. Branches also had support from teen and adult volunteers and Friends groups. One even had involvement from their local high school’s culinary class, who provided refreshments!
Over 830 people joined their friends and neighbors to attend DebateWatch, viewing the four debates at seven of our library locations! We received very positive feedback from attendees (high school students, college students, adults, seniors, recent immigrants, new citizens, etc.) and others, including community partners, parents, teachers, LWV members, and ROV staff. After the first few debates, one very helpful action we took was to initiate a meeting and bring together LWV staff from several chapters to evaluate, assess and make recommendations for improvement for the upcoming showings. Many at events were introduced for the first time to the breadth and depth of library resources on elections, political parties and other aspects of democracy: books, magazines, documentary films, electronic resources, links to other resources, as well as to community groups concerned about local, regional and national issues. These collaborations were mutually beneficial as they provided us with experienced facilitators and voter education staff and materials that added value and enriched our programs, while allowing our partners to reach new, diverse audiences. For example, in addition to staff, both the ROV and LWV, with our input, provided multilingual flyers and handouts. And the ROV registered new voters and took applications for poll workers. In the future the ROV will be using library meeting room space at several of our branches as poll workers training sites. And by our libraries involving community partners, these neighborhood branches made new contacts with local organizations, who are now potential collaborators for future library programs.