On Civil Society

February 23, 2018 | Vickery Bowles

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As we gear up to celebrate Freedom to Read Week this week, I thought I’d take this opportunity to announce a new series that TPL has been hard at work creating for many months now. On Civil Society is the largest system-wide series the TPL has done and promises content that all Torontonians can enjoy. As the new series’ events, books, workshops, podcasts and more have taken shape, I am struck again at the central role that libraries play in the life of a city and a nation. As almost all of us can see on a daily basis, our societies have become highly polarized and in many ways we have forgotten how to disagree with one another. Oh, yes we argue! And we insult, we shout, we name-call. But what seems to me that we do less and less of is listen. Libraries are, in many ways, the last public spaces where disagreement is accepted and even encouraged. But even this will be lost if we don’t remember that we have to learn how to listen to each other.

On Civil Society

On Civil Society is our chance to listen to each other once again. We will listen to ideas we agree with. We will listen to ideas we don’t agree with. We will find our way into debates and discussions that might make some of us uncomfortable. But this is what the library can offer democracy: a chance to engage in a true and sophisticated way with our fellow citizens: to hear them and to make small steps towards understanding them even when we vehemently disagree with something they believe.

The late Elliot Shelkrot, the long-time Head of the Philadelphia Public Library, once said that “Democracy depends on an informed population. And where can people get all the information they need? — At the Library.” And how do we do this? By offering the chance for people to experience what living in an intellectually free society means (one of the tenets of Freedom to Read): by accessing books with controversial ideas and unpopular opinions; by sitting in a room with hundreds of people and arguing, debating, discussing contentious issues; by taking a workshop on how to run for office even if you have no public service experience or aren’t born into the “right” family; by listening to a podcast and talking to our friends and family about a new point of view or perspective that was introduced. To me, this is the reason I am so excited about this new initiative to inform our population, as libraries are meant to do.

The photos of the people you see in our On Civil Society marketing materials are our own TPL employees. This was a deliberate choice, to send a message to Torontonians that we are you and you are us. In addition, you may notice that the marketing materials contain several hashtags. Most of us are familiar with hashtags, but we use them here in a very deliberate and precise way to ensure that we, the members of the library, are listening to you, our customers and our fellow citizens. They are meant to spark online discussions, but more than this, the hashtags are also meant to ensure a healthy debate online to discuss some of the topics that the events explore. Read a book on democracy you think we should discuss at your local TPL branch? Tweet it out with the hashtags #OnDemocracy and #OnCivilSociety and it’ll fall onto our radar for us to consider. See a video online that presents a challenging view #OntheMedia? Give us a shout on Facebook and let us know! Attend a lecture (in the library or anywhere else) that excites you and gets you fired up #OnEquality? Get us fired up, too, with a photo on Instagram and use the hashtag. We want you, the residents of Toronto, to see yourselves reflected in this series. We will be monitoring these hashtags for the entire span of the series.

We hope you will spend some time on our website for On Civil Society and check out all of the amazing content – events, podcasts, videos and workshops. The series is projected to run for several seasons and there will doubtless be something there that relates to an interest of yours: From The Death of the Expert to Could Trump Happen Here? to an event that explores the effects of gentrification in Parkdale to a discussion about race, gender and queer identity in Great Outdoor Spaces to a movie screening and talk on interracial marriage in Loving vs Loving, we hope that On Civil Society will open doors, open new avenues of discussion, teach us to listen to each other again and remind us all why we all need libraries.